Sunday, 8 December 2013

Ghosts of the outskirts of Niš, Serbia

One sunny day, Niš.
Niš, a spacious town of 200 thousand by the river in southern Serbia, nowadays looks rather chilled - at least so in the centre. True, it is Serbia's third largest city and an important industrial hub - but downtown the life appears peaceful, with street cafes & shops and an old fortress.

The relaxed downtown, however, is surrounded from three sides by gloomy reminders of death and otherwise bloody history. On arrival to Niš I feel like a child talking to a pleasant, cultured lady. Polite and nicely dressed, she chats to me about pretty things and gives me sweet little presents but I can sense the deep fjord of cold between us; I know she hides something from me that is behind my capacity to understand. Then I discover some frightening things in her closets.

Serbian history, like the history of the Balkans in general, has witnessed no shortage of blood and head chopping, literally.

GHOST OF THE NORTH is the Nazi concentration camp of the Red Cross, a.k.a the camp of 12 February. The latter name was given to the camp not by the Nazis - on 12 February 1942 over a hundred of the camp's prisoners managed to escape behind the guarded double-wire fence. It was the biggest to date escape from a Nazi camp. After the escape the Red Cross was reinforced with concrete walls, and the subsequent escape at the end of the same year was much less successful.

Red Cross is rather compact in scale (when you compare it to e.g. Auschwitz) but it could hold a few hundred people at a time on the two floors of the large barn style building - ground floor for men, first floor for women and children. It remains today as one of the best preserved Nazi camps in Europe.

The Red Cross was built as a detention camp for the local Jews, Roma, Serbians. Mass killings did not happen there, instead, the victims were either brought by trains to other, larger, concentration camps, or mass-shot at the local Bubanj area which is the city's GHOST OF THE SOUTHWEST.

Nowadays Bubanj park is a recreational area but the massive sculptures of three clenched fists symbolysing men, women and children shot here remind everyone about the area's past.

GHOST OF THE EAST, Chele Kula, is where the major road to Istanbul during the Ottoman times used to be. Big part of Serbia was conquered by the Ottomans. In 1809 a battle between Serbian rebels and the Ottoman army took place in the neighbourhood - it was part of the broader uprising against the empire. The battle ended tragically for the Serbs, and, in order to demonstrate their power and to give fear to any potential future resistants, the Ottomans built on the said major road a tall tower, studded from all its sides, floor to top, with the defeated Serbians' skulls.

It has been calculated that nearly a thousand of skulls were used for the construction. Nowadays are remaining only 58 of them - the rest were burried or stolen by souvenir hunters and otherwise disappeared during the time. The tower, now locked inside a chapel, for over eighty years stood completely uncovered.

The skull tower was not the only such type of construction made by the Ottomans but it is certainly one of the best known and one of the most symbolic. Many Serbians will point it out to you as a must see during your visit; it means much to them.

Some of the remaining skulls, Chele Kula.
Text and photos (c) Agne Drumelyte, 2013.

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