Seventy years ago, my grandfather on my mother’s side, Stipe Čuvalo nicknamed Veža, left the family village seeking safety in advance of the arrival of Yugoslav partisan and communist forces in the village. He was never to be seen by his family again. Witnesses tell us that he was executed in mid-1945 along with thousands of others after the war. His body was never recovered, and the communist authorities never acknowledged that he was executed. Stipe Čuvalo was 38 years old when he was murdered.
My grandfather left behind my grandmother and four children under the age of nine, including my mother Iva, who was two years old at the time and the only girl in the family. This fact forever left her with the nickname among her fellow villagers as “Cura”, i.e. “Girl,” because she was alone with four brothers. A fifth child, my uncle, history professor Ante Čuvalo, was a month away from being born at the time their father disappeared.
The victims of these communist and partisan crimes had their voices silenced. The memories of those witnesses who did live, and who can tell us what happened to these victims, are also fading away as their generation now grows into their late 80’s and beyond. For this reason, my uncle professor Čuvalo decided to interview the remaining survivors and to publish their memories about the plight of the victims of these crimes, so that their memories of these terrible events can be preserved forever. The book is titled, “Od Bleiburga do Ljubuškog – svjedočenja preživjelih” (From Bleiburg to Ljubuski: The Testimony of the Survivors). You can order a copy of the book in Croatian by emailing the publisher at [LUKA'S NEW NOTE: THE BOOK HAS NOW SOLD OUT].
The book tells the individual stories of 83 victims, including the story of my grandfather, as told from the perspective of my uncle Ante. I have taken the liberty of having that portion translated into English so that you can read it. See below.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon them.
STIPE ČUVALO – VEŽA
It’s the end of October, 1944. As the autumn evening’s sun is slowly beginning to set, a fire is crackling in the hundred-year-old fireplace in the family house. Sitting around the fireplace are Grandfather Nikola (born in 1872), Grandma Mara-Biluša (1875), Aunt Iva-Majuša, called Nina (1903) (whose husband Stojan went to Argentina in 1926 and stayed there, and her son Franjo (1925) was on one of the battlefields in Northern Croatia at the time and had most likely ended up in the pits of Kočevski Rog), Aunt Iva (1910) whose beloved went to war and she remained unwed, Anđa-Grbavuša (1914) and her four children: the eldest Vlatko (1935), Kamilo (1937), Mladen (1939) and Iva (1942) [nota bene from Luka Misetic: this is my mother, Iva], and the fifth was “on the way”. This was me, born a month later. Our father Stipe (1906), called Veža, went toward the town of Široki Brijeg with a couple of more men from the village the day before – to hide until “this evil passes” [translator’s remark: reference to the “evil passing” is to the arrival of communist/partisan forces in the area].
The gathered children of the house said their evening prayer: the Angelus; prayer recommendations; “the acts” /tr. remark: four acts - act of faith, act of hope, act of love and act of charity/; the Soul of Christ…, and remained seated without speaking. There was no supper. There was nothing to put on the table. There was only a little piece of corn bread covered with a cloth on the wooden peel covering the old and empty wooden dough bowl and this was kept only for the children. The house, the family house and the one some hundred feet away are empty, as is the pojata /tr. remark: small ancillary facility for storing straw, wood logs and such/, and the pigsty. Everything is empty. The clothing set aside for Aunt Iva’s dowry and all of the clothing from the “srg” /tr. remark: wooden pole attached to the roof timbers for drying clothes/ had been taken.
Grandma Biluša’s, Nina’s and Anđa’s chests which they had brought with them to the Čuvalo’s village when they were wed were also emptied. And one old chest, perhaps from Great-grandmother Lozuša, which was standing on the “sopa” /tr. remark: deposited soil/ behind the fireplace, was recently filled with dry walnuts. But they were also gone, taken. The old and well-known “Biluša’s walnut tree” is the largest tree in the village and it has a good yield every year. Its fruits are somewhat small but always healthy and tasteful. It was probably planted by Great-grandfather Mate, called Big. Its branches covered the central crossroads in the Čuvalo’s mahala /tr. remark: “mahala” is a word for neighborhood or section of a settlement, hamlet/. The young would meet beneath it every night; they would socialize there, sing, tell jokes and learn to “court”. The elders would meet beneath it to “deliberate” on matters when needed. There would sometimes be as much as 100 kilos of dry walnuts on the walnut tree. The yield was high this year as well, but there aren’t any walnuts left anymore – they were taken by the “people’s army and government” [tr. remark: reference is to communist/partisan forces].
