No more Bela Krajina guards – The Disappeared People: Tragedy of Bela Krajina Serbs

by Grey Carter


By Grey Carter – On the former battlements of Europe from the Ottoman Empire, alongside the Kupa river, today live only 280 Serbs. Descendants of proud Uskoks (Serbian resistance fighters against Ottoman invaders) inhabit four villages only. The Serbian language is almost impossible to hear. Cyrillic letters are impossible to see, even the monuments and graves are carved in Latin letters.


 End of XIX beginning of XX century, ethnic Serbs in White Krajina

Bela Krajina is Slovenian southernmost part along the river Kupa, and the northernmost island of the Serbian language, says an often repeated phrase. In reality, the Serbian language is now rarely heard even in the last four villages inhabited by descendants of the Serbian Uskoks: Bojanci, Marindol, Milici and Paunovic. In other villages of the former ramparts of Europe before the Turks now live former Serbs who gave up their language and Orthodox confession, in order to benefit economically. They rigidly speak only Slovenian.

– All the data says that there are about 280 people in Bela Krajina who are Serbs and who declare themselves as Serbs.  But apart from a couple of the oldest inhabitants, no one of them speaks Serbian. The villages are almost empty. Descendants of the Serbian Krajisniks who were guarding the Habsburg Empire against Islam for five centuries have managed to preserve the language and identity, despite the Ottomans, Vatican, constant mass murder and hardship.  Only in Yugoslavia, they have lost it. Today they say that they are satisfied to be loyal  Slovenians and citizens of Slovenia.

– Serbs in Bela Krajina exist only as ghosts – says historian Borislav Čeliković, after visiting the last Serbian villages of Bela Krajina in 2012.

Serbs successfully kept their identity until the Second World War; there were Serbian primary schools and Serb teachers; The  Orthodox Church for centuries was not only a temple of the Orthodox faith but the keeper of awareness of Serbian identity. After 1945. everything has changed, even though the Serbs in Bela Krajina fought on the side of the Communists and actually started anti-Hitler resistance in Slovenia.


– During the  Second World War, the fighting spirit of the Bela Krajina Serbs proved that they’re true heirs of the legendary Uskoks. However, acceptance of the partisan movement led pro-Croatian communism to power, and that was fatal for those brave people. Communists, ruled by Croat Tito and Croatian stream in general, abolished the Serbian schools, under false excuse –  that there were not enough pupils,  although there have been several thousand of them in Bela Krajina.
– The Orthodox priest used to serve in the old Orthodox church until the end of the fifties (1950), and then the communists canceled and left the whole Serbian area without their priest. So the nearest Orthodox priest was the one from Moravica in Croatia.

–  Economic migration to the cities only have contributed to the accelerated assimilation of Serbs – says Čeliković.

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Old Serbian memorial plaque (1868. ) written in Cyrillic

According to the census before World War II, there were more than 7,000 Serbs in Slovenia, a majority of them inhabited Bela Krajina. In 1967. ethnologist Milenko S. Filipovic notes that there are only 500-600 Serbs descendants of Uskoks.
– The Serbian Orthodox identity was guarded by a marriage with Serbs from other parts of Krajina, (Krajina is Republic of Serbian Krajina, temporarily occupied by Croatia), – Kordun, Banija, Lika, Dalmatia – says Čeliković .

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The Women of  Žumberak

At the beginning of the 16th century, Habsburgs offered privileges to those willing to defend the borders of the kingdom from the invading Turks. In this area, where the war actually never stops, the only people who had enough courage to live were  Serbs,  border guards, frontiersmen. Some were natives, and some settled from Serbian regions from Skadar (after Austrian diplomatic pressure handed over to Albania)  to Zadar, attracted by the privileged status of free men, with the local government under the Serbian dukes and the Orthodox church, which were guarantees of preserving the national identity.

According to the now well-known Austrian documents around 1530. to the war-scorched and empty land around Žumberak mountains in what is now Croatia, and then the neighboring Bela Krajina , in present-day Slovenia, came the first wave of Serbian Uskoks from Old Serbia and followed by several of Bosnia and Dalmatia.
Austrian emperors protected the Serbian privileges and faith while they needed protection from Ottomans.  But soon the pressure from the Catholic Church increased; the Vatican insisted that the Habsburgs must  force the ”eastern Byzantines and Greek schismatics” (even though it was the Catholic church who abandoned the original Christianity in 1054,  “The Great Schism” )  to convert  to Papacy and “true Roman Church,” or at least to pay Papal tributes.

