Name: 'Partisan Martyrs Cemetery' (Varrezat e Dëshmorëve/Spomen groblje palim borcima)
Location: On Matičansko Hill of the Velanija neighborhood in Priština, Kosovo*
Year completed: 1961
Designer: Svetislav Ličina
Coordinates: N42°39'31.8", E21°10'31.8" (click for map)
Dimensions: 3ha monument park
Materials used: Poured concrete, rebar and steel
Condition: Fair, neglected
This spomenik complex in the Velanija neighborhood of Priština, Kosovo* commemorates the many soldiers and civilian victims from the Priština region who perished during the National Liberation War.
World War II
The conflict of the Second World War in Priština began in April of 1941 when Axis Italian forces invaded and occupied the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, which included much of the present-day Kosovo region. The Italians proceeded to integrate the city of Priština and the surrounding region into what was then called the 'Kingdom of Albania', which was an Italian protectorate state (Figure 1). While many anti-Yugoslav ethnic-Albanian nationalists saw the Italians as 'liberators', the Italian's occupation and control became brutal and oppressive for many groups, especially towards any Jews, Serbian royalists and communist-dissidents. The Italian approach to preventing an organized uprising among the local disaffected citizens of Priština and across the Kosovo region was to attempt to turn all of the various ethnic groups, the Serbs, Albanians, etc, against each other. However, the region's primary anti-Axis resistance group, Josip Tito's communist-led Partisan Army, sought to unite the people of the region together to resist the Italian occupation. Within just a few months of occupation, in late 1941, armed uprisings against Italian occupation in Priština began. Italian retribution was brutal, with both rebels and civilians being killed (across Priština and beyond), the vast majority of which were communists and ethnic-Serbs and Jews. Many of these persecuted civilians began to flee from the region to avoid persecution, however, many remained in Kosovo to continue battling with other Partisan resistance fighters against Italian occupation, along with many anti-Axis ethnic-Albanians.
Figure 1: Map of borders in the greater region around Kosovo* during WWII in 1943
Photo 1: Jewish family imprisoned in Priština, 1943
In August 1942, the Kosovo Partisan Unit was formally organized, under the leadership of Dušan Lazić, who began to organize offensives against the Italian forces and their collaborators. This escalation instigated Italians to conduct a series of mass arrests of hundreds of civilians across Priština, with many of those arrested being executed or sent to concentration camps. In September of 1943, Italians capitulated in the "Armistice of Cassibile" and exited the war, retreating from Priština and all of Kosovo. However, within a few weeks, Priština was re-occupied by German forces. Utilizing the 21st Waffen Mountain Division (which mostly consisted of ethnic-Albanian Axis collaborators), the Germans conducted mass arrests of Jews (Photo 1), who were then shipped by train to German death camps. The most significant deportation of Priština Jewish civilians to death camps was on May 14th, 1944, when nearly 300 Jews were transported to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany -- of these sent, roughly 200 were eventually killed. Then, in July of 1944, the Germans established a special camp in Priština for any Partisan/anti-fascist sympathizers or collaborators. It was reported that in just one day, over 100 of these prisoners were shot and executed. However, despite these oppressive conditions, the Partisan resistance movement against Axis occupation continued. Priština was freed from Axis control on November 19th, 1944, as German soldiers retreated in the advance of the 25th Serbian Partisan Brigade entering the city.
Josip Broz Tito, the leader of the Partisan communist rebels, had promised ethnic-Albanians during the war that the Kosovo region would be able to decide democratically whether they wished to be part of Albanian or the new socialist Yugoslavia. Such a decision was made by these ethnic-Albanians in January 1944 with the 'Resolution of Bujan', which yielded the decision that Kosovo should join Albania. However, as the war ended in 1944 with a Partisan victory, Tito went back on his word about allowing the Kosovar Albanians to decide their own fate, at which point Kosovo was integrated into the new Socialist Republic (SR) of Serbia. This resulted in a massive revolt of tens of thousands of Kosovar Albanians against Tito's communist army. Roughly 30,000 of Tito's soldiers were required to quell the Kosovar Albanian rebellion (during which many protestors were killed) before peace was restored and the region of Kosovo was integrated into the SR of Serbia.
In the late 1950s, plans were initiated by regional governments and veterans organizations to create an expansive memorial cemetery complex to commemorate Priština's victims of the People's Liberation Struggle. In 1960, an architectural proposal put forward by famed Serbian architect Svetislav Ličina (Светислав Личина) won a design competition which was to decide the form of this memorial cemetery. Before this, Ličina was already well known for having recently created the 'Alley of the Fallen Patriots' cemetery in Belgrade in 1959. The chosen location for the monument was a prominent distinct hilltop park overlooking the city of Priština in the neighborhood of Velanija, just east of the city center. The construction of the complex took roughly one year. Early plans for the complex, seen in Photo 2, envisioned the sight to be much more expansive in scale, with it finally being unveiled to the public in November of 1961 (Photo 3).
