Serbian Holocaust
Slavko Milanović, May 24, 2010, Belgrade

Slavko Milanović biography

Slavko Milanović was born in 1936 in Medjuvodje, near Kozarska Dubica, then Kingdom of Yugoslavia. As a little boy he survived the hell Germans called Operation West –Bosnien. Most of Slavko’s family was lucky enough to survive. He was a child but he remembers the death of his two relatives, the refuge into forests, the German planes bombarding unprotected crowds of Serbian people in Mount Kozara’s forests, the hunger, the fear, the Jasenovac concentration camp, life at Croatian farmers’ family, the escape to Bosnia organized by resistance movement.
As an adult man Slavko Milanović worked with Yugoslav Federal Ministry of interior. He lives in Belgrade as a pensioner, and he is a member of the Club of former employees of this former Yugoslav Ministry that exists in Belgrade even the state which its members served collapsed more than the two decades ago.Slavko did not changed his believes, he is nostalgic for Yugoslavia as a brotherhood and unity country.

Author: Nada Ljubić I Editing: Nada Ljubić, Jelisaveta Časar | Transcript: Mihailo Ljubić  Translation: Nada Ljubić, Jasna Ilić

Voices of Survivors


English rendition of the interview, paraphrased and abridged:

My name is Slavko
Milanović. I was born in 1936 in the village of Međuvođe in Knežpolje, Municipality of Kozarska Dubica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The village lies on the northwest slopes of Mount Kozara.

I come from a poor peasant family. I had a younger sister who was about a year and a half younger. At the time of the capitulation of Yugoslavia my father was in the army. Afterwards he returned home from Boka Kotorska, Montenegro

A few things from my war-torn childhood I remember very well. Some things I can’t recall clearly, while others I don’t remember at all. I remember one day I saw a group of people not wearing military uniforms, but they were carrying anything from hay forks to hunting rifles. They were walking across the hill in the direction of Dubica to a village called Agejci, and a hill called Kruškovac. They were waiting in ambush for the Germans and Ustashas on the Dubica – Prijedor road.

I asked my mother, “Why is this last man carrying a scythe, what will he do with it?” My mother said that they were going into battle, but as he had no rifle, he had to use what he had. This is the one detail from the start of the war in 1942 that has really been imprinted in my memory.

In any case, the Germans managed to advance from Dubica to Prijedor a few times. I remember one day in early February. The winter was sharp with a lot of snow. A unit of People’s Liberation Army was still located in Mount Kozara at the time, just outside our village. The Germans had come into the village and fought against the Partisans.

We had a small house. This happened before the village was set on fire. My father’s uncle had a house that was a bit larger and in the same yard. They put my mother, my sister, and me into my uncle’s house while they used ours to plan military strategies for Kozara invasion. They opened a window, placed the machineguns on it, and were firing at the Partisans all day long. When the battle died down, my mother took her two small children and we returned to our home. I saw one German soldier leaning his rifle against the fence of a place where the cattle food was held, and he was shooting. He fired a single shot to the southwest, but we did not know whom or what
he was targeting. The next morning we learned that he had wounded my uncle’s father.

When the battle started he made his way up Mount Kozara, and when it died down he ran back to his home. While he was running he found himself
in open space, which consisted of a swamp, a spring called Nečajnica, and the valley. When he reached the valley, a German soldier spotted him, but only hit him in the leg, as the valley was over 900 m away from where the soldier was standing.

Even the very first day of the war in our village is remembered by lawless murders and bloodshed. Men older than 14 or 15 had to run away. It was known that the Germans were advancing so the men ran away into the nearby forest and later to Mount Kozara. But one of my father’s uncles, he was not too old at the time, perhaps a little over 50, together with one of my other uncles decided not to go. They both waited in their homes.

When the Germans came they were taken hostage and ordered not to leave. When the battle was finished the Germans made their way back down the Dubica-Prijedor road, where the gendarmerie station in the village of Knežica was located. My relatives were tricked and ordered to go with them. One was instructed to take his own two oxen with him, while the other was told to take his horse. We did not know where they were supposed to be taken. It was early in the evening when they left, but the next day we learned that they were killed. It was interesting that the oxen returned at night. The news came from Knežica that some men were killed in the village and that people had to come identify their relatives. My father’s uncle was terribly mutilated. His hands and ears were cut off, his eyes gouged out, his nose…everything.

