Name: Šušnjar Memorial Complex (Спомен-подручје Шушњар/Spomen Groblje Šušnjar)
Location: Sanski Most, FBiH, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Year completed: 1970
Designer: Petar Krstić (profile page)
Coordinates: N44 45 44.1, E16 41 02.2
Dimensions: 15m high by 5m wide
Materials used: Aluminum panels over steel frame
Condition: Very poor, extreme disrepair and neglect
Click on slideshow photo for description.
This spomenik at Sanski Most, Bosnia was built not only as a memorial to the thousands of victims of the Axis occupation and oppression in the surrounding region, but also, this is a memorial to the victims of the "Rebellion of the Sana Peasants", in which the local population of Sanski Most area revolted against the oppression by the Ustaše occupying forces in the first weeks of the war.
World War II
On May 6th of 1941, just a few weeks after the fall of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia to Axis forces and the creation of the Axis-puppet state of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) (in which Sanski Most found itself), there was a revolt by Sana peasants of the Podgrmeč region against the NDH's oppressive occupying militiamen called the Ustaše. These revolts were the first all-out hostility against Axis/Ustaše occupying forces in Bosnia. The community uprising is said to have begun when alleged Muslim Ustaše instigators disturbed ethnic-Serb civilians during their celebration of Saint George's Day (Đurđevdan). During the hostilities (which lasted for three days), Ustaše forces killed dozens of civilians and arrests dozens more. After the rebellion was put down after the arrival of a German unit from Prijedor, the regional Ustaše commissioner Victor Gutić ordered the execution of 27 of the ethnic-Serb male civilians accused of contributing to the unrest. On May 9th, three days after the initial revolt, these 27 men were shot under a railway bridge upstream of town along the Sana River. These dead bodies were then brought to the Sanski Most town center and strung up in trees by their necks to act as a warning to other Serbs and Jews (Photo 1). Furthermore, the grisly task of hanging the dead bodies in trees was forced upon other Serb and Jewish prisoners at gun-point. After three days, their bodies were then taken and buried in a mass grave in a forested clearing on the eastern outskirts of a town called Šušnjar.
Photo 1: Executed bodies strung up in Sanski Most town center, May, 1941
These executions were not only an effort by Ustaše forces to prevent further rebellion and uprisings, but they were also part of the coordinated Ustaše campaign of eliminating the ethnic-Serb and Jewish populations from the Bosanska Krajina region. Roughly two weeks after these executions, on May 28th, Victor Gutić (Photo 2) made the follows statements at large 4,000 person rally in the Sanki Most town center concerning the region's ethnic-Serbs:
"I have published drastic laws for their complete economic destruction, and new ones will follow for their complete extermination. Don't be generous toward any of them. Bear in my mind that they were always our gravediggers and destroy them wherever they may be found, and the blessings of the Poglavnik [Ante Pavelić] and myself will be upon you. Let the Serbs hope for nothing. For their sakes it would be best if they emigrate. Let them disappear from this region of ours, this homeland of ours."
Then, just a few months later, during the celebrations of St. Elijah's Day on the 2nd of August, 1941, mass arrests were made of thousands of ethnic-Serb and Jewish civilians across Sanski Most. These thousands of prisoners were then marched to various killing fields across the town, most notably Šušnjar, where they were brutally executed and tossed into dirt pits. Certain accounts relate that prisoners who chose to convert to Catholicism were spared execution. Exact numbers of those executed during these purges are not precisely known, however, estimates range from 2,000 up to 10,000. Meanwhile, the following year in August of 1942, all remaining Jews who still resided in Sanski Most were arrested and shipped to the death camps at Jasenovac.
The orchestrater of these tragedies, Victor Gutić, fled the Balkans to Venice after the end of the war and the subsequent fall of the Axis-supported Independent State of Croatia. In 1946, Gutić was discovered by war-crimes investigators hiding out in Italy, later being extradited to Yugoslavia. During his trial, he denied all charges which were levied against him. At the end of his trial, Gutić received a guilty sentence and, thereafter, was executed in the city of Banja Luka, his hometown, on February 20th, 1947.
