Light in Herzegovina
It is diving out in front of us, before us, mythical and dreamlike, older than its name and younger than its children, all made of stone and light. Told in the dawn of the birth of words. When we all gather in summers and fill the guestrooms, we mix with shadows, and everything comes to life. Those are beautiful people, both men and women, the favorite type of people in Serbian lands through history and poetry. Dinaric in its heart, Mediterranean on its edges, it has its own archetypical relation to life and to death. Whirlwinds are here, but we are no straws

Text and Photo: Vesna Kapor

Depending on which direction you are coming from, the landscapes you had passed, Herzegovina will always open in a different way. It is not just a space currently drawn in maps. Its width reaches deep into time, and many people from Montenegro and Bosnia will almost inevitably mention that they come from Old Herzegovina. You can feel the Herzegovina scent already in Foča, Nikšić or Novi.
Eastern Herzegovina is the essence of Serbian spirit. A Herzegovinian is the favorite type of human through history in all Serbian lands, who a bit mythically includes all features which make the folk spirit strong. Truth is that characters change from place to place in this, now small, Nemanjić’s land. However, the mythical strength and attraction of Herzegovina surpasses all differences and surmounts as a way of life, as a vow of each individual. Such is that land.
Essentially, its heart remained where the forces of history and politics have made people strong, where there was nothing to take away from. In short, Serbian Herzegovina lives in several spots and each of them, in its current smallness, is important and great: Nevesinje, Trebinje, Ljubinje, Bileća, Gacko, Berkovići and Eastern Mostar (a small part of the former city, whose history was created by Serbs). Still, even on such a reduced space, it presents itself with many faces: both tame and wild, both wise and hayduk-like. Hearts start beating faster when the Kosovo vow is mentioned, although the new-age plague of canceling symbols and myths are invading as well.
Far from the mother country, still firmly guarding its walls, heavily rooted in the political geography it is surrounded by, in the time of deafness, in the hypocrisy of great proportions, it remembers and survives. This summer, I will live in Herzegovina again – in the Land of St. Sava, longing for vastness, after a pretty anxious year in the city. I will reach many places (some even several times), hear many stories once again, discover some things which I haven’t earlier.
On the road, we are accompanied by choruses of crickets, singing of birds, and skies, with their arms wide open and full of stars. They are hanging above our heads this summer like grapes, here, in this boiling end of the world. The wide lights of heavens, ours, which touch the heights and descend into rivers, as if into mirrors.
Many characters will be involved in this story. It will be splashed by a myriad of unexpected moments. While putting the world into words, one is like a flame touched by winds from all sides.


While I am giving parts of what I have noted to Nikola Laketa, history professor, now moved-exiled to Australia, I remember his classes. He was young and bold and had the strength to say: open your notebooks and write what I’m telling, asking. And he spoke about the Nemanjićs, about uprisings against the Turks, about World War I, in detail.
We were looking forward to his classes; we wrote and remembered.
Nikola writes with inspiration and effortlessly. He remembers how magnificent the entrance to Herzegovina is, through Sutjeska, Zelengora and Čemerno, and the pine trees growing on gray stone plates, boulders which only birds in the skies can reach.
Yes, the entire space from Zlatibor, all those heights rushing to heavens and smelling like pines, calm down only for a moment and descend near the Drina; then mountains appear again, and the thick air over Čemerno, all made of dry grasses, gets stuck in the chest. High, rocky contours of Volujak and Lebršnik fill your eyes. Volujak, poor one, Lebršnik, unfortunate one, doomed are us among you, waiting for good in evil times, my brother says as if it were the only thing he was thinking about. And suddenly, man becomes overwhelmed with thoughts about eternity, about meaningless earthly challenges and disputes. What belongs to man in this world? (...)
Then, in a moment, Gatačko Polje field suddenly explodes before our eyes, endless green beauty. There, in the first facades, you will be greeted by a mural of general Mladić; it is where, now I do not know whether I am imagining, or it really writes the famous: Who dares, he can. People from Gacko are really such: they can. Count Sava Vladisavlić made such wonders in Russia and he was born here in the village of Jasenik. That is the value of everything; wide roads, fearless. Brought back to his birthplace several centuries later, as a monument in the city center.