Photo 2: An architectural schematic of the Martyr's Cemetery complex here at Velanija
Photo 3: A view of the opening ceremony of the Martyr's Cemetery complex here at Velanija
At its time of opening, the complex, called "The Martyr's Cemetery", consisted of several curving concrete arms forming a circular 'star' shape, all spread across a 3ha park. Inside the star-shape was a stone-paved courtyard which at its center was a sphere-shaped sculpture of metal beams. The lower two-thirds of the sphere was wrapped in a thin layer of metal. Meanwhile, on the inside wall of the curved concrete arms, 220 medallions set into the wall, each representing fighters and civilians from the area who perished during the war -- their remains were interred in a crypt beneath this monument. A significant number of these were Jewish victims, along with many ethnic Serbs and Albanians. During the years of Yugoslavia, this was a very popular and active tourist attraction and memorial site for the people of Priština and those across the greater Kosovo* region.
As the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia was dismantled during the 1990s and the Yugoslav Wars set in across the Balkans, "The Martyr's Cemetery" began to fall into disrepair and neglect. Starting in the early 1990s, vandals began to deface the monument, while others stole and removed memorial elements from it, including many of the inset medallions. It was also during the early 1990s that Kosovo* declared itself an independent nation, electing scholar and political leader Ibrahim Rugova as its first president. By the late 1990s Kosovo had entered into a war with the remnants of Yugoslavia. At the end of the Kosovo War in 1999, Kosovo* became a de facto independent nation (separate from Serbia) called the "Republic of Kosovo". This new government began to use the area directly surrounding the spomenik as a make-shift burial ground for casualties of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) from the Kosovo War. Many ethnic-Serbians in the region were angered by this move, as they felt it was disrespectful to the memory of the Partisans who fought for a unified Yugoslavia. Also during this time, parts of the memorial complex were redeveloped, including the central sphere element, to which alterations were made and a new platform was constructed.
Then, in January of 2006, a part of the land of the spomenik park just east of the monument was re-purposed by the Priština municipality to create a new cemetery complex to house the remains of the recently deceased Ibrahim Rugova. While this funeral was a grand event attended by hundreds of thousands of people, it was not without controversy. Many within the KLA thought that the burial of a non-veteran within the 'Martyr's Cemetery' was an outrage, especially as Rugova was never seen to be much of a supporter of the KLA, being that Rugova's non-violent approach to Kosovo independence differed from the KLA's guerrilla tactics.
Photo 4: A photo from the 1990s of Ibrahim Rugova
Photo 5: Artist's concept image of the proposed memorial to Ibrahim Rugova in Velanija
As it stands today, the primary memorial structure of the 'Martyr's Cemetery' monument is still in an extremely degraded and deteriorated state. In 2013, there were plans to tear down the monument to replace it with an expansive memorial complex dedicated to Ibrahim Rugova (Photo 5). However, this original construction project was canceled in 2016 and news reports indicate that construction efforts may be re-started in the future, but their nature is not yet completely clear. Upon my most recent visit in April of 2017, I witnessed no efforts towards dismantling the monument yet, but the project's first phase, which was to build an amphitheatre adjacent to the Partisan cemetery, has already been completed. In May of 2015, additional graves were added to the KLA cemetery when the bodies of nine NLA-affiliated Kosovars were buried during a large remembrance ceremony put on by Kosovo veterans' organizations -- the nine men had recently died during a shoot-out with police in Kumanovo, Macedonia. The shoot-out resulted in the deaths of 10 Macedonian officers, while the NLA members who police captured were arrested and brought up on terrorism-related charges.
Plaques, Engravings and Graffiti:
While there were a number of inscribed elements at the Velanija Cemetery originally, most have gone missing over the years. At the entrance to this spomenik complex, there was, until recently, a modern plaque (Slide 1), which has now been stolen or removed. It contained text translated in both Albanian, Serbo-Croatian and English. It reads as:
"220 participants of the National Anti-Fascist Liberation War between 1941-1945 are buried in this place."
-The Assoc. of the NALW Veterans of Kosovo
Historically, a raised text inscription on the concrete also once existed at this site, right at the entrance to the spomenik, however, it is also now missing, having been destroyed or stolen. Its original appearance can be seen in historic photos in Slides 2 & 3.
While very few photos of these inscriptions remain, making it unknown what messages the majority of the communicated, the photo of the inscription seen in Slide 3 is visible enough to translate. This small segment of the inscription series seen in this image roughly translates into English as:
"What I started, you continue. We still owe this, and you must pay these dues."
This inscription is a set of verses from the poem "Svetli grobovi" (Bright Graves) by the famous Serbian poet Jovan Jovanović Zmaj. A full version of the poem can be found at THIS link. The verses are related to the idea of those who gave their lives in the fight during WWII paved the way for future peace, and that subsequent generations owe an eternal debt to those who perished in that fight.
