Slovenia opens WW2 mass graves - along with old wounds

In Slovenia a major operation is underway to mark and uncover mass graves containing the bodies of tens of thousands of people killed at the end of World War 2. They were mostly victims of vengeance killings by the partisans of Yugoslav leader Josip Tito after the allies turned them back from Austria and handed them over. Many had collaborated with the Nazis and were executed without trial. By marking and opening the graves the Slovenian government is trying help people come to terms with this unprecedented slaughter. One of the largest graves is near Maribor in western Slovenia from where Ksenija Samardzija-Matul reports.

Mitja Ferenc a historian who heads the probing work in Maribor estimates that the mass grave found near Maribor will most likely prove to be one of the largest in Europe.

"This is probably the biggest Croatian grave and the biggest hidden grave in Slovenia and I suppose that is why there was such an echo."

According to Ferenc, the mass grave near Maribor is similar to those elsewhere in Slovenia. The objects found alongside the human remains suggest that those killed were for the most part soldiers. Ferenc also says that there are a total of 550 potential other locations in Slovenia that were earmarked for probing. The Slovenian expert team is assisted in the probes by a group of Croatian experts, since the majority of the victims are thought to be Croatians.

These experts believe the grave probably also contains Montenegrin and Serbian victims, as well as Slovenians and other nationalities. Bože Vukušič from Croatia describes what they found in the probes:

"Alongside the bones almost no personal objects were found, which means they were brought there naked or half naked. We also found large quantities of wire with which they were tied."

The experts heading the probes believe the grave might include the remains of around 15,000 Croat members of the forces of the Croatian Ustasha regime that collaborated with Nazi Germany, who were trying to escape from Yugoslavia at the end of the World War 2. Those killed in Slovenia were mostly soldiers who collaborated with the Nazis. The majority of them were slain in the woods without trial.

They were killed by partisans after British-led Allied troops turned them back from Austria and handed them over. Those, who were killed, wanted to escape the partisans as it was clear towards the end of the war that the Nazi regime and its collaborators were defeated. The graves' existence has been known for decades, yet their number was unknown and it was not a topic spoken about. The mass grave in Maribor was originally an anti-tank trench dug by Germans near the end of World War 2. It is 1 kilometre long and 4 to 6 meters wide. Mitja Ferenc:

"The central part of the anti-tank trench, where the excavation was stopped in 1999 and up to the end of the ridge, all probes have proven that unfortunately the trench is filled with corpses."

According to Ferenc the excavation work is necessary and important to express reverence to the victims. But it is also a very sensitive issue that may easily divide the public in Slovenia and, in part, it already has. Some say it should not be forgotten that many more innocent people, including women and children, were killed by Nazi forces and their collaborators. Hopefully a respectful way of dealing with the past on both sides is still possible and people can move on and concentrate on the present.