There, at the encounter with the monument of the advisor of Peter the Great, perhaps the most reputable Herzegovinian, starts mountainous Herzegovina, where Gacko and Nevesinje rise in epic, rebellious swings. When I explain to those who have never been there, I always say: the area of Nevesinje is like the Zlatibor area. In a mountain, yet in a basin – green, fertile.
In chilly nights, when the Moon falls onto the pine trees in front of our house in the village, and then, like an enormous golden coin, yellow, appears above the forest, we take the flakes of heat from our bodies with long conversations. There are nights when it’s so cold that we sit wrapped in jackets, scarves, which always hang in the hallway, because here, in Nevesinje, it can become cold anytime.
Our yard has always been living in eternal hubbub and crowds. The string of narration never breaks. About the most common, everyday things, about kittens, who have just come into the world, about village chores, price of potato, who got married, who was born and who died, who went into the world, who came for vacation; stories are told tuned with an inner voice, as if everything will be noted in an important notebook. There are no small or big subjects. Everything is life. In some nights of summer heat, a bloody, horrible Moon appears. Full. And burns like that, red, entering a bit of shivering into stories. Then, in some nights, it becomes young, high, as a reaping-hook, and brings fresh, foamy conversations.
We always go through what has been, what is and what will be. We speak loudly, interrupt each other, then the conversation often spreads into several branches, and then, at the sound of a name or event, we all enter the flame of narration again. We mention sufferings and joys. The dead and the living sail through our stories together.
Don’t you tell me what I know, mother says, I know, father was supposed to escort major Todorović the following day; but that night, the major was assassinated.
Major Todorović was officer of the Yugoslav Army in the Homeland and was supposed to unite the Serbian forces in Herzegovina, to connect chetnicks and partisans. He had a great plan. He was assassinated in winter, tricked, with a shot in the back of his head. Later, the owner of the farmland where his body was left neither plowed nor mowed that field. The villagers secretly buried the major in the cemetery, near the Church of Holy Trinity, in Drenovik, in Kifino village (with fourteen more villagers who died), where he still rests today; entirely and forever ours.
Our visits to places of anguish this summer will be encounters of love, full of light.


This summer in Trebinje, I uncovered the Ossuary of Hanged Trebinje Serbs from 1914 to 1916 at the city cemetery, with names and dates of death. In the shadows of evergreen trees, looking like a small chapel, at the end of the cemetery, it spent its time; it was renovated thanks to descendants, which introduces the flame of hope that there is no death. Crickets, all day long, break the intoxicating heat, and make the thought of eternal silence more bearable. This is one of the places suffocated by the victorious ideology of World War II.
Summer under Plane Trees in Trebinje resembles Fellini’s movies. Both for visitors and locals, this place is a natural meeting point. It is crowded during the entire day. Traffic never ceases between Njegoš and Dučić. The hatred towards the poet was so big that everything Dučić had collected during his diplomatic service abroad, wishing to breathe the spirit of the Mediterranean into Trebinje, was removed by the new authorities. Before that, the monument of Njegoš, whose beauty was made by Toma Rosandić and Dragiša Brašovan, raised by Dučić as his endowment, the Ustashas tried to destroy with ropes, axes and cables in 1941. Finally, when even axes didn’t help, they brought down the entire monument with trucks and steel cables. It was intended for melting in the Zenica steel mill. However, man plans, but something prevents them from realizing their intentions. Ilijas Resulbegović bay intervened, and the Italian authorities prevented the execution. The monument was preserved in a basement. After the war, Njegoš’s monuments was brought to daylight, but everything related to Dučić was covered with silence. Until our days. Objects he had collected for his dear Trebinje as a legacy were systematically removed from streets, squares, city walls. Dučić dreamed the face and harmony of the Mediterranean for Trebinje, with an ancient tradition. And, really, such a panorama spreads from Crkvine, where the Poet found his final resting place. The heat strikes early, the crickets are singing, while we feel the scent of resin from trees, under which we catch a few more shady moments before the sun burns everything and raises us all to the skies.
Currently, Trebinje, as an idea of a perfect polis, reminds of a beehive. It never rests, day or night.
In Tvrdoš, girls from France write down prayers for good health, on white pieces of paper next to the door. We meet a charming group from Germany, first time in such a place. Stone plates under their feet and, protected with glass remains of the monastery from the fourth century, according to the legend, endowment of Emperor Constantine and his mother Jelena.
Light encompasses the interior of the church, quietly; it makes the whiteness of stone transparent. A prayer is written above the icon of St. Basil; under it a white cloth is waving, with embroidered red flowers. Air suddenly starts flowing from somewhere. Startled, I think, the Creator is everywhere. And signs are everywhere. Love is stronger than anything, although it does not always seem like it, the words of Bishop Nikolaj are waiting on the wall before the exit.
Visitors are gathering in the guestroom, drinking wine. Threads of conversation are unrolling, and a young man says, my great-grandfather is from Nevesinje. Herzegovina is pulsating everywhere. Everything is murmuring on a hot day. On the stairway, I met a novice, a Romanian, physics professor.


