Thursday, February 9, 2012


I arrived in Niš exactly one month ago. In the past thirty-one days, I've had the chance to begin to get to know the city, and to settle into a fairly normal routine.

Southern Serbia is fairly different from Vojvodina, the autonomous province of which Novi Sad is the head. The differences between Novi Sad and Niš have two major origins: geography and history.

Vojvodina is flat. Take your stereotypical image of Kansas, replace the corn with other grains, and scale it down a bit and you've gota a fair picture of Vojvodina. (Vojvodinians will claim they have one or two mountains. This is true by loose definitions of mountains.)

Niš is surrounded by substantial mountains. If Novi Sad is Kansas, Niš is the Appalachian foothills. It started snowing on us during our first week here, and it hasn't let up more than a few days at a time. While my friends back in North Carolina have been enjoying 15°C weather, I've been dealing with -15°C.

Vojvodina was historically part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire while the area around Niš was under Ottoman rule for five hundred years. This affects not only the food (Hungarian goulash is common in Novi Sad while Niš is known for its roštilj [barbecue]) but also their attitudes towards Europe.

Jacob and me above the entrance to the Niš fortress. Photocredit: Yentli

Key to the history of each city is its fortress. Novi Sad sits across the Danube from the Austro-Hungarian era Petrovaradin Fortress, where the international music vestival Exit is held annually. Niš surrounds an old Turkish fortress that has its roots in the Roman era.

Above: Jacob and I complete a statue of a Roman woman. Jacob nails it.

Niš is fairly proud of its ancient history, being the birthplace of three Roman Emperors. But on our tours of the city in our first week here, we were focused on more recent history. Together we visited Ćele kula: the skull tower.

Far from being the super-villain lair that its name suggests, the tower is both monument and warning. The story's a great one, so I have to repeat it.

Entering the chapel that now protects the skull tower
It was the year 1809, five years after the beginning of the First Serbian Uprising against the rule of the Ottoman Turks (who I'm sure have another version of this story). A commander named Stevan Sinđelić was holding the line of the free Serbian state just north of the Turk-occupied Niš fortress. The five thousand Serbian men were able to hold off the twenty thousand Ottomans for a time, but not indefinitely. When they finally overran the trenches, Sinđelić went to the gunpowder storage and fired into the barrels. The explosion killed nearly all of both the rebels and the Turks, and hindered the progress of the Turkish army in putting down the uprising.

Furious, the Turkish commander ordered that a tower be built of the skulls of the rebels to serve as a warning to others. Over nine hundred skulls were originally used, though fewer than sixty remain in the tower now.

Some of the skulls still in the tower. The tower isn't that tall, but since the bricks are human skulls, it's tall enough to get its message across.

Me and the skull allegedly belonging to Sinđelić. It smells like incense (naturally, it's claimed).  Photocredit: Yentli
Of course, what was meant as a warning was eventually converted into a memorial. Instead of being afraid, Serbians now come to honor Sinđelić and his sacrifice.

While this gruesome tower has an inspiring story of self-sacrifice for a greater cause, our other stop was far more depressing. We visited the Crveni Krst concentration camp. (Somewhat ironically, Crveni Krst means Red Cross.)

Approaching the Crveni Krst concentration camp.
I'd never been to a concentration camp before, and I wasn't sure what to expect. Crveni Krst was no Auschwitz: genocide happened here, but not at quite the same scale as at the more infamous camps.

In ten days in April 1941, the then Kingdom of Yugoslavia fell to Axis forces. Almost immediately the Nazi occupation established concentration camps at various points around Yugoslavia where they imprisoned Jews, Roma, and various Yugoslav resistance fighters (generally Partisans).

Guards' quarters.
Over 30,000 people are thought to have spent time in the Crveni Krst camp. One of the exhibits in the dormitories is a list of over one hundred people who made a successful escape from the camp on February 12, 1942. This escape was one of the largest until liberation.

Entering the dormitories.

An illustration of the camp.
Over the course of the occupation, ten to twelve thousand prisoners were trucked to the forests of nearby Bubanj to be executed. We didn't make the trek out to the Bubanj memorial yet, though we will soon.

One of the cells. The guide said that over twenty people would be forced to live in one. 
One thing to note was that the interior of the building was even colder than the weather outside. It was as if the engineers hadn't been indifferent to comfort but actually trying to make the building miserable.

Exiting the concentration camp.
The Crveni Krst concentration camp is directly on the main road between my neighborhood and the rest of the city. Every day I get to see its remains, standing not only as a memorial to the multitude of victims of this horrible crime but also as a reminder of just how horrible humans can be to each other.

This post turned out to be a lot more about death than I had intended. I'll write more about being miserably cold and my day-to-day life soon.