That day, in the morning hours, the “liberators” [tr. remark: word was used by communist/partisan forces to refer to themselves] visited the “Bilušinas,” that is what they called our family, and “liberated” the house of everything, absolutely everything. They took the horse, the cow, the donkey, two or three goats, some twenty sheep, and Vlatko cried only for his favorite, for his Gala, the black sheep. It was difficult for him to part from it. The comrades didn’t want to bother with the fattened pig so they ordered that one of the members of the household take it to Medić’s house in Donji Radišići that morning. The pig, which had never left the pigsty and its small backyard in front of it, doesn’t obey when it’s “on the loose”. Whether you’re nice or strict, nothing works. Mother Anđa (Grbavuša) would often tell tales of how much trouble she had getting the pig over to them. Luckily, our good neighbor Luka, called Luksan, helped her take the willful pig and hand it over to the “people’s authorities” so that she could contribute to her “liberation” in this manner as well! Back then, you had to go from Čuvalo’s fields in the valley across Spajić’s houses in Radišići and then down Draga to the main road, which is about a kilometer long. Mother had to do all this even though she was eight months pregnant.
But that wasn’t the end of it. When the “liberators” took everything away, they promised to return that night and set the house and lot on fire. One should believe them; it was plain to see that they were trained in terrorizing innocent folk. Everyone in the house has been thinking about this deadly promise all day. The sun is setting, all of the children are in the house around the fireplace, the grown-ups are silent, and they don’t know what’s ahead. And the children can see and feel that serious things are happening. The silence was disturbed by voices from the west side; they heard the murmur and clattering of the army from Zovak’s houses, and then the partisan songs. Singing, they’re moving closer and closer. Everyone in the house is listening to where they will turn. If they keep moving above our garden toward Radišići, they can rest easy, but if they turn right under our walnut tree, it’s clear; they’re coming to set the house on fire! That’s what they promised this morning and they will probably keep their promise. In a few moments, it seemed as if nobody was breathing, everyone was expecting where the “people’s army” was going to go. They turned right! Here they come!
Grandpa Nikola coughed and said to my mother: “Daughter-in-law, take the kids and leave the house; hide somewhere. And the rest of you also go to the neighborhood. I was born in this house and I will die in it.” Nikola never spoke much, but everyone knew that he was always a man of his word. Grandma Mara-Biluša, given she was always resolute and brave, raised her voice and ‘ordered’: “Daughter-in-law, you stay here, you and the kids! If we are to burn, we will all burn together!” She said it and immediately lay on the right side of the fireplace, where she usually had her cot. She lay down and started to shake; shake as if she had the worst fever. She said: “Daughter-in-law, cover me, I’m cold!” She was shaking with fear not for herself but because of the responsibility she had assumed upon herself. She ordered everyone not to leave the house, be what may. Everyone is silently crying, only Grandpa Nikola was staring at the fire that was breaking the darkness in the house. Darkness of the night and fear… And the fire seemed to be encouraging the children that were scared to death; it’s easier when at least the fire’s crackling, giving warmth and glimmering.
Everything was happening very quickly because there is only a two-minute walk from the walnut tree to our house. They’re trudging along, they’re coming, and here they are in front of the old oak wood door covered in soot. Then someone spoke: “Biluša, Biluša!” They’re not calling grandfather but Grandma Biluša. The man behind the door said: “It’s Nikola Tica, open the door; don’t be afraid, we didn’t come to burn the house!” Grbavuša, my mother, was the youngest of the women and she opened the door.
