The Long Winter of 1945: Reflections from UTP Author Anna Di Lellio

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In this beautifully illustrated graphic novel, The Long Winter of 1945: Tivari, the author and illustrator draw on archival sources and survivor testimonies to shed light on the 1945 massacre in Tivari.

Though it ended eighty years ago, WWII continues to produce memories that turn into resources for mobilization and new conflicts. To justify the invasion of Ukraine to its citizens as much as to the world, Russia evoked its suffering and righteous resistance during WWII. In the 1990s, the countries that made Yugoslavia exploited their memories of the same war to claim victimization and demonize the enemy “other” as they fought bloody wars to become independent. It’s the very nature of national memories that makes this possible. Whether official and kept alive by governments or subterranean and transmitted by survivors, most memories recall historical events selectively, forgetting “bad” memories, where the villain is “us,” and amplifying the crimes committed by “others” against us.  

The Long Winter of 1945: Tivari takes on the dynamic of national memories of WWII and newer conflicts as it plays out in Kosovo, where national hostilities are still alive and continue to be stoked by a long history of wars. Kosovo has been contested by Albanians and Serbs since its annexation in 1912 by the Serbian Kingdom from the waning Ottoman Empire. Inhabited by an overwhelming Albanian majority, it became independent from Serbia in 2008 after the violent repression of Albanian autonomist demands and a war that began as a counterinsurgency and ended in ethnic cleansing. There is still no peace in Kosovo, as Serbia continues to oppose its independence, now backed by its old ally Russia. While there will be no peace without a political resolution of the conflict, the understanding and dispelling of entrenched, inflaming national memories remains crucial.

With The Long Winter of 1945, we attempted to rescue from oblivion and distortions the memory of the 1945 massacre of scores of unarmed Albanian recruits by Serbian and Montenegrin partisans in the Montenegrin coastal town of Tivari (Bar). It’s clear why both post-war Yugoslavia and now Serbia wanted to forget the massacre as a stain on the image of the anti-fascist mobilization that feeds a proud national identity. It’s also understandable why for Albanians, targeted for expulsion and mass killing at several junctures of their history under Serbia’s rule, the massacre is tantamount to genocide. But genocide it was not, and there is no evidence that it was planned. It was a massacre like many others during the localized civil wars in Europe during WWII.

I was drawn to the subject because, not unlike genocides, massacres produce memories with enduring power to mobilize emotions, especially when those emotions are officially suppressed but feed counter-memories. And as I began researching the massacre, I discovered how difficult it would be to tell the story based on historical sources, from oral testimonies to archival texts, without losing its emotional charge. Choosing a graphic format in collaboration with Dardan, a talented illustrator from Kosovo who had experienced war as a teenager, made it possible for the survivors of the massacre to come to life as individuals full of anguish and fears, not just numbers in the ordinary carnage of war.

At first, we thought we should not be part of the story. We thought that survivors’ recollections would be enough. Later, Dardan drew us as characters in the graphic retelling of the story. We changed our minds when we struggled to reconcile different versions of the event drawn from different types of sources. It wasn’t just that the massacre of unarmed people did not happen or that witnesses’ oral testimonies, accusatory and full of emotions, were different from the archival sources. The latter, written by partisan commanders who had to justify to their superiors the inexplicable loss of hundreds of needed recruits, were mainly bureaucratic and minimizing accounts, but they diverged, too, depending on who wrote them, and at least one did not skirt responsibility for the massacre. Official history naturally adopted the reporting that was most convenient to the Yugoslav leaders, for whom the killing of scores of unarmed men was just an accident on the path to a righteous victory.

We showed how we worked, the scholar and the artist, as a team of detectives searching for clues, not about “what happened” but how survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders transmitted their memories of the massacre. We took this cacophony of recollections, some kept under the surface for decades, others hiding in plain sight within the dusty boxes on an archive, and made it all public. We hope to have succeeded in keeping the emotions for the fate of victims and survivors separate from a dispassionate analysis of that traumatic event.

Read an excerpt of The Long Winter of 1945: Tivari, here.


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