Melting of Serbs into other nations became more intense after 1881. when the Military Frontier was abolished; that’s when the tragedy of the former border guards of Christian Europe started. Abandoned, left without any job and income on the rocky infertile barren land that couldn’t feed hungry children, surrounded by the religiously hostile environment and fanaticism (guards were pejoratively called ” hairs”, a derogatory term for ”wild mountain men” who ”devour living flesh”).
It was a question of time when the tragedy will culminate.
Without basic means, church and schools, under the constant and heavy pressure, a mass exodus from Bela Krajina started; those who decided to remain were challenged to give up their religion (to convert to Catholicism)  and nation or to be completely isolated.

– Serbian Orthodox Church preserved national identity and tradition of medieval Serbia. Where the Serbian Orthodox Church is repressed, the Serbs disappeared. Acceptance of Catholicism, or Union, led to a complete change of their identity:  Greco-Catholics and Catholics in Slovenia became the Slovenes.

Uniatism changed the identity of the population of Žumberak, an area all the XVII-century chronicles recorded as the Serbian area, the same as Bela Krajina.
At the beginning of the 20th century, one ethnologist asked local inhabitants about their nationality and origin and whether they know who were the first settlers in the area. ” I guess we were Serbs.” – was the answer.
In the four villages of Bela Krajina Serbian identity was preserved until the mid-20th century.
– Today I found a few old men who feel as Serbs and whose Serbian language is ancient, fluent and clean, the way it is spoken in eastern Herzegovina – says Čeliković.
Today Croats and Slovenians try to represent Uskoks as a part of their tradition; therefore their costumes, music (ojka and gusle) and art are portrayed as something integrally Slovenian and Croatian, but that’s accepted as a spectacle for tourists only since all the available data denies these myths.

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A few years ago,  the “sister church” ( as Croats – Catholics  – name themselves while addressing to the Orthodox  i.e. Serbs) –  in Croatia celebrated the 400th anniversary of the so-called “Križevci Union”, that is, the beginning of forcible conversion into the union with the pope of Serbian Uskoks from Žumberak and the surrounding area. Cardinal Josip Bozanić, the spiritual leader of the “Church in Croatia”, participated on Monday, May 28, 2012, in the service of “St. John the Baptist Archbishop’s Liturgy to the Byzantine-Croatian ritual”, which was led by the Bishop of Križevci, Bishop Nikola Kekić, in Križevci.

On that occasion, Bozanic emphasized: “We have collected the grace of the Holy Spirit at this homeland for the 400th anniversary of the Union in Croatia and establishment of the church hierarchy for the believers of the Greek (i.e. Orthodox) Rite headquartered in the monastery of St. Michael the Archangel in Marca on the property of the Zagreb bishop.
Today we thank God for 400 years of  Orthodox-Catholic unity in Croatia. Namely, in the 16th century, a multitude of Orthodox regiments, Uskoks, from the Turkish Empire, settled into the vicinity of Ivanić and Čazma, on the property of the Zagreb bishop. ” Bozanic also pointed out that the Zagreb bishops helped those, once Orthodox, who accepted Vatican and pope for their religious leader and received the union with Rome: “If there was no initiative, and above all, spiritual and material support of the Zagreb bishop Peter Dimitrovic with the first converted bishop Simeon, we could almost certainly be sure to say that there would not be a union, nor would it ever take place”  (read:  these areas would remain Orthodox Serbian)

Then Božanic added: “The presence of the Greek Catholic Diocese of Križevci (…) The Catholic Church in Croatia is richer in its Catholicism, because, according to the blessed Ivan Paul II, it breathes on both lungs. Catholics of the Eastern Byzantine-Slavic ritual are vivid and real testimony that unity and church fellowship with ritual features in the Catholic Church is possible and necessary “…

