Published November 17, 2014
Below Slovenia's cornfields, ski slopes and school yards lie skulls, bones and teeth — the remains of thousands of people whose fates have been lost for decades.
In 1945, enraged anti-Nazi fighters slaughtered suspected collaborators, fascists and panicked civilians who tried to flee through the region to the West, leaving graves scattered from a spree of vengeance that turned the tiny country into what historians call the biggest post-WWII killing site in Europe.
Slovenian officials have a list of about 600 suspected graves, at least one in each community, daunting in its sheer scope and amounting to perhaps 100,000 bodies. The government has promised to find them all, but progress has only inched along. Most will never be identified.
"It marks you for your whole life," said Zdravko Vekic, whose family joined the flight from his native Bosnia-Herzegovina when he was just a 10-year-old boy. On a torturous, grueling journey, his uncle disappeared somewhere along the way.
"Even today, I shiver thinking of my uncle's bones lying somewhere underground instead of in our family grave, where I can lay some flowers for him, too."
Digging up the past is difficult work, and critics say there is little political will to investigate — because of the costs, but mostly because of a long taboo on the subject, the presumed guilt of many victims and decades of teaching that the antifascist killers were the good guys.
Unlike its neighbors, Slovenia — the first country to secede from Yugoslavia in 1991 — largely escaped the bloodshed of the 1990s Balkan ethnic wars. Its mass graves are older, and its youngest war survivors are nearing 70-year-old. Some wonder why they should dig up a painful past that has been buried so long.
"Whenever we find a mass grave, there are some saying: 'Let go off the past, you want to turn around history, to make winners look like villains,'" Mitja Ferenc, a historian who has worked investigating mass graves told The Associated Press. "No one talks about victims. They all get into political wrangling over who started the war, who finished it, who killed more."
The victims "were never prosecuted and tried. Maybe they were guilty, but they too have a right to a grave."
Slovenia, which during the war was occupied by Italy and Germany, became a killing field in May and June of 1945, as thousands in the newly formed Yugoslavia — including Germans, Italians, Hungarians, Croatians, and Serbs — tried to escape to Austria.
Some made it. But others were turned back by the British-led Allied forces and handed over to the partisans, the antifascist troops of iconic Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito, who ruled over the communist country until his death in 1980. The partisans killed most of them in the country's woods, fields, and canyons.
For years, communist authorities denied that the executions happened and crushed any attempt to reveal them. Evidence was destroyed. No exhumation ever took place. That changed in name with the fall of communism in 1990 and the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
The Slovene government began listing "concealed graves" in 2003 and has confirmed some 200 of them — some containing a few bodies, some thousands — since 2006. But a government commission checks only whether graves exist where locals claim they were. When found, sometimes by accident, experts simply make an estimate on the number of bodies, register them, cover them again and mark the place.
Exhumations are ordered only if bones are in the way — as they were in 1999, when more than 1,100 remains were found during construction works for a highway near Maribor, the country's second largest city — or if police or judge order them, which is usually when full identification is possible or if there is a known perpetrator. Those cases are rare.
In the latest find, a team of five people began digging on a sunny Autumn day in a cornfield near the village of Mostec in southeastern Slovenia, acting on testimony from a local who was a nine-year-old at the time.
"We slept outside, on the hay and sometime after midnight, we heard the screams of those people being lined up there," Joza Peterkoc, 74, said at his home about a kilometer (less than a mile) from the site. "After the shooting, it was all quiet." In wartime poverty, he said he even took and wore a victim's shoes found nearby.
Behind yellow police tape just 500 meters (yards) from village homes decorated with flowers, an excavator dug into the soil until until he heard a shout: "Stop, here they are!"
A gravedigger slowly descended into the pit, where a skull, a set of teeth, and bones lay scattered and crusted with dirt. A wire lay twisted into an 8-shape, designed to tie victims' hands behind their backs.
The worker checked the depth of the bones, and then the excavator looked every few meters (yards), digging other holes, until he was sure there were no more bones to be found. Then, the earth was again thrown over them and a small tin sign was posted with crosses marking the site surrounded by fertile cornfields.
The 2-kilometer (1.2-mile) trench could contain far more remains. Locals say that up to 10,000 people might have been slain and buried in the area they dubbed an "industrial slaughterhouse." But the work is over for this year and the commission is awaiting a new budget season.
Exhumations, collecting all DNA samples and storing them where relatives can potentially come seeking them would cost a fortune.
"In some ideal world, that would be possible," said Marko Strovs, who heads the government commission.
But, Ranka Ivelja, an investigative journalist for the daily Dnevnik, said the graves remain a "political, not purely ethical problem."
Even decades after the war, "the past divisions still live," she said.
Slovenia is now run by the Social Democrats, the successors to Tito's party and the antifascists. Some in the rightist opposition and the Roman Catholic church are seen as sympathetic to the Home Guard, a wartime militia that collaborated with the Nazis.
The legacy of the antifascists is still cherished, if controversial. The capital, Ljubljana, changed the name of one of its main boulevards after the 1990s when Tito's repressive methods were no longer a secret, but City Hall recently decided to name another street after the leader.
In Huda Jama, where a mass grave was discovered last year in a former mining shaft, a memorial chapel stands in memory to the victims. But a Home Guard veterans' group and some rightist parties have demanded an additional plaque saying: "We, too, have died for our homeland."
Janez and Justin Stanovnik who fought on different sides in the war illustrate the debate. Appearing on TV last year to discuss mass graves, Justin Stanovnik, who was a member of Home Guard, insisted he would only attend a commemoration for victims if the antifascists admitted their crimes.
Janez Stanovnik called that "an attempt to achieve victory for the defeated."
The government insists that neither finances nor ideological debate affect it, pledging to find all the graves. "There is a wish not to contribute to further divisions, but to secure, above all, a reverence for all the victims," it said in an e-mail.
Some have faith that the truth will come out inevitably, when Slovenes decide that they can no longer live on top of the country's painful history.
"Archaeology is merciless," said Joze Dezman, a historian. "There will come a generation that will realize that it's not normal to have garbage thrown over bones somewhere, or a kindergarten built over a bone-filled trench."
Associated Press Writer Ali Zerdin contributed to this report from Ljubljana, Slovenia.