Medallions inscribed with the names and lifespans of fallen Partisan WWII victims once were installed around the inside curved concrete wall of the star-shaped complex and also within alcoves within the memorial. At some point since the 1990s, these were all stolen or destroyed. The present state of where they were once installed in the concrete walls can be seen in Slides 4 & 5. Meanwhile, a close-up view of what two examples of what the medallions once looked like can be seen in Slides 6 & 7.
Meanwhile, large amounts of graffiti cover the entire complex, an example of which can be seen in Slide 8. Though, the vast majority of this graffiti and vandalism seems to be innocuous and not of any nature of nationalistic or extremist origin, as far as I was able to tell.
While my research was not able to identify any officially stated representation or symbolism included in the shape and form this memorial by its creator Svetislav Ličina, it seems possible that the sphere shape of the primary monument element could very well be making reference to a 'globe' motif or symbol. It can then easily be assumed that Ličine was undoubtedly searching for an overly inclusive and universalist symbols to include in a monument in a region with such a ethnically contentious history as that of Kosovo. Meanwhile, the overall star-shape of the complex layout itself may be a reference to the 'Yugoslav star', which was one of the primary symbols of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia.
Status and Condition:
After years of neglect and vandalism, the state of the memorial cemetery here at Velanija, in the city of Priština, Kosovo*, is very poor. Firstly, a post-Kosovo War redevelopment of the central metal sphere left the monument's primary element heavily altered and modified from the creator's original design. It is unclear if any permissions or consulting was made with the spomenik's creator Svetislava Ličine before these changes were made. Since that redevelopment, the memorial has been covered in graffiti, while all of the commemorative medallions honoring Partisan fighters have been stolen. There are no promotional or directional signs in the city which lead visitors or tourists to this complex, and no indications that the city of Priština is attempting to advertise or promote the site as an attraction or point of interest. While it was clear that many local Kosovars came to pay respects to the KLA graves located adjacent to the Partisan memorial, I found no indications of any offerings of any sort left at the Partisan memorial itself. In fact, all indications seem to point to the scenario that the only attention this spomenik gets is from vandals and those intent on damaging it.
Photo 6: View of the newly constructed amphitheatre, 2017
Meanwhile, I saw no evidence or documents showing that any official commemorative or remembrance events are held at this memorial any longer. In fact, past efforts have been put forward by the city with the aim of tearing down the entire Partisan's Cemetery memorial in order to build a sizable 3.5 million euro memorial complex honoring Kosovo's first president, Ibrahim Rugova. In March of 2013, news reports indicated that Kosovo's Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning, the agency supervising the project, was already seeking construction contractors. In 2014, construction began on the first phase of the redevelopment project, which was the construction of a large amphitheatre adjacent to the Partisan cemetery. Upon my most recent visit to the spomenik in April of 2017, the amphitheatre has been completed (Photo 6). However, the construction company who was spearheading this project, UNICOM, had their contract terminated by the city in 2016 as the work was not completed in a timely manner. As of October 2018, news reports indicate that the redevelopment of the monument complex will resume in 2019 under new parameters. Yet, sources could not confirm whether or not the monument would be demolished under these new parameters. As of early 2021, I found no new updates on the monument's status or what form redevelopment plans are taking.
Currently, the Martyr's Cemetery is on a temporary protection list, which affords the site a certain latitude of resistance from demolition efforts. However, whether the site will stay on that list is not certain. Efforts by government bodies in Kosovo* to demolish or remove major Yugoslav-era WWII monuments is not unprecedented, as the the 'Boro & Ramiz' memorial in Landovica was demolished in 1999, while a WWII sculpture was planned to be removed from its original site in the town of Gjilan in 2017. However, such removal efforts are sometimes subverted, as was the case in the instance of efforts to demolish the 'Brotherhood & Unity' memorial in the city center of Priština. That monument instead underwent a complete restoration in 2018.
Getting to the cemetery complex at Velanija is a relatively simple endeavor. Firstly, from the city center of Priština, take Agim Ramadami Road south. Then, after about 1km, take a left onto Rustem Statovci road. Follow this road east up hill for just under a kilometer, at which point the road will end, with public parking available on the left hand side of the road. Park here and follow the paved stairway uphill east towards the spomenik complex on foot. The exact coordinates for parking are N42°39'34.1", E21°10'22.8".
WARNING: The use of drone equipment and photography of this site is STRICTLY prohibited without authorization. I am aware of incidents of people being arrested for illicitly operating drones here, so, by all means, DO NOT engage in this activity here unless you have pre-arranged permission.
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* Note on the Question of Status:
All mentions of the designation "Kosovo" on this page are made without prejudice to the position on status, and is in line with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 and the International Court of Justice's Opinion of the Kosovo Declaration of Independence. For more information, see this Wikipedia article on the topic.
Selected Sources and More Information:
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