What was the bishop referring to?
Between 1530 and 1540, from Serbia and Bosnia over 3000 Serbs, fleeing from the Turks, arrived in Gorski Kotar and Bela Krajina, between the Serbian monasteries of Gmirje, Marche and Lepavina. (Marche was founded in 1578 by the Serbian metropolitan of Dabrobosan Gavrilo Avramović from Ivangrad near Zagreb.) These Serbs were known in Vienna as good fighters and skilled warriors in defence of the Christianity and Habsburg monarchy from the Turks.
In 1611, the patriarch Jovan Kantul (a clergyman, three years later killed by the Turks) was appointed by the bishop of Habsburg and the Habsburg state government to go to Rome and declare before the pope that he accepts the union (the union implies preservation an outer rite of the Orthodox Church, with the acceptance of the papal supreme power).
The harmful consequences of Simeon’s activity are removed by bishop Maksim Predojevic, who rejects the order of Emperor Ferdinand to go to Rome. After the attempt to poison Maksim failed,  Catholics arranged and kidnapped, tortured and imprisoned him in one of their monasteries, which was used as a prison for heretics and witches by the Roman Catholic inquisition.
Maksim managed to escape and with the help of uskoks, Serbian guards, protected by night, he managed to get to Serbian lands, then under the Ottoman occupation, and to arrive at the Serbian Patriarchate in Pech – Serbian Kosovo Metohija – where he was ordained from the Serbian patriarch of the Pech, Paisius.
The great struggle of the Serbian people preserve their identity begun: in 1626, the Bishop of Zagreb reported that  ”… the Serbs of Žumberak had been successfully converted, but that there were still others who were rebelling because they were incited by Orthodox monks, who were therefore beaten and expelled.”

The Vienesse policy was that they support the conversion and union, but they were aware that it was dangerous to apply force because the Serbs lived alongside the borders with Ottoman Turkey. So as for Vienna, if the Serbs decide that they would rather die than convert, the borders would remain unguarded.  (The Serbs, in these documents, were called Rashani or Raci, and otherwise Vlachs.)
In 1642, after the death of Bishop Maksim, the papal nuns in Vienna tried to impose upon the Serbs in Žumberak and surrounding the Latin bishop Rafael Levaković, but Vienna, fearing the rebellion of Krajisnik border guards,  didn’t pressure but accepts the Serbian candidate, for which the papists say that he is “the greatest anticatholic of all the schismatics”. In 1668, under the pressure of the Zagreb bishop Petar Petretić, Austrian Emperor Leopold takes away the Serbian bishop Gavrilo Mijakic and, two years later, brings the uniat fanatic Pavle Zorcic.
That’s when the epic tragedy starts: All Orthodox monks were captured and taken to slavery in Malta to be rowers in galleys.
After periods of slavery and torture, they were murdered.
Due to the alleged participation in the conspiracy of Zrinski and Frankopan, bishop Gavrilo was thrown into prison and strangled in 1686 by order of papal authority.

The Serbs resisted the Vatican as much as they could. In March 1742, they wrote to their patriarch Arsenije IV the following letter: “Since the first bishop Pavle Zorcic, admitted the Pope’s supremacy and the union, everyone after him until now –  the current Bishop Teofil Pasic included –  have committed violence and torture rather than teaching, forced us to admit the Vatican and Pope and to forget our national church . Majority of our Gomirce monks were slaughtered or sold into slave markets,  so there are plenty of them in galleys and dungeons and by the sea, and there’s no one to stop the torture and murder of Serbian Orthodox monks of our monastery Gomir. ”

In addition, Bishop Pasic got the help of the army,  and with the threat that anyone who opposes him would be punished with death.
The Union i.e. papal supremacy was only imposed on the Serbs of Zumberak only by the military force and mass murder in 1769.

So much so about the truthfulness of the word of Cardinal Bozanice Union and sister churches; Croats were, in fact, the main instigators of violence against Orthodox Serbs, their clergy and monks, and, like all the papists for centuries, merciless destroyers of all those who refused to subjugate Rome.
Family names of Serbian families noted in the Bela Krajina and Zumberak from 1551:

Dragičević i Dragićević
Mirosaljac i Mirosaljić


The Bela Krajina today:


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