Nikola, our fellow-villager, entered together with an officer. They said again that they didn’t come to burn the house down; instead they asked if the soldiers who are with them could spend the night in the barn and other rooms. They’re polite; they even ask if they can spend the night! They spent the night and moved on the next day! And the house and the barn were left empty. Not only that, after they robbed everything they ordered the neighbors that no one is to give any food or provide any help to the Bilušinas. Most of them didn’t have anything to give as it was, and the others followed the instructions.
God does care after all
When the partisans left in the morning, everybody in the house breathed a little easier – at least they didn’t burn down our house. The roof over our heads is still here. Rain started falling in the afternoon; you could say it was pouring. While the members of the household were sitting in the family house around the fireplace, an unknown man knocked on the door and entered. “Praised be Jesus.” “Now and Forever” He’s all wet. He said: “Forgive me; here I am storming into your house to get out of the rain. I am Franjo Radišić from Grljevići and I am on my way home from Ljubuški.’’ Grandma told him to sit down, to get warm and dry. “I would offer you something to eat and drink, but, brother; there is nothing in the house. The partisans took everything yesterday and they ordered everyone not to give us anything. They have condemned us to die of hunger.” The man looked around and saw that there really wasn’t anything in the house. When he heard what had happened, he said that he has enough food and that he will bring a sack of flour and some other things tonight through the woods belonging to the villagers of Grljevići and that someone from the house should sneak out and get it. As one might guess, Grbavuša (my mother) went and Nina Majuša with her. They put a rope across their shoulders and in the evening hours headed across the hill to the arranged spot, a little further from Šošić’s houses. Franjo was already there. They took over the food and secretly brought it home. This “secret route” was open during these worst of times. But more than food, Franjo’s family and ours have become true friends and, naturally, family members were each other’s godparents many times. Everything had passed, but the friendship and the love remained.
Veža in retreat
My father Stipe – Veža left at the end of October and stayed in the town of Široki Brijeg for a time. Some surviving soldiers and civilians had seen him there. Mijo Penavić, who came to Canada after the war, told me that he was with Veža at the beginning of 1945 and that he had spent time with him in Široki. They had known each other since before the war. Recently Ivan Marić from Radišići had also told me that he used to see him in Široki Brijeg. When and how he had moved on is unknown. People his age would also sometimes be “recruited” to provide assistance to the less able refugees in retreat. It wasn’t until a conversation with Ante Zlopaša – Skokušina from the village of Proboj in 2013 that I heard that my father had gone all the way to Bleiburg in Austria. Namely, Ante said to me: “My friend, I saw your dad in Maribor (Slovenia) when we were on our way back from Bleiburg. When we were separated, he was with the elderly, and we young people were on the other side. I couldn’t miss him, he was almost 6 ft 5 and already completely grey. He had a pouch of some kind on his shoulder.”
We never learned what had happened to him from Maribor to Mostar. As most prisoners, he must have passed through various camps. But, we do know that he ended up in the infamous Ćelovina prison (in Mostar) of which we heard firsthand accounts.
Brothers Branko (born in 1912) and Ivan (born in 1914) Boras from Gornji Proboj were also in Ćelovina together with my father Stipe, among others. Their father was Mate, but everyone had called them Vida’s /Vidini/ after their mother Vida. Together with them in their retreat was a third brother, Ante. He was a salesman and somewhat fat and so his brothers told him to get a ride with a truck and they would go on foot, which he did. Afterwards Ante ended up in a camp in Austria and afterwards left to Canada where he died. Branko and Ivan made it to Bleiburg in Austria, then returned on the Way of the Cross and were brought to Ćelovina.
Before the war, Branko lived in Mostar where he got married in 1941. He lived as a tenant in a house owned by Branko Mijan, called Bane, in Matije Gupca Street, not far from Malta. Bane was also on the Way of the Cross and he also ended up in Ćelovina. My father, who was with them there, had also known Bane from before the war. Namely, my father Veža was one of the more active members of the Croatian Peasant Party and he went to Mostar on several occasions. He was friends with Bariša Smoljan, his secretary Stanko Tomić, Minister Lavrić and others. Each time he would come to Mostar he would stay with a fellow villager, friend and colleague from the party, Branko Boras. That’s where he met and became friends with Bane Mijan as well. Now they found themselves together in this infamous camp.
