About a decade ago, Yugoslav WWII monuments were almost forgotten at home but started capturing people’s imagination around the world when Jan Kempenaers, a Belgian photographer, created his ‘Spomeniks’ (‘Memorials’) series, which included images of striking monuments at Kosmaj in Serbia, Podgaric in Croatia and Tjentiste in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
His eerie photos of oddly-shaped memorials in dramatic settings attracted the attention of design and travel websites, spreading their popularity around the world.
They also reached Donald Niebyl, a biologist from Illinois and an arts and travel enthusiast who had no prior connection to the former Yugoslav region.
“I have always been fascinated by the monuments, as I had seen them in the same internet pictures that everyone else had for about ten years now, so I wanted to finally see them for myself,” Niebyl told BIRN.
After doing extensive research on how he could visit about 20 or 30 of the monuments, often in remote areas, Niebyl decided to share the fruits of his efforts with the wider public created his Spomenik Database.
The database is an ever-growing resource on over 90 Yugoslav WWII monuments built between 1960 and 1990, containing pictures, geographical coordinates, their current state of repair and tips on how to reach them.
But what sets Niebyl’s website apart from the many others extolling the aesthetic value of these monuments is that he decided to dig deeper into their histories, which are often completely omitted from much of the available online content, including Kempenaers’s initial project.
Some see that this lack of context reduced these memorials of very traumatic events to what was dubbed ‘clickbait concrete’.
There was even some tasteless uses of the monuments, such as the recent case of the flower-shaped memorial at the Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia being used by an Australian company to sell sunglasses.
To satisfy his curiosity about the initial purposes and the odd designs of the monuments, Niebyl had to dive into the painful and often contentious histories of the events that they commemorated – bloody battles, ethnic cleansing and horrific reprisals – as well as tackle the touchy subjects of Socialist Yugoslavia’s heritage in its successor states.
“I basically had to learn everything from scratch. This, I felt, gave me a more objective approach to understanding and processing the conflicts of this region. Every time I stumbled across some amazing story, I wondered how there were so few in the Western world who were aware of these stories and the lessons from them which could be learned,” Niebyl said.
Besides understanding the tangled and still very sensitive history of the region, there was also the challenge of actually visiting the sites, which are often located in remote areas.
Although skilled in orienteering and mapping, Niebyl remembers getting lost around Kozara in Bosnia and Herzegovina after following erroneous GPS directions during his first visit to the region in 2015.
His rental car got stuck in a ravine, and Niebyl felt the situation was so hopeless that he briefly considered abandoning the car, stopping the project altogether and leaving the region, but was saved by a Bosnian family who were having dinner nearby.
They organised their village to pull out his car and later invited him for dinner and rakija, turning a potential catastrophe into a pleasant occasion.
Although he stresses his positive experiences in the region and help he received from local researchers, his work was on occasions met with disbelief by some locals, who have either themselves lost interest in the stories behind the monuments or are even hostile to those who don’t want these stories to be forgotten.
“Some people have a difficult relationship with these monuments and some foreigner poking and prodding around the ruins [of the monuments] could be seen as kind of incendiary. They were destroyed for a reason and some people might want to make sure they stayed that way,” Niebyl said.
At the beginning of his project he was also met with some incredulity at home in the US, where some people wondered why he was “wasting” his time with such a relatively obscure topic.
Nevertheless, Spomenik Database became a hit. Riding the wave of its popularity, Niebyl now occasionally organises tours for those interested in the region, and the project attracted attention of Fuel, a UK-based design and publishing company.
Niebyl and Fuel released a book together in September 2018, called ‘Spomenik Monument Database’, which contains maps, photos and the stories behind a selection of the monuments that Niebyl painstakingly researched. The book garnered positive reviews and was listed as one of the best Architecture and Design books of 2018 by the FT.
Even after these successes, Niebyl still has the urge to do more work on the subject, fuelled in part by messages from around the world to keep going, many of them coming from the former Yugoslavia itself.
“I’m literally working on it every single day. Most of the free time that I have I spend developing it further and further. I feel it’s almost my responsibility to keep the ball rolling and make sure that the content and information on my website is as accurate and detailed as possible,” Niebyl explains.
He also sees the monuments as teaching valuable universal lessons about identity and memory.
“It has made me think so much about the idea of memory. So much of the local conflicts boiled down to the idea of memory and how the history is written and memorialised,” he explained.
“Studying these monuments, you come across so many amazingly interesting conflicts and issues that have been persisting for so long. Getting this greater understanding made me a more thoughtful and analytical person and more open to the idea that every story has more than one side to it.”