In the house of birth of St. Basil, we put our palms on the old nettle tree, which has been growing, according to the legend, ever since his time.
Just as the sun is burning everything in the soft, warm, low Herzegovina areas, the sound of crickets never ceases as well. It changes, from place to place and depending on the time of the day; it fences Hum and Travunia.
During the entire summer, wherever I turn, I hear Fyodor: do you suffer because your thought did not find its shape in words? Thoughts, feelings, sounds, the beauty and wonders of the world, cannot fit words; they surpass man’s register.
We will refresh and catch our breath for excursions in Nevesinje. There, in the neighboring yard, a birch tree is softly murmuring, and sparrows are chirping. Fireflies scattered in the dew of the night, and a few crickets make a sound, like desire.
Wheats are shimmering during the day and reality caught in photos resembles Van Gogh’s canvas. Above, the skies and clouds in silent movement, as if made of cotton.
There, above, is Morine – European Tibet, and I am somehow convinced that you can collide with clouds there; enter one of them, pinch it like cotton candy, or simply take it in your arms and disperse it all around. However, we did not go there. It is one of the places we will, I hope, return to next summer. The nearest things are sometimes the furthest. Morine is the Lovćen of Herzegovina, writes my professor Nikola. There, in the heights, rest the earthly remains of the leader of Herzegovinian uprisers, Pero Tunguz. That is where St. Sava walked, while doing his human and heavenly jobs. There is also the petrified girls’ and wedding cemetery; all that, I hope, we will reach next summer.
In Nevesinje, at the city cemetery, our grandfather Ostoja, assassinated in the barracks with hundreds of others, from all parts of Herzegovina, in 1941, without guilt, is waiting for us. When the new authorities finally raised a monument to them, in 1980-something, it will not write that they were victims of the Ustasha regime, or that they were Serbs. Even then, their bones were not collected under a cross, but under a red star. It will happen only later. We read all the names, every summer; we whisper to them that they are still alive.