Branko’s wife Zora would come to visit her husband, Branko Boras. Her son Mate remembers well how his mother would tell him about these visits and the horrendous circumstances the prisoners had been in. Aside from Branko, she would see her brother-in-law Ivan and she would bring him food as well. The last time she saw Ivan was on 27 June 1945. She arrived the next day and brought some food but Ivan wasn’t there. She asked: “Where is Ivan?” The guards responded: “He isn’t here.” “What do you mean he isn’t here when I was here yesterday and gave him some food?” Her husband signaled her with his eyes: “Don’t ask!” She later found out from her husband that his brother Ivan was taken outside in the night of June 27 and killed. But, he wasn’t alone; a larger number of prisoners were slaughtered that night. The Serbs were “celebrating” their St. Vitus Day (28 June) and the Neretva River was flowing red with blood that morning! Branko lived, but after Ćelovina he was convicted to four years of imprisonment in the high-security prison and the loss of all of his civil rights for three years. He did all four years.
It’s fairly easy to guess who was making the decisions in our village of Proboj as to which of the imprisoned villagers in Mostar would be killed and which would be left alive. Mijo Čuvalo, better known for his bad reputation as Žic (“Wire”), was the one who had the final say in the village. Of course, he had helpers.
Žic was the first “great Croat” in the village and a supporter of the Croatian Peasant Party. It was April, 1941, he was the first “Ustasha” and he started gathering young people for the Ustasha army. He also later became the first partisan in the village, and they needed his kind! He and his wife Aleruša were the rulers of the village during those worst of times. Everyone knew that he was a dishonorable man and in the end the partisans later hid him in (the far away town of) Zenica. He would sometimes come to our native village and even ask my mother how she and the children were. One time he told her: “If your husband Veža had been a little bit wiser, he could have stayed alive,” to which she responded: “Listen, Žic, I prefer that he died with honorable men than that he had lived with dishonorable men!” He stood silent and left without a word.
My father Veža found out through Zora Brankinica that his fourth son was born after leaving Proboj. Since he was friends with Bane Mijan, they agreed that he was going to be my godfather at my Confirmation since he couldn’t be my godfather when I was baptized. And that’s how it was, and Bane later told us the following about my father and himself.
The executioners /dželati, from the Turkish word cellat/ of Ćelovina prison would come every night and separate, based on what criteria he didn’t know, a group of around 20-30 men. They would not come back! My father Stipe was also taken in one of those groups. Several days later, Bane was also taken. It was just before midnight and they were brought to the east side of the river. The men knew what was ahead, but they were all quiet. No one lamented or asked for mercy. They ordered them to stand in a line after which fire from machine guns followed. After some time, Bane woke up and saw the dead bodies of his fellow sufferers around him. He was surprised to be alive. He was wounded in the head but not seriously. There wasn’t a soul in sight. By the looks of it, they came early the next morning to throw the dead bodies in the Neretva River or in one of the pits. Luckily, Bane woke up before the “second shift” had arrived and after swimming across the Neretva managed to come home. His wife cleaned up his wound after which he went into hiding, mostly in a tomb at the cemetery not far from his house. After some six months he came out of hiding and he was no longer of interest to the authorities. They let him be. Bane was a carpenter and a civilian, and through no fault of his own, he was taken to be shot and miraculously stayed alive.
While coming to visit his family in Proboj, Branko Boras would stop by our house as well saying that Bane Mijan was sending his regards and that my mother Grbavuša should let him know when my Confirmation was going to be because he had promised my father Veža that he was going to be my godfather. And so, the preparations were underway for Confirmation in the church in Vitina in 1950. I was prepared for my Confirmation together with my brother Mladen and sister Iva even though I was a little too young. I learned all of the kolince /tr. remark: catechism, the ‘kolince’ usually consisted of the Angelus prayer, Ten Commandments, Five things before confession, Three things before Confirmation, Five Commandments of the Church, Seven Sacraments etc/ and responses from catechism and I passed the test before the pastor, Fr. Sebastian Lesko.
