The Forgotten Soldiers of a Dead Country

On my seventh birthday, my dad gave me a present that shocked my mum and pretty much all of my friends’ parents: The Sexual Encyclopaedia for Children and Teenagers (Enciklopedija seksualnog odgoja). My friends and I loved it, of course, and spent hours browsing through its four hardback volumes. My dad was not a dissident, a former hippy, a rock musician, artist or doctor. It was May 1988 and my dad was a young officer in the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA). He started doing yoga as a teenager in the JNA Air force school in Mostar, and was the most liberal dad anyone could wish for. Our book shelves at home were stacked with everything from Remarque’s collected works, to Dedijer’s contentious biography of Tito, to the works of Hegel, Fromm and Marx, numerous books on yoga, all the Yugoslav classics, and H. W. Janson’s History of Art, a prize of my father’s from his schooldays, awarded for his painting inspired by the Vietnam War. This is probably why I assumed that all JNA officers were like him and why I was shocked when I later began to encounter the negative stereotyping of JNA officers as Stalinists, authoritarian parents, drunkards, chauvinists and brainwashed criminals.

In the spring of 1988, my dad could not have imagined even the faintest possibility of an internecine war. Yet, just three years later, he was tasked with delivering the news of the death of Sašo Gešovski to his parents in the Macedonian town of Kavadarci. This 19-year-old JNA soldier was killed on 6th May 1991 in Split, Croatia by Croat nationalists and is remembered as the first JNA victim in what everyone at the time assumed would be a short conflict. He told me that it was the hardest thing he has ever had to do. He couldn’t tell the 19-year-old’s parents that their son died for a higher purpose, that he died a noble death. Sašo Gešovski was to become one of the young soldiers and officers in an Army that had tragically outlived the country it was meant to defend, and he would soon be forgotten by everyone. Macedonians, Albanians, Bosniaks, Croats, Hungarians, Serbs, Slovenes, all died in the uniform of a previously adored and worshiped, but later detested and demonised, Army and State. Perhaps the image that best embodies the utter absurdity of the Yugoslav wars is that of the destroyed JNA non-combat helicopter and the loaves of bread on the ground, next to the burnt bodies of Slovenian military pilot Toni Mrlak and Macedonian Bojanče Sibinovski. Ironically, the transport helicopter was shot down by the Slovenian Territorial Defence in Ljubljana, despite the fact it was unarmed and took off from the military bakery loaded with bread for the cut-off JNA units. In Hidden Command (Skrito povelje) a book on the incident written by Mrlak’s sister-in-law Draga Potočnjak, she writes:

‘The armed conflict between the JNA and the Territorial Defence could have ended with hardly any victims at all. I am not the only one who shares this opinion. Those leaders of the [Slovenian] independence who in the uncertain times of conflict with the JNA and the creation of Slovenian statehood still found time to trade in arms, are, as far as I am concerned, the only ones in this conflict who espoused the logic of a war at any cost. They wanted blood, wounded, dead, burnt tanks, helicopters …’

All these years I could not get rid of the thought that my own father could have been one of those dead, forgotten soldiers that no country today is willing to remember or commemorate; that had we happened to live in Slovenia in the summer of 1991, my mum, brother and I could have been one of the many JNA officers’ families terrorised or arrested by the Slovenian Territorial Defence units. I would have probably tried to tell them that my dad adores Slovenia, that my grandmother’s brother married a Slovene woman and is more Slovenian than Macedonian; that my dad practises yoga and only believes in self-defence from an external enemy, not in killing those he was trained to defend…

This is also what Admiral Dragoljub Bocinov, Macedonian by origin, commander of the military naval base in Split, and my dad’s future boss as Chief of General Staff of the newly established Macedonian Army, said about his refusal to follow Belgrade’s orders to bomb the city of Split in the summer of 1991:

‘I am a humanist … I loved those people as I love my own family. I spent 42 years between Pula and Boka. I was awarded the “Golden Arms” of Šibenik and the “Bronze Plaque” of the island of Lastovo, to which I gave all I could as a human. Not to destroy, but to build. There is no power that would compel me to destroy cities and human lives.’

After he was released from a military prison in Serbia in March 1993, he was appointed Chief of the General Staff of the Macedonian Army and my dad was his Chief of Cabinet. If you asked them, they were the true JNA officers who embodied its original, genuine values and doctrines, not the ones who decided to ride the wave of chauvinist and genocidal nationalism. To my dad, the latter were all fascists. End of discussion.

As more forgotten stories of honourable deeds by JNA officers began to emerge over the last few years – for example that of Captain Toma Buzov and General Vladimir Trifunović – I thought that finally the long-held stigma could be removed, and that by sharing this story I would overcome a deeply ingrained fear that my words would be labelled as Yugonostalgic, or as the words of a spoilt, privileged child of the Yugoslav “red bourgeoisie”. Well, I grew up in a 45-square meter flat in the centre of Skopje, which my dad got as a young, single officer in 1978. He was always on the waiting list for a bigger flat in the 1980s due to the size of our family and his army rank, but he was never one to complain or ask for favours. I think he had an exaggerated sense of confidence in the fairness of the system. My dad was never bitter, nor were we children made to feel resentful of the fact that a lot of our neighbours in the apartment block, who were of different nationalities and more junior than my dad, had bigger homes. My dad was the son of a poor miner and the family who lived in the same-sized apartment directly below us was the family of an elderly Romani woman, who worked as a cleaning lady in the Army cultural centre (Dom JNA). The Yugoslav “bourgeoisie” was certainly not to be found in the socially owned, collective, JNA apartment blocks, shared by civilians of all backgrounds and status.

These days, The Sexual Encyclopaedia trades on various portals for as little as seven euros. My dad had to pay for it in several instalments at the time. Books were expensive. Especially good books. I am still not even half way through the books of our family library, but I practise yoga and appreciate how painful and impossible it must have been to retain a sense of integrity and stay true to the socialist humanist idealism on which their upbringing and education was based. So, my dad’s premature retirement should not have come as a surprise. To the new elites, these officers were an extinct species from a distant era everyone was trying to erase, forget or demonise. If I am truly nostalgic for something, it is for a time-space constellation that allowed a poor miner’s son in a small peripheral European country to speed through a process of social mobility and emancipation, which would have normally taken several generations, and present his seven-year old daughter with a children’s sexual encyclopaedia as a birthday gift, instead of a pink doll. Фала, тато.

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Ljubica Spaskovska

Ljubica Spaskovska works as a Research Fellow in History at the University of Exeter and is the author of 'The Last Yugoslav Generation: the rethinking of youth politics and cultures in late socialism' (Manchester University Press, 2017)