by Taylor McConnell, University of Edinburgh/Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main
Croatian collective memory is dominated by remembrances of the Homeland War/Croatian War of Independence, which marked both an end of the Yugoslav project of “Brotherhood and Unity”/“Bratstvo i jedinstvo” and, particularly for Croats, a restoration of a thousand-year Croatian state. The commemorative practices surrounding the war have been crafted in no small part by a conservative, nationalist narrative of liberation from “Greater Serbian aggression”/“velikosrpska agresija” and Yugoslav “totalitarianism”. Monuments around the country remind us of the cost of this independence, but of the various people, places and things remembered, it is the branitelji – the “defenders” – whose memories are elevated to that of near-deities.
But what about the braniteljice – the female defenders? Of the 23,000 women who fought on the side of Croatian independence from 1991 to 1995, few to none are given monuments of their own. The history of war – as are most histories and most wars – since time immemorial has been written by men, with little regard to the experiences of women, as victims, as fighters, as survivors. These mainstream narratives are constantly challenged nevertheless by heart-wrenching and vivid first-hand accounts by women; in the Croatian context, the works of Slavenka Drakulić and Dubravka Ugrešić come to mind. The authors, however, have been slandered as “Witches from Rio” for poking holes in the masculine narratives of the victor and his honour and for challenging the nationalist legitimation of war.
My fieldwork has involved extensive road trips around Croatia, documenting any and all monuments from the Austro-Hungarian period onward, with particular focus on the Homeland War. While this research is by no means exhaustive (nor can it be given the fleeting nature of memory and the readiness of some far right-wing hooligans to destroy monuments they disagree with), the predominance of the branitelji is hard to miss. Braniteljice, or women more generally who were not aristocrats, artists or authors, are not mentioned, nor are they made visible in any particular way. While the Croatian language, like German, may have a deference to masculine nouns in situations involving groups where men are present, there was no monument, no memorial placard, and no museum that retold the experiences of female fighters in the Homeland War. It took until 2 June 2018 for a “Square of Croatian (Female) Defenders”/“Trg hrvatskih braniteljica” to be dedicated, and at that in the small village of Mošćenica (population 2,471), at the initiative of Petrinja mayor Darinko Dumbović, whose mother Marija, a Croatian defender, officially dedicated the square.
A handful of organisations of female defenders does exist, particularly in the areas most directly impacted by the Homeland War, Dalmatia and Eastern Slavonia. There is a “Women’s Club of the Association of Volunteers and Veterans of the Homeland War” in Petrinja, an “Association of Female Defenders of Vukovar-Srijem County”, founded in 2010, and an “Association of Women in the Homeland War” in Zadar. These groups have organised Days of the Female Defenders/Dani braniteljica, hosted public talks and exhibitions and participated in commemorative events across Croatia. The Association of Female Defenders of Vukovar-Srijem County additionally hosts annual “Festivals of Patriotic Poetry”/“Festivali domoljubne poezije” with the aim of preventing forgetting the sacrifices of the defenders.
Despite this work, the voices of the female defenders have not been integrated into the mainstream narrative of the Homeland War that is driven by (male) veterans’ associations, like those who led the 18-month protest against the war veterans’ ministry from 2014 to 2016. The only instance in my fieldwork where I noticed images of women in military fatigues was at an open exhibition at the Hrvatski dom Glina; of the hundreds of images places on boards around the small gallery, only a few dozen featured women, where they appear to be performing auxiliary or secretarial roles rather than participating in active combat. Only one image depicts a woman holding a gun. As well, the only monument to make mention of women was in the context of war victims in Vukovar, which perpetuates the more prevalent narrative of women as passive victims with no agency to choose whether to participate in conflict – the history of war written and fought by men. Women in war have been subjected to humiliating rape and sexual abuse by men, whether professional soldiers or paramilitary forces, and the war in Croatia is no exception. While the Croatian state has passed a law for compensation of victims of wartime sexual violence, its lingering effects on its victims and their communities are irreparable.
Remembering women in the Homeland War: Ovčara, Glina
Left: Memorial placard outside Ovčara Memorial Centre, August 2017. Centre and right: Women depicted in a photo exhibit at Hrvatski dom Glina, August 2017. Almost all other photos (several hundred) featured only men.
The Croatian experience highlights a remarkable shift from the narrative of active female Partisan fighters in the Second World War, a total war in which anyone with the means to participate could and did. Chiara Bonfiglioli’s excellent piece on these “dangerous women”, the Partizanke, demonstrates the degree to which women were integrated in the war effort to liberate Yugoslavia from enemy combatants. She notes, “The contribution of partizanke, […] to the Yugoslav liberation war was unprecedented in occupied Europe: official statistics of the socialist period report 100,000 women fighting as partisans, and two million participating in various ways to the support of the National Liberation Movement. Approximately 25,000 women died in battle, 40,000 were wounded, and 2,000 of them acquired the officer’s rank, while 92 women were designated as national heroes.” Partizanke were remembered as soldiers and volunteers in the anti-fascist struggle, and their memories are slowly being revived by memory activists across the region who seek to build “counter-memories […] as a repertoire against the post-socialist retraditionalisation of gender relations”, states Bonfiglioli. The image of the partizanka was also popularised in the post-war era through film and literature as a “Revolutionary Icon” in, for example Vjekoslav Afrić’s Slavica (1947) or, only later in the film, Lordan Zafranović’s Pad Italije (1981). The revolutionary nature of gender equality in socialist Yugoslavia, it appears, has been eschewed by the modern Croatian state in its commemorative practices. If any legacy of the Yugoslav era remains, it is in the narrative of “liberation” against an aggressor, here Serbia, but without the insights of the women who participated – whether willingly or not – in the Homeland War.
Where does this leave us, and what is the way forward? The remembrance of branitelji already presents significant issues for those seeking a more inclusive face for Croatia, as it perpetuates an antagonistic relationship with Serbia, currently negotiating its accession to the European Union. Further, the predominance of the defender narrative in Croatia provides little room to remember the victims of war – of the 130 monuments to the Homeland War I was able to document between May 2017 and May 2018, 31 made explicit mention of civilian casualties (and only one in Varivode to Serb victims), while 82 mentioned the (male) defenders. Treading the fine line between respectful commemoration and memory abuse presents significant hurdles for the Croatia’s future, but even more progress has yet to be made on ensuring these commemorative practices include marginalised voices – of women, of ethnic, religious or sexual minorities – and challenge the overwhelming masculine history of war.
They Would Never Hurt a Fly: War Criminals on Trial in The Hague – Slavenka Drakulić
Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of War – Slavenka Drakulić
Have a Nice Day: From the Balkan War to the American Dream – Dubravka Ugrešić
The Ministry of Pain – Dubravka Ugrešić
Women and Yugoslav Partisans: A History of World War II – Jelena Batinić
Special thanks to Heleen Touquet for her commentary that helped guide the writing of this piece.