Photo 2: Viktor Gutić
Preliminary plans to construct a memorial complex at the Sanski Most execution site for the commemoration of these tragedies was organized in late 1968. At this point, an official selection board was convened to arrange this memorial's construction. This board consisted of municipal officials as well as generals and officials of the SR of Bosnia who were from the Sanski Most region. The chairman of the board was Yugoslav WWII hero Petar Dodik, at this time a lawyer from Sarajevo. Funding for the project was raised by this board largely via public voluntary donations from those in the community. Three specific notable designers were considered by the board to create the monument, all who had varying ideas of what the monument should look like. Belgrade architect Bogdan Bogdanović, wanted to construct a 'Tower of Babel' themed structure, but the design selection committee found this concept unacceptable. Famous Zagreb sculptor Vanja Radauš suggested a bone-shaped memorial, but this was also rejected, as it was felt it might incite feelings of anger and hatred towards Croats in general, especially as the memorial was intended to be a place of healing and reconciliation... not horror.
The project was eventually awarded to Sarajevo architect Petar Krstić, whose primary composition, completed in 1970 (Photo 3), consisted of an aluminum flame-like obelisk set within an open paved courtyard. The complex's approaching pathways were lined with stone tiles commemorating the victims killed and executed in the uprising. In addition, long crisscrossing concrete tubes are arranged around the monument as seating for visitors and as an outdoor classroom for students. The official commemoration ceremony for the memorial took place on August 2nd, 1971, a date which recognized 30 years since the 1941 St. Elijah's Day killings. During the memorial's construction, there was an alleged incident where when workers were digging in the ground to construct the memorial's crypt, blood started to bubble up from the earth. After an investigation, it was determined to be human blood (presumably left over from the massacres which occurred on the site) which had seeped into the ground and mixed with moist clay, allowing it to remain viscous and suspended. However, I was not able to find definitive corroborating evidence of this event. Also, after the monument's official opening in 1971, a series of annual poetry reading events called the 'Šušnjar Literary Festival' were held at the site every August 2nd during the monument's remembrance ceremonies.
Photo 3: The memorial shortly after construction
Photo 4: The 1992 Orthodox cross memorial
After the fall of Yugoslavia, the memorial complex fell into more and more disrepair and neglect. However, during the Bosnian War in 1992, a Bosnian Serb veterans group built a large concrete cross within the memorial complex (Photo 4), as Bosnian Serbs were in control of the area until 1995, at which point the Dayton Agreement then granted Sanski Most to the FBiH. As a result of the Dayton Agreement, the vast majority of the town's Bosnian Serb population was expelled. Some members of the Muslim community in Sanski Most still find this monument addition controversial, especially as a memorial plaque bearing the names of Partisan Muslim veterans had been earlier removed from the site. Altogether, about 20-30 of the stone tiles were removed that commemorated Partisan soldiers killed and executed in the rebellion, leaving only tiles that signified Jewish and ethnic-Serb civilians. However, many panels honoring ethnic-Serb victims have also been desecrated at the site. In addition, a large memorial plaque at the entrance was also stolen. Despite being a protected site of national heritage by the Bosnian government, the site is still in poor condition and would require significant preservation and rehabilitation in order to be brought back to a restored state. Meanwhile, the 'Šušnjar Literary Festival' is no longer held at the Šušnjar memorial site, but instead is held in the nearby Republic of Srpska town of Oštra Luka.
Plaques, Engravings and Graffiti:
There are a number of inscribed elements here at the Sanski most memorial complex. Firstly at the front entrance-way, there is one primary interpretive engraved plaque which, translated from Serbian to English, reads:
"During the time of 1941-1945, there was a genocide committed against Serbians andJews by the German and Ustaše occupiers."
"At ten execution sites and in brutal death camps, over 5,500 men women & youth of the Sanski Most area were viciously killed."
"Across these killing fields in August of 1941, Ustaše criminals shot thousands of --- and Jews."
