The dead must be given a proper burial. If then, they are victims of war, it is a moral duty for everyone. ‘Special Mention’ at the latest Warsaw Film Festival, THE MINER by the Slovenian film director Hanna Slak is a “purely Balkan film” where the key theme is a past that continues on forever, even when it has buried its dead.
Even worse, if it hasn’t buried its dead, and if the dead, in a land damned to suffering pain, are still there waiting to remove a cumbersome presence.
“I’ll wait for you”, Mirsada had written on a piece of paper. But Mehmedalija Alić has never come back to Srebrenica. He remained in Slovenia, where he went as a teenager, he started a new life, got a job as a miner, married and had two children. All this while Yugoslavia was breaking apart. In the meantime, on 11 July 1995, in a “United Nations’ safe area”, just a few miles from Srebrenica, a genocide has occurred, in the heart of Europe where history rather than seeing an end to atrocities, has witnessed the most gruesome massacre since World War Two.
The film is based on actual events and on a memoir by Mehmedalija Alić, a miner of Bosnian origins, symbolizing all the tragedies and crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia. On July 11 of every year, there is the Memorial Day for 8,000 Muslims who had lost their lives, newly identified bodies from mass graves in the village of Potocari, six kilometers north-west of Srebrenica, are given an official burial. For the 2017 anniversary, 70 bodies were exhumed and identified. Thousands of families are still waiting for their loved ones to be found.
A very special day for the Bosnian people and even more so for Alić, still carrying that “piece of Srebrenica” inside him.
However, fate is ironical. On that very day, Alić is given a very particular job to carry out, secretly and in haste. Alić must check on an abandoned and walled up shaft closed since 1945 and write a report to the boss. A challenging task for one of the most esteemed and accomplished miners, and a powerful metaphor that will lead Alić to digging up his past and his country’s past, uncovering the largest and blackest deed committed in Slovenia.
For the locals, it is the “evil pit”.
“Have you ever heard of it? […] No local would have done it, that is why they sent you. At the end of WW2, there was some cleaning up, some bad guys ended up there in the mine.”
Not a few, but many. Dozens of skulls, human remains, handprints, hair. Behind a wall, down in the pit, Alijc finds the signs of a bygone life.
“There are human remains of civilians, women, even children.” (Alić)
“They are not civilians, they are traitors, Nazis, war prisoners… “Mind your own business, it’s better for you. I just want you to check what there is inside and write a report.” (Mine Director)
“How will the bodies be carried out?” (Alić)
“They won’t. It’s a military grave.”
“I have seen plaits of women’s hair […], they had been walled up alive, they had been trying to get out of there. Must I write that the pit is empty?” (Alić)
“Our work is done. There is the crisis. Write the report. […] Who do you think you are? Sherlock Holmes? Your work is to write a report. Understand?” (Mine Director)
No, for Alić, it is not clear, and can never be so. He sinks down into the depths of the evil pit trying to come to terms with the past, to prove that those down in the pit are civilians deserving a decent burial. A burial he hadn’t been able to give his sister, Mirsada, who had vanished in the Srebrenica massacre.
“She was special”, Alić tells his daughter, “the best in her class, she wanted to go to university, she stayed in the village and I was sent to Slovenia to work. Mirsada became a teacher, she didn’t want to leave the village as the other teachers did when the war started […], she didn’t want to leave her pupils and stayed up to the end, till the day the murderers came to the school. They wanted to take away the boys of 12, 13 years old, and I was told she blocked the school gates and wouldn’t let them take the children away. So they took all of them and we have never found any of them. Neither Mirsada nor the children […]. I should have searched for her, to find her […], not to be able to bury someone, it is like a dark stain on your conscience, and nothing can remove it.”
Officially, the remains in the pit belonged to German soldiers captured at the end of the conflict, when the army withdrew. People, not deserving of rumors, but, nevertheless preventing the mine from being sold. But, if it wasn’t so? If they weren’t war prisoners but civilians? If Alija was not before just one of the hideous crimes committed during the last stages of the war, when the first settling of accounts between the winners and losers were carried out with deportations, mass killings, mass graves for prisoners, opponents, defectors, civilians, often with no distinctions being made.
Indeed, as a villager tells, “They were civilians, refugees […], the British sent them back here from refugee camps in Austria […]. They were told they were being taken to Trieste, to the port, but we took them into the mine, all night long they arrived and entered the mine, but nobody came out again. How many? 10, 20 truckloads of people.”
“Why didn’t you go to the police?” (Alić)
“The police knew all about it. People do not speak about it even today, they are afraid […].”
In 1944, before the war ended, British and American forces carried out a series of operations (the Yalta Keelhaul Operations) to forcefully repatriate prisoners and war refugees, especially Russians (two and half million prisoners were sent back to the USSR against their wishes) and Yugoslavians fleeing from Tito’s partisan advance.
Not only Nazis and collaborators surrendering to the Allies ended up in the hands of the People’s Liberation Army of Yugoslavia, but all who had been declared anti –Communists – the Croatian Ustasha, the Serbia and Montenegro Cetnics Domobranci and many civilians, victims of mass killings and labor camps, even though the Allies had assured their safety.
“These massacres occurred in Slovenia as the war was coming to an end and the Iron Curtain was collapsing here, in these places” (Joze Dezman, Slovenian historian and chairman of Commission on Concealed Mass Graves in Slovenia).
Up to the breaking up of Yugoslavia, the Communists authorities had always denied these crimes, and for almost fifty years the public had been totally unaware of them. In 2014, Mehmedalija Alić received an award from the Slovenian President Bortut Pahor for helping to recover the remains of 300 victims in 2009 (there could be many more, over 2,000) in the Saint Barbara cave, the closed mine called Huda Jama near the town of Laško.
In the fictionalized recounting of the story, Alić is sacked and arrested for having carried out unauthorized investigations.
The truth will never emerge. “This is not Bosnia. There, they’ll keep on searching until they find them all.”
His daughter is waiting for Alić as he comes out of prison.
“[…] you look like your aunt […]”.
Mirsada, like many civilians in the pit will never have a decent burial. Alić had lost his fight, and the past, you know, never passes by in the Balkans.