When, in early morning, we arrived to Žitomislić for the first time, it was cool. The crickets suffocated any thought or word. One of us said, my ears are hurting from that sound. The other said, it is disturbing, does that sound ever stop? Really, when do crickets stop chirping? If I ever knew it, I forgot. I did not ask, and I won’t. It can remain as an uncertainty until next summer.
In Žitomislić, near Mostar, destroyed several times, prayer has always been restored. Father Gavrilo, a young man of about thirty, says, we are all family. When you enter the monastic order, you are not leaving, you are only starting a new part of your life. You still belong to everything you have been before. He says, I just want to be a monk, to pray. The power of simplicity he speaks and radiates is great, yet fragile. We fetched a bucket of fresh eternity there with him. He opened the monastery treasury, where the icon of Theotokos with Christ is kept, Tenderness, in Cretan-Byzantine style, from the XVI century, estimated to be one of the four of its kind in the world. The morning light illuminated us with freshness. This place is stunning, a few living souls, the power of a magnet. Our great-grandmothers used to come here on foot to pray, chase away troubles, affirm someone’s happiness. At the time there were no cars. Built – with the good will of the Father, assistance of the Son and Holy Spirit, at the time of devout Serbian princes, Hrabren Miloradović brothers, in the free voivodeship of St. Sava, in the XV century. In the freshness of the stone, we are wordless, someone shed a tear, because the particles of relics of anguished monks of Žitomislić, thrown into the Vidonja pit in 1941, together with particles of a few more holy men, permeate us. The light of the iconostasis and the vault, with white polished plates on the floor, take a traveler beyond this world for a moment. Already here, time is somehow shaken, the present transfers into a thread of light woven with many centuries, with the unmeasurable reliquaries of eternity; and again, the wonderful, great thought emerges: there is no death. That feeling appeared in all places we have visited this summer. In Savina Monastery, Monastery of Peter and Paul, Tvrdoš, Herzegovina Gračanica, Prebilovci… Shady places, in silence, are the only ones in the accelerated century of human hunger for the tangible, the century of the will for power, where we meet strangers like brothers and feel that earthly matters are of low importance.
There, in Žitomislić, during our second visit, I met Bishop of Zahumlje and Herzegovina Dimitrije. He appeared suddenly. I gave him a book of stories as a gift, which opened on the one dedicated to Milorad Ekmečić, and then we took a picture, completely beyond protocol. At one moment, the bishop, ours (wherever you are living, your soul always belongs to the diocese you were born in), says, I have nothing to give you as a gift. A blessing is enough, I say. Still, while we were entering the car, a young seminarian ran down the stairway and gave me a Book of Psalms, gift from the Theotokos. How did the bishop know what I had been thinking about for months? I used to take Books of Psalms in my hand, this one was too big, the other unreadable, that one too small…
Everything, even the smallest activity, is always arranged. The Lord sees our actions and souls.


While I am writing these lines, words and images are stumbling. Is chronology or light of the story important for narration?
In Prebilovci, for example, everything is light. And no matter how many times you come, it will not disappear, it will only become stronger. It is where the act of Resurrection presented itself fully. Unfortunately, it is also where mankind presented its ultimate deformity and demonic spirit. This year marks eight decades since the anguish of martyrs of Prebilovci and Lower Herzegovina. Is there anyone not familiar with the story? About the teacher Stana Arnaut, about the crime in the school, about the Ćirić, Ekmečić, Dragićević, Šarić, Nadaždin, Medić families? It is unjust to mention last names and omit someone, I think. However, up there, in heavens, I know there is no oblivion.
Inside the white church-crypt, designed by Peđa Ristić called Jesus, is light itself. The white marble, pervaded with the icon painting of father Stamatis Skliris, in the altar and the dome, is burning with light. Light as the nucleus of everything, as the beginning of creation and birth of the world, is the single measure of this place. The names of four thousand killed Serbs from Prebilovci and other villages in the Neretva valley, assassinated by Croatian Ustashas, without guilt, are written on the Church walls. Writing the names and painting the chapel was done by a group of academic painters. One of them, Pero Vujović, wrote that the faces of the Prebilovci martyrs, painted based on documentary material, watched them intently while they were painting and a long time after that. Those faces follow everyone, everywhere, whoever visits Prebilovci. When you go to the village after the service, not for eating and drinking, but for visiting, to mix with the shadows, everything comes to life. The air here is dry. While we meet each other, it seems that we give a bit of our life to the souls who lived there.
Prebilovci made of stone. And light.
I find postcards with the angels of Jasenovac, sister Marija, in front of the fountain made of stone from places of Serbian martyrdom; there, young priest Marko Gojačić from Bela Crkva, stretches his arms and says, entire Herzegovina is a place of anguish. Serving liturgies here makes sense. It is noon, burning from all sides. The soul radiates burning gold.
However, the algorithm of Google’s empire does not recommend visiting this place. Such is the force of this world. It, for example, recommends Kravice, a waterfall near Ljubuško. On that road, every sign written in Cyrillic letters is crossed. In Čapljina, we crossed Franjo Tuđman bridge; and Bakir Izetbegović sent a message to Serbs this summer that it is only half-time.


