Jan Menno Rozendal
2018-11-07 16:25 — Bitola, Macedonia
The world is becoming little America ever more: on the 31st of october some kids walk the streets of Bitola, dressed up for Halloween. There will be more of them every year from now on, for sure. A couple of days later it is the Dia de Muertos, to remember and honour the dead. Originated in Mexico, it is also celebrated in the Basque Country, my roommate tells me. How we remember our dead, she asks? Well, we might come by the graves of loved ones on their birthday, or the day they died, or when you just happen to be in the neighbourhood… But a festivity once a year, with food and drinks and the whole family there, well, no.
Bitola is surrounded by graves, not just from the local dead. As yet another reminder of the first World War there are Serbian, French and German cemeteries on the borders of the city. At the last one, a solemn stone reports 3406 German soldiers being buried in that place. And then, poetically: Vom Ostseestrand - ruhen hier aus in fremden Land - Nach tapferem Kampf für Kaiser und Reich - Unvergesslich uns allen - Unsterblich zugleich. For the rest, the monument is a walled circle with no view whatsoever: it’s a bit claustrophobic. Probably intended that way.
Another cemetery I want to visit is the Jewish one. It is located at the north-eastern side of town. As often, Google Maps is my best friend. When I’m well on my way, I see I can take a shortcut, over a small hill. A rather non-official path is leading the way. I take a running start and 20 seconds later I find myself on top… surrounded by graves. Not the Jewish ones, to be sure, but islamic. For the rest, the sight of the field can hardly be described in words: broken stones, damaged graves and rubble everywhere. Some graves are even open, in one of them I see a jawbone of what I hope to have been an animal…
There’s beauty in ugliness, I agreed with a local photographer earlier on. But not today. The half-demolished houses of which I’ve said earlier that they just needed some paint, the lawless traffic that has been fascinating thus far, the endless graffiti filled with obscenities that I previously called art from a passionate teenager… no, all of a sudden, the couleur locale doesn't amuse me anymore. To mistreat a cemetary like that, who would do such a thing…
Or is there something else going on? What is the link between this place and 2001, when a terrorist attack put a lot of stress on the relationship between the Macedonian, orthodox part of the city and the Albanian, islamic part? There was violence in the streets, destruction of property, arson… Dutch newspaper NRC even called it the Kristallnacht of Bitola. Am I walking on the ruins of an ethnic and religious conflict, or is it slackness and indifference? Or perhaps a combination of both?
I muse on it, while I’m slowly walking in the vague direction of the Jewish cemetery. Caught up in my thoughts, I almost miss the thing that has been moving just a meter in front of me. Between the scorched earth and smashed graves, carefully dodging the glass and plastic it finds on its way, there’s a small turtle calmly walking around. In the middle of the city, on top of a hill… how on earth did it get here? Once it hears me, it hides in its little shell, clearly not planning to come out any time soon.
Some beauty in ugliness after all.