Did you go to see him?

No, I did not.   

So, your mother told you about it?

Yes, my mother told me this, I was a child. She told me later. I remember very well the shooting of that day. I remembered that winter day, when the snow was high, it was very cold, but the sun was shining and the sky was clear.

Did your mother say who killed him?  

No. His wife and his daughter lived long after the war, he was my father’s uncle, but it is still unknown who killed him. There was only the assumption that the Ustashas did it, and not those wearing uniforms, but their auxiliaries.

Paramilitary groups?

Whether they were Ustashas or Muslims we didn’t know. But we all remember this first massacre in early February 1942.  

Massacre in Knežica?

Yes, this was the place where they were killed and found next day. It was on the 16
th kilometer of the Dubica-Prijedor road. It was 8 kilometers away from our houses. I remember that day for the military intervention that preceded the Mount Kozara invasion. Then, there were rumors about what was to be done, what will happen next, about the invasion. I knew nothing about it. After the war, I read books, especially those written by Dragoje Lukić, and it all started to make more sense. But what I do remember is the time when the preparations for the retreat were being completed, those 2 or 3 days before we ran away into the Kozara forests.  

Night after night, the men with oxen and horse carts were carrying their stuff and running away into the forest. I asked my mother why people were doing this, and she said we should run away from the Ustashas and the Germans and seek refuge in the forests. It was all organized, and the residents of each village knew when, how, and where they would take refuge. We were among the last people who went into the forests as we were very close to them anyway. As a child, I looked forward to this departure because I did not know what it really meant.

My grandpa on my mother’s side came and told his younger and unmarried daughter at the time named Persa to go with my mother for there were two of us children, and we needed to be looked after, to be carried. We put some things into a sac, took the cow for milk and flour for bread making into the forest to a sheppard’s hut. It wasn’t even a hut made of logs but a temporary place made of fir branches, just so there is some protection from the rain, but it was leaking anyway. When we arrived there, I remember it was already decided where the people from each village would be placed. Partisans gave us some food every once in a while when they had some left over. We had milk everyday because we brought our cow, but it was very hard to get the flour. We had it in the village but we could not go there. So we drank the milk, ate
ljutikovina, or wild onion leaves that we found in the forests, beech, and hornbeam leaves. I used to lick honeydew after the rain. This is what I remember from those days.

The enemy lines were broken on July 3 and 4, 1942, as I later learned in school. I remember nothing of the first breakthrough except the shootings, which had been there for the past year or so anyway. The second breakthrough, or its unsuccessful attempt on July 4 and 5, I remember by a terrible bombing from the German planes called Junkers (German:
Sturzkampfflugzeug). As morning dawned, the Partisans were no longer resisting the attacks, most of them having been killed already. A few somehow managed to escape, while a small number of the soldiers withdrew into the forest and later tried to save themselves by separating into smaller groups. The Ustasha and the Home Guard troops captured us. The Germans bombed the refuge camps. I remember the moment when a bomb fell down near me. There was also a big beech tree that toppled, with its gigantic roots and plenty of dirt. We ran to find shelter behind it. One man was wounded. He was standing beside me, and I saw the blood pouring from his arm like from a slaughtered rooster’s neck. I attempted to approach him, but at that moment we saw the planes coming and my mother pulled me and hid me under the tree roots.

After the Ustashas rounded us up, they took us to a clearing in the forest. They immediately installed a barbed wire so we could not get away. The same afternoon they lined us up and we were headed for Jasenovac. When we arrived at the camp, they cramped us all together like in a beehive. Early in the morning, the Ustashas separated the small children from their mothers. My mother and a few other women that were near, her sisters-in-law actually, hid us under rags. I called them rags because they were not real blankets or quilts, but just pieces of cloth on which we slept and which we used to cover ourselves. So, my mother covered my sister and me every morning and we knew we must remain quiet. We were able to be soundless and calm until the Ustashas would pass. We did so day after day, and managed to stay together with our mother. We were not the only ones. Several other mothers figured out the ways to hide their children.

