Occupied by Italian forces during World War II, on 13 July 1941, Montenegrins rose up and overcame their Italian occupiers.
Organised by Yugoslavia’s Communist Party, it was part of the largest resistance in Europe that continued throughout the war and became known as the Partisans. Montenegrins suffered badly in revenge attacks by Italian reinforcements.
Every Montenegrin family has its wartime story.
My father-in-law’s story starts a few years earlier, during the Spanish Civil War when two of his brothers decided to fight Franco’s fascists in Spain. Fortunately for them, they were arrested trying to board a boat to Spain and sent home.
Later, they took part in riots against the Yugoslav regime, which was to sign the Tripartite Pact concluded with Germany, Italy and Japan, and were again arrested.
When asked by their father what they had done, they told him they had shouted, “Give us bread!”. The owner of a bakery, their father, replied, “You idiots! We have as much bread as you need. Bring the rioters here, and we’ll feed them!”
In fact, the family of six brothers didn’t have long to wait to fight fascism at home. The youngest, my father-in-law, was just 16 when Italian forces occupied Montenegro.
Alija (‘Aljo’) Sarkić was at school when the Italians came to arrest him. He’d been acting as a runner for the Partisans.
Sarkić was taken to a holding camp in Albania, moved several times and ended up in a prisoner-of-war camp somewhere in southern Italy. He was not alone.
15,000 Montenegrin citizens were arrested after the July uprising, which led to hundreds of Italian losses and a spate of revenge killings by 100,000 Italian reinforcements.
One of the daughters of Montenegro’s King Nikola had married into the Italian royal family. Queen Elena of Italy, or “the people’s queen” as she came to be known, tried to ensure that Montenegrin prisoners were treated correctly and visited the wounded in hospitals.
Living conditions in the camp were harsh, with limited rations and a diet that consisted mainly of carrots and the occasional tortoise caught and boiled to make soup.
Whereas British prisoners received Red Cross parcels, the Montenegrins had to survive on their wits. And so Aljo again became a runner, this time trading food and cigarettes.
I imagine him going from barrack to barrack, like the left-behind boy in Steven Spielberg’s WWII film Empire of the Sun.
When Mussolini’s Fascist regime fell in 1943, the camp’s guards melted away, leaving the inmates to find their way home.
Aljo Sarkić walked northwards until he met a British convoy and was taken into their company. They found him a uniform, and he travelled with them until they reached the Adriatic island of Vis, where he joined the Yugoslav Partisans led by General Tito and the British in their attacks on the German-occupied Croatian mainland.
Like many war veterans, aside from place names, Sarkić never really spoke about the battles he fought to liberate Yugoslavia. He preferred to recall the camaraderie shared with his compatriots and their allies.
When the war was finally over, Aljo Sarkić returned home a grown man. His mother had heard no news of her youngest son since his arrest four years before. It must have been a joyous reunion.
There was no such reunion for Sarkić’s older brother Ramadan (‘Ramo’). He had been executed by the Italians along with hundreds of others in the years following the uprising.
The surviving brothers could not bring themselves to tell their mother, and so created a fiction that their brother had been sent to Russia to attend a military academy.
Later they said he had decided to stay there and even penned the occasional letter from him sent from Belgrade. Their mother apparently died not knowing what had happened to her missing son.
A few years after the war, a group of his friends created a folk group in his honour. The Ramadan Sarkić folklore group exists to this day.
The band celebrates cultural heritage through folk music and traditional dances, including the impressive Kolo (Ring), where male dancers climb on each others’ shoulders to create a rotating human tower.
After Aljo Sarkić’s death, we found boxes of wartime photos. The one that struck me most was a blurry black-and-white photo of massacred villagers. It had an inscription on the back: “This is what happens when fascism takes hold.”
We visited the war memorial next to the ravine where Aljo’s brother and a hundred others were killed, near the Albanian border.
Despite the loss of his brother, Aljo never spoke badly of Italians. He had learned Italian, read Italian newspapers, and in 1960 was the first Montenegrin sports journalist to cover the Olympics – in Rome.
Aljo Sarkić learned about humanity from the horrors of war and chose to forgive, though he never forgot.
During the Second World War, 40,500 Montenegrins died. 14,500 Partisans and 167 Montenegrin national heroes lost their lives. 95,000 Montenegrins ended up in prisons or concentration camps, and 26,000 were left disabled.
In the 1940s, that was almost half the population.
By remembering their antifascist heroes’ victory every July, Montenegrins ensure their legacy lives on and the fight against fascism continues.
Photographs courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.