Contests of heritage and the politics of preservation in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, K. S. Brown

The unmaking of community: the destruction of Trstenik

Trstenik, a village lower in the hills than Krushevo, was also established by Vlach refugees from Moschopolis in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. According to local accounts it had ninety three houses at its largest. The livelihood of its inhabitants came from their work abroad, either as tinsmiths or masons or in other trades. In keeping with practices that were common among the Christian population of the area throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, men travelled abroad to work while their families stayed at home. [7] Over an extended period, though, Trstenik was abandoned, as family after family left for Krushevo. This gradual erosion of the village, again according to local versions, was caused by the proximity of the village to two others, Vrboec and Aldanci, whose inhabitants terrorised the residents of Trstenik, and made their lives intolerable. This took place during the Ottoman period, when various sources report that Christians had little recourse to the law if their complaint was against a Moslem. Krushevo, as a Christian town which enjoyed a privileged position, including the protection of an Ottoman garrison, offered greater security to the householders of the village. [8]

Following Ottoman rule, Trstenik was still inhabited. It remained so until World War II when there were still three houses there. By the end of the war, only one house was inhabited. The story of its destruction is that its owner was a supporter of the partisans and that someone indicated this by writing a partisan slogan on the wall. When Bulgarian forces, who occupied the area between 1941 and 1944, passed by the village they set fire to the last house. Similar marks of resistance are recorded in an account of World War II by Ristevski (1983), who records his workers' group painting slogans at the various springs of the town. Within the town of Krushevo the Bulgarian response was to wash them off because they aimed to convert rather than oppress the population. In Trstenik, elsewhere reported as a partisan stronghold, conditions were different and historical destruction was a result.

As a social unit, the village of Trstenik was depopulated by a system which made it impossible for the Christian villagers to hold their ground. The final house was destroyed because it was used to make an explicit statement of resistance to the Bulgarians. In this narrative of the physical destruction of Trstenik, two different processes are clearly marked: the last house was burned in response to a wilful provocation, but it was the last house only because longer term processes had already been at work, in which a regime created conditions under which one group was forced to relocate to escape oppression. Who or what, then, destroyed Trstenik? Two processes, set in motion by different kinds of human interaction, combined with the effects of time and natural decay to efface the village as a practised space.

Now in the 1990s, the old man who provided this narrative is seeking to reclaim something of his family's local heritage. There is no question of his returning to live in the village his initiative, and that of the collective to which he belongs, is to reclaim the symbolic space. He is heading a local initiative to rebuild the village church. One of the threads of his narrative is the difficulties that they face in acquiring money for their project; it is not state-funded, but relies on local labour and contributions. Their goal is to reclaim a ruined site, and turn it back into a site of collective activity. Although a national church is involved, this activity lies outside the purview of the state it is local activism, which responds to a loss in the past.

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7. The term used to decsribe such migratory labour in modern Macedonian is pechalba.

8. It should be noted that this narrative of local emigration to higher ground from a village with Moslem neighbours is repeated elsewhere in the region of Macedonia. In the summer of 1997, I encountered a cognate version in the village of Akritas, formerly known as Buf, in Northern Greece.