Holding myself afloat with a series of gentle strokes, I stared into the gaping maw of an old submarine tunnel, built during Montenegro’s communistic, Yugoslavian years. The vibrant, aquamarine-colored water graduated into the absolute dark; the sounds of the water echoed into the endless void encased in stone and concrete. After all these years the tunnels are still usable, though the country has since removed its military after the Bosnian War. The conflicts Montenegro has endured have defined its landscape as much as the rugged mountains that encompass much of its ground. The Romans, Italians, French, Germans, Russians, and many more have left their mark. Forts established during the world wars like Fort Mamula and Prevlaka developed intramural horrors over their serving periods; their sea-beaten husks now guard the Adriatic coast.

The wounds of the 20th century have only partially healed, leaving behind unpleasant clumps of scar tissue in the form of abandoned buildings and graves. The fascist years, ruled by the brutal Mussolini-installed tutelage of Alessandro Pirzio Biroli, sought to bring law and order to the “Balkan uncivilized populations”. General Carlo Geloso of Greece, backed Biroli’s statements, who instilled the idea in soldiers that the enemy was worse than “blood-drinking, sadist-orgiastic beasts”.[1] Remnants of the violence inflicted upon the small country permeates down its street names—Fascism Victim Street, located in the town of Budva, is one of those. Axis occupation was not the last major conflict; the death of President Josip Broz Tito in 1980 led to the rapid disintegration of Yugoslavia, sparking racial unrest over the breakup, eventually sparking a genocide. The conflict is still very fresh in the memories of Montenegrins. As I traveled to the Crno Jezero lake in Northern Montenegro, my otherwise quiet guide got out of his passenger seat and with a lugubrious face castigated his neighbors Bosnia and Herzegovina’s for violence in the 90s—causing Montenegro to take on many Bosnian refugees during and after the conflict. Montenegro has since moved on, but the former State Union between Serbia and Montenegro has fragmented the languages people spoke and who they identify with. There is a noticeable vernacular shift in pronunciations as the Montenegrin dominated South merges into the rural Serbian North.

Ostrog Monastery
Photo taken by Vincent Aliquo

As death has shaped Montenegro’s landscape, so has religion. The Gospa od Škrpjela—known colloquially as the Lady of the Rocks—is a blue-domed chapel in the middle of Kotor Bay, situated atop a fabricated island built upon the location of a mysterious painting of Madonna and Jesus. The discovery of the painting, thought of as a miracle, encouraged sailors to donate silver tablets, paintings, and sculptures to the chapel to ensure safe passage at sea. Miracles frequent this country, with the Ostrog Monastery boasting over a hundred of them, making it a pilgrimage for any person believing in a singular God. Built into a cliff, it protects the monastery from all sides but its face. An entrance to a small cave marked by a black cross is where visitors can kiss and visit the mummified Saint Basil of Ostrog, who rests in an open casket, thinly shrouded by an ornamental veil. Though, I admit, as I incongruously stood alone in that chamber, sharing the space with only the intense gaze of the Saint’s guardian, I did not try to contact his body. For those not blessed with the mummified corpse of a Saint, reliquaries, like the ones found in the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon in Kotor, hold the silver-encased bone fragments and skulls of various religious figures.

Montenegro is a place where describing a place of worship as just spiritual would be an insult. These places, like the Ostrog Monastery, embodies much more than a place to connect with God, but to the Montenegrins, is direct proof that God has come down to them. Through centuries of unrest, religion has provided a necessary solace, encouraging a recent mindset best described by the Montenegrin 10 Commandments: “Man is born tired and lives to get a rest”.

[1] Rodogno, Davide. “Italian Soldiers in the Balkans. The Experience of the Occupation (1941-1943).” Journal of Southern Europe & the Balkans 6, no. 2 (August 2004): 130. doi:10.1080/1461319042000242029.

2 thoughts on “Montenegro: Making Peace From Violence

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