Mother sent word to Bane through the Borases when Confirmation was going to take place. But, since she didn’t know Bane, she wasn’t sure whether this unknown man from the city was going to come, and so she prepared a “back-up” godfather, just in case. But Bane did not fail. A man’s word is his word! Friendship is permanent.
I remember. It’s the night before Confirmation. It’s already dark. Someone is knocking on the door. It was Bane. He arrived by the bus that was passing through the village in the evening from Mostar and was heading toward Imotski. Someone had given him directions to our house and there he was, the man who was the last to see my father alive. As soon as he came in, he asked who Vežinica (i.e. the wife of Veža) was. He hugged and kissed her and then, with tears in his eyes, asked for me. I don’t even know what is going on and there he is hugging me and crying. Naturally, everyone else in the house is crying. It seemed to me that this lasted for some time. My godfather was of shorter build but a man with a big and soft heart.
The next day it was Sunday, 19 November 1950. Godfather Bane brought me a white sailor suit for my Confirmation. He told my mother that he couldn’t buy it, times were hard, and that he had borrowed it instead. In any case, I was dressed above all expectations. You have to remember that these were the early fifties! Everyone was very poor. Bishop Petar Čule was in prison, and Don Andrija Majić performed the sacrament of Confirmation in his place. After the anointment with the sacred chrism, the foreheads of the other children were wrapped with an embroidered confirmation scarf, and godfather Bane put the Croatian tricolor as wide as the palm of the hand around my forehead. After the Mass he took it off and placed it across my shoulder on the white suit. I knew that I looked differently, and the elderly gazed at the Croatian tricolor with anguish and longing. It was a very brave thing to do in those days, but I suppose that someone who has already stared death in the face once wasn’t afraid of anything. I would visit godfather Bane after that and he and my godmother would always talk about Veža and emphasize that I should never forget where I come from and everything that had happened during those times after the war. I have written down these memories here in memory of them and all those innocent people who were killed or who suffered.
A postcard from her murdered husband
At the beginning of the fifties my mother was a seasonal worker, weighing tobacco at the Tobacco station in Ljubuški. She would also work picking corn in Vojvodina (600km away) as well as picking olives in Konavle (150km away). The children needed to be fed!
One day she received a postcard that had arrived addressed to her at the Tobacco station. Mother was a little surprised: who would be writing to her, and not at her home address in Proboj, but at her place of employment at the company instead. Since she was illiterate, she asked Ante Grbavac to read to her what was written and who had written to her. To her surprise, the postcard was supposedly written by her husband Stipe, Veža. He asked how she was, how the children were… He said that he was well and that he was working on bulrush fields but that he is going to the crop fields in Vojvodina with the other prisoners now. Bulrush and crop fields! The local OZNAs /tr. remark: reference is to communist secret police, i.e. “Oznaši” - members of OZNA – Odjeljenje za zaštitu naroda – Department of National Security/ thought they might torture a woman in such a dishonest and mean way.
When my brother Vlatko was imprisoned for two months in 1980, mostly in solitary, in Mostar, he was questioned by young udbašići /tr. remark: reference is to another branch of communist secret services, i.e. members of UDBA – Uprava državne bezbednosti – State Security Service, used derogatively/ and asked about my father. My brother told them: “You know what became of him. The last time we heard from him was a postcard he sent at the beginning of the fifties.” And they stood in wonder, what postcard? They knew that he was killed in Mostar in 1945.
Just as his wife Anđa [Grbavuša] waited for him to return her whole life, his offspring is also waiting for him so that they can bury his earthly remains and light a candle on his grave.
That is how it was and how it passed, and our elders used to say: “Whatever someone does, he does to himself as well!” That is how it was and how it always will be.
Ante Čuvalo Vežin
 “Way of the Cross” in Croatia refers to the 700-800 km long prisoner death marches in which prisoners captured by communist/partisan forces were forced to march. Many were executed on the march; others died from illness or exhaustion.