The '---' in the above translation represents the shot out segment of the plaque in the last sentence. Presumably, it read 'Serbians', or something to that effect. This vandalism may be the result of the ethnic tensions between local ethnic-Serbs and Croats of this region during the waves of nationalism brought about by the Croatian independence in the early 1990s -- a significant number of monuments recognizing atrocities committed against minority ethnic-Serbs in Croatia and western Bosnia were destroyed and defaced during this time.
In pathways throughout the memorial complex, dozens of stone tiles are situated in the ground over the interred remains of the dozens killed and executed in the 1941 rebellion (pictured top right). The tiles are engraved with the names of those interred therein.
While there is a good deal of graffiti both on the obelisk and around the memorial site, I found very little notable or particularly interesting examples anywhere around the site.
Photo 5: A leaping flame
It has been stated by the creator of this memorial sculpture, Petar Krstić, that its sharply irregular and luminescent form is meant to resemble the shape of a shining leaping flame (Photo 5) and that said form is meant to be symbolic of the light of life and the victorious process of overcoming the threat of fascism which caused such sufferings to the people of the Sanski Most region. Such a universally understood image of the flame representing the 'light of life' was mostly surely chosen by the memorial's selection board with the intention that it would be an inclusive and non-incendiary symbol pleasing all members of the town's ethnically divided population. In addition, Krstić explained that his sculpture was meant to symbolize not only the suffering of people in Sanski Most, but suffering of all people throughout the ages. Such statements reinforce the 'universalist' interpretations of this sculpture. Interestingly, Krstić's original design called for the memorial sculpture to emit sounds and lights from a machine within the structure, which would symbolize the struggle and suffering of the people of Sanski Most -- however, this experimental concept became cost prohibitive and was never integrated into the site.
Status and Condition:
The current state of this Šušnjar spomenik complex in Sanski Most is verging on complete disrepair. The grass and vegetation have overtaken much of the monument complex to the point where I found many goats in the area around the monument freely grazing. Meanwhile, many stainless steel panels of the lower section of the monument obelisk itself stolen and ripped off, presumably to claim for scrap, revealing the inner steel skeleton of the structure. In addition, the stainless steel panels that are left are completely covered in graffiti and spray paint. Meanwhile, there is no signage or directional markers in place to lead visitors or tourists to this monument. At the site itself, a significant amount of the engraved panels and informational plaques have been stolen or destroyed, leaving only one or two defaced interpretive plaques still in existence here. In addition, upon my most recent visit, I found no signs of honorific wreaths, flowers or candles left anywhere around this complex or any other signs that the site had been recently utilized by the local community. However, annual commemorative ceremonies are indeed still held here by Bosnian Serbs from nearby Oštra Luka (Serbian Sanski Most) (Photo 6). Yet, there has been controversy and disagreement in the years since the end of the Bosnian War between Oštra Luka and the Sanski Most municipality over holding overt religious remembrance events at the site.
Photo 6: View of 2014 Orthodox ceremony at the Šušnjar site
Records indicate that this spomenik complex is officially protected and maintained by the Bosnian government as a monument of national cultural importance, however, I saw little indication of any active conservation or protection projects upon my most recent visit. A recently released official 'Sanski Most Tourist Guide' [PDF] makes no mention of this monument whatsoever. Yet, as of July 2017, news reports indicate that restoration efforts may soon be underway at the Šušnjar Memorial site. In addition, in 2018, discussions began about the idea of constructing a small Orthodox chapel at the Šušnjar site, however, such proposals have been met with strong opposition.
Finding your way to the Šušnjar Memorial Complex is a relaitvely easy endeavor. Firstly, from the city center of Sanski Most, as you head east, crossing the Sana River on the street Trg Oslobodilaca, take Muse Cazima Catica until you pass a Konzum supermarket on your left, then follow the road Zrtava Fasizma east out of town for about 1km until you see a cemetery complex on your left. The Šušnjar complex is directly across the street from this cemetery. Parking can be made at the gravel parking area in front of the cemetery. Exact coordinates for this parking location are N44°45'46.4", E16°41'01.8", linked here to Google Maps. Use the map diagram on the right for reference.
Selected Sources and More Information:
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