As far as the food went, I remember that they cooked beans only once, just in water, and only those who had their own dishes would get the meal. Other types of food were rare. Luckily, my aunt was a girl prepared for marriage, and she could handcraft all sorts of things. I remember that she had a beautifully embroidered bed cover that was very expensive. The Ustashas allowed Croatian women to approach the barbed wire and show slices of wheat or corn bread and then wait to see which of our women would offer better bed covers or some other craftworks. My aunt swapped her embroidered bed cover for a half of not so big loaf of bread. My mother gave a little to my sister and me and saved the rest for tomorrow and the day after. I also remember another situation. She saved a little bit of flour in her bag, but she did not have the means to cook or bake anything. She used to put a small amount of flour on my palm, and if she could, she would add a little salt to it. I used to lick it and drink a lot of water afterwards. This helped me survive both those days, and those years.

Later, the camp command announced that the Croatian families whose male members were in the army, either with the Ustashas or Home Guard, needed a labor force, so the Ustashas selected a group of people that would go toward Novska. Then they opened the gate and told us to which villages we were assigned to go.

My family came to the village of Banova Jaruga to the home of the people whose two sons were serving in the Home Guard. My mother and aunt were able to work, so they held farming jobs. They went to work early in the morning only on a slice of bread and bacon. They would stay in the field all day and return home in the evening. Usually, I did not see my mother for several days in a row as I was still sleeping when she was leaving for work and was in bed long before she came home. We traveled at night and hid in the forests during the day so that no one would find us.

I remember one day in late October or early November, the local National Liberation Board put it all together. A notice came out that my mother and aunt were not going to work there any longer, so they transferred us on boats across the Sava River upstream from Sisak and Psunja, where we crossed the river and continued on foot. We were able to cross the Una River, as it was much smaller than the Sava, somewhere between Kostajnica and Novi Grad. We took the longer road to avoid Dubica because of a strong Ustasha garrison that was located there. Lastly, we made it to the village from which I was. It was burned to the ground. Only a few small houses were left. My house was set on fire but was not burned down. It was made of wood and mud mortar, and covered with wooden tiles. There were traces of fire on the furniture and in the attic, and there were no windows or doors. During the summer invasion the Germans and the Ustashas used them for their dugouts and trenches.

We found them all and brought them back from the trenches they left behind. We did not find any of our cattle. Only our female dog was home. She was loyal and stayed at the house all alone. We were not there during the winter of 1942/43, so everything had overgrown with weeds, and we could not find a single cow, pig, hen, or anything. There was no wheat. There were no other houses. Two families could be found living together, women with children usually. The men were either killed in concentration camps or were being held as prisoners of war. Some were also active Partisans. There were only women and children in the village. We slept in a small house, in the basement of it actually, because it was like a hideout. We fed ourselves in a way similar to the prehistoric era. We wanted to collect wild fruit but because we came back in late fall there were none around. We only had late kinds of apples and pears in our orchards. We only found some scarce corn stalks hidden in thorns of blackberry bushes. We survived thanks to the help from the local People’s Liberation Board, which provided us with corn flour from time to time. There was no fat or cooking oil in our first year there. So we made the oil from pumpkin seeds in a very primitive way just to make our meals a bit richer. We lived like this for almost four years of the war. The situation was a little more bearable towards late 1944 and early 1945 when the liberation was approaching and we had started to cultivate the land again. But we still had no cattle. The whole place was robbed and destroyed. All the animals were taken away. I remember that my mother saved up a few hundred kilos of corn in the spring of 1945, and sold it so she was able to buy a small cow from the people living in the area that had not suffered so much destruction. Such areas we
re near Sanski Most and Mrkonjić Grad. Our own cow gave us milk only in the spring of 1945. After the liberation of our country and the capitulation of Germany, we were on a path to ‘new victories’.

When I was nine years old I started school, which was in the fall of 1945. Unfortunately, there was no proper school in my village due to the war, so in late 1944 courses for older children were put together and held in people’s houses. We were often forced to run and hide because there were still some enemy military actions around. For example, there were still Circassian incursions. We always had to have dugouts to hide. Every family knew where their dugouts were, but were not aware of the whereabouts of those that belonged to other people, even close relatives. This was the rule. My family had one of its dugouts in the forest. My mother, aunt, and her stepmother, who used to be with the Partisans, made it. It was made near the forest path and concealed with ferns. Knowing that the Circassians were coming, we ran away and hid inside it. We were able to see them while they were passing our dugout, riding their horses towards Mount Kozara.