Whirlwinds are here, tempests are here, but we are no straws, tells Bishop Atanasije a loud warning. However, it is noticeable this summer that the term ”Orthodox” is used in many borderline places of survival; Serbian is omitted. A very suitable story is simmering around tombstones, history is rapidly fabricated. Great names are most convenient for it.
Šantić’s fate could be an example. Actually, the fate of his postmortem position. The destroyed monument (thrown into the river according to one version), desecrated grave, divided street in the nineties, meant that Aleksa, just like tens of thousands of others, had to move from Mostar. Later, when passions cooled, Aleksa was, again on a symbolic level, returned to Mostar. As Orthodox, he is great. Everyone has their own way and means of survival in the neocolonial order.
Between the destroyed Orthodox Serbian church, which has been renovated for a long time, and the cemetery, someone sold a piece of land, and a modern, luxurious hotel ”Eden” was erected. Symbolic and sad. A five-year-old Vasilije exclaimed under the scaffold of the formerly lavishing church in Mostar: Does this place really exist or not? Tell me.
Anything I write is insufficient. Herzegovina is boiling, it is summer, and guests are feeling at home in every house. All the time I was moving through the voivodeship of St. Sava, as if on a light map, which I have not designed in advance, I was thinking about how many days it would take to touch the ground, how many pervading hours? What are people telling, what are monuments telling, what are churches telling? Do things we did not manage to touch, to describe, speak more? I am just passing through Bileća this summer. I know Radoslav Bratić would scold me, but I am in collusion with him through these lines. I write, steal the hours of the summer, feeling guilty because there will be plenty left for another time or some other eyes; Radoslav did it with winter. As if I can hear his voice, as if I am leaning on him.
”Ćorović’s Meetings” – Serbian prose today, was his mission. It is where I first met Miroslav Toholj, outside of books. The news of his departure and final resting place in the village of Krajpolje near Ljubinje (shame on me, I have never visited it) is permeating this summer; some whitish mist, in the horizon, like edges of worlds, is framing thoughts.
While we were returning from Trebinje to Nevesinje at night, passing through Berkovići, where I once had an almost magical literary evening, I feel the sharp scent of dry grasses in my nose and the air with a drop of salt, in which the seed of snowy peaks is already ripening, and a thought appears that harboring fugitives is the most natural thing here. Reflectors are passing on the side of the road, like cats’ eyes, and a sad thought is growing within me; we should have loved more; stronger; we did not love enough; we should have forgiven more.
Later, while I was collecting this story, incomplete, because you can never see an end of narration, all bell towers from Savina to Prebilovci, which I have visited this summer, were sailing and ringing – like numerous heavenly moments.


Voivodeship of St. Sava
Chronicle writer from Dubrovnik, Petar Lukarić, noted that territories and cities included in the Voivodeship of St. Sava – Herzegovina, were: Konjic, Dabar, Imotski, Blagaj, Mostar, Počitelj, Neretva, Nevesinje, Svitava, Popovo, Trebinje, Herceg-Novi, Risan, Cernica, Ključ, Rogatica, Mileševo, Prijepolje, Pljevlja, Piva and Tara.


Storytelling and Preserving
Always on the borderline, Herzegovina is full of great events and great people. Magnificent scenes and stories. Everyone is still telling stories there, as in the dawn of the birth of words. Everyone is living this moment; thus, there is not much institutionally kept and preserved material. Not many material monuments or documents. Everything is living in words. The only places where time has been preserved have always been church documents and buildings.


Herzeg Šćepan and Fabricating the Past
Not many old fortifications have been preserved, most of them only in stories. Thus, for example, the fortification of Herzeg Šćepan, and Šćepan himself, become Stjepan or Stipan, depending on the location; thereby positioning the new identity into the past. By the way, Herzeg Šćepan was buried in his earthly form in the church in Šćepan Polje, where the rivers Piva and Tara meet and make the river Drina, which connects Serbian lands, states professor Laketa.


Reviving and Funeral Services
This summer in Herzegovina was also marked by the visit of Nemanja Dević, historian, with the subject Serbian Story. Nemanja was chosen to note and revive the history of civil fratricide throughout World War II. All those buried without funeral services had to be satisfied, the unnamed had to be noted, the slandered had to rise. All that is a horrible confusion, I think while collecting voices. We are so weak and so mild. There is only a breath between existence and nonexistence, but man seldom refers to that thought.


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