I forgot to tell you that while we were being escorted from Kozara to Jasenovac by the Ustashas, they were very cruel to us. It was July, the midst of the summer heat. Thirst tortured us. We were not allowed to stop on the way to grab some water or food. What I remember very well was this one time when we were walking down this path aligned by bushes. Through the shadow of the bushes we were able to see cattle huff prints and water that was left in them after the rain. There was a woman, a relative. She brought over a baby, six months old, and two older children, a girl and a boy of about my age. She stepped out of the group that was headed for Jasenovac with a mug in her hand, and tried to take the water from one of those puddles that remained in cattle huff print. An Ustasha struck her on the head with a gunstock and she died on the spot. The group continued on as if nothing had happened. Her daughter took the baby from her mother's hands and we went on. Later in Jasenovac they took the baby away. Its family never saw it again. I wonder whether the baby survived the transport in cattle wagons to Sisak, where the concentration camp for children was located.

Do you remember someone being tortured or killed in Jasenovac in front of your eyes?

I only remember one instance when an Ustasha swung his knife to kill a prisoner, but my mother quickly covered my eyes with her hand so I could not see it. That’s what I remember.

When the country was liberated and the reconstruction started, when you started to go to school again, were there any quests for justice, any attempts to find the killers, looters…?       

I don’t remember anything like that because I was tired from all the suffering and distress of the past four years. No one even wanted to talk about the past. I did not even ask my mother for the names of people we stayed with after the concentration camp. It was like a sun reappearing after the storm. War years had fallen into oblivion, and a happy life began. We still lived without shoes or bred, but we were happy.

I’d like to add that during the war there were a lot of bombings. The allies bombed us, too. At that time it was very difficult to obtain the salt. Our mothers would travel for two or three days searching for it. They did not dare go to Dubica that was 15 km away from our village because that’s where an Ustasha garrison was located. So they went to Prijedor instead that was 20 or more kilometers away. They traveled across Mount Kozara to avoid Dubica and to approach Prijedor t
hrough the village called Palančište. They tried to enter the town unnoticed and buy a few kilos of salt. Such travelling usually took three days and we stayed home alone. On one such day some planes appeared. We did not know what to do. We hid inside the home, but separated into groups of two or three in a corner so, as we thought then, our blood could be mixed if the bombs killed us. I remember this as if it were yesterday. We wanted our blood to be combined if we died. How could a child have such ideas? Can you imagine? We were not that afraid of the planes or bombs. We really only feared a knife because we heard the older people talking that a death by knife was the most horrible. To be killed in an ordinary way, by a bullet, was considered a blessing.

Does that mean that hunger was your worst experience, hunger and fear?

Yes. It was hunger, hunger, and hunger. There was a famine because Prijedor and Dubica were occupied by the enemy troops, and so were the villages to which we were running away.

Did anyone die of hunger?

Yes, my younger sister died of hunger. She was a year and a half younger than me. She died the same day we left the concentration camp. She died in my mother’s hands. I don’t remember whether she was buried or how.

Does that mean you were hungry while you were staying with a family that your mother worked for?

No, no. My sister died the same day we left the concentration camp. She suffered in the camp. I remember she was so skinny that all her bones were visible through the skin. How did I survive? This one time, when I was almost on my last legs, German soldiers suddenly showed up. We were on our way from the camp to the village where we stayed later. One German soldier noticed that I was exhausted and gave me 2 or 3 pills. I think I remember them being brown, like coffee.

There is a very interesting moment in your story that once they regained their freedom, people started forgetting, they did not want to remember.

We were broken, and reached a critical point. It was like nothing that ever happened before. People lived through so much harm that they needed to forget, and as a result just effortlessly came to oblivion.

Do you think that it was necessary for you to forget if you wanted go on with your life?

Well, we had started to live a new life, a completely new life. Our liberty was something most valuable. When we were starving, we only talked about being liberated, and wondered when it would happen. Once it happened, we greeted our new lives with a song on our lips. Believe it or not, even in 1944, as a member of a Pioneer organization, I picked berries and cherries for the wounded Partisans. We sensed that our liberation was close. Tension decreased and the pressure of fear weakened. In 1945, it became clear that the war would end and that Germany would capitulate. I did not know it for sure, but I was able to sense it through the emotions of other people close to me, such as my mother, aunt, and so on. My whole region was strongly committed to the People’s Liberation Struggle. My mother was originally a member of a local board, and her first cousin was the president. Later on, she became the president of a local Women’s Antifascist Front.