Foiba di Basovizza

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A relatively recently established memorial site on the edge of Trieste, Italy, at one of the “foibe” (sinkholes) used for disposing of bodies of those killed in the massacres supposedly perpetrated by Yugoslav partisans at the end of WWII.    
More background info: 'Foiba' (plural 'foibe') is originally a technical term from geology, denoting sinkholes in karst rock created through water erosion. There are loads of those in the Trieste hinterland and all over Istria (today mainly in Croatia) and the neighbouring territory of Slovenia.
Obviously such natural deep holes in the ground came in handy when you had to dump stuff. This already happened in WW1 (when leftover materials, spare ammunition, etc. were disposed of in 'foibe').
But in the recent particularly Italian historical narrative “le foibe” has come to mean something more specific: namely the massacres perpetrated by Yugoslav partisans in the short period at the end of WWII when they took over Trieste and the surrounding land before the city came under Allied administration (see under Trieste >background).
It's a highly contentious topic, and one that's only recently re-emerged from obscurity. The memorial at the Foiba di Basovizza was declared a national monument in 1992, and the current monument was designed in 2006-2007 and the documentation centre added in 2008.
I came to this site well prepared, in particular through an academic article by Susanne C. Knittel entitled “Bordeline Memory Disorder: Trieste and the Staging of Italian National Identity” in the book Death Tourism (edited by Brigitte Sion, London, New York, Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2014). In this the author compares the Foiba di Basovizza with the Risiera di San Sabba as sites “competing” with each other for the narrative and memorialization of this period in Italian history towards the end of WWII and the period immediately following.
And from this article I already knew that there are a number of problems associated with the Foiba di Basovizza memorial.
For starters, the hole in the ground at this site isn't even a 'foiba' at all, but the man-made shaft of a former coal mine. The author of that article surmises that the site was chosen more for its proximity to the city of Trieste than for historical authenticity (most of the foibe are in fact across the border in Istria).
The narrative presented at the site and in particular its “documentation centre” is also flawed. The photos of bodies recovered from foibe were not taken here but at other sites. The mine shaft at Basovizza has never been excavated, so nobody can be sure what's down there. Some historians apparently doubt that there are any bodies down there. Others put the possible numbers as low as 18. But the memorialization “needs” the numbers of victims to be higher. And so this memorial suggests that it was thousands. It also blots out the historical context, namely that the killings were most probably acts perpetrated in retaliation for the Italian fascists' regime in occupied Slovenian and Croatian territories (cf. also Rab and Kobarid). It also remains mute on the fact that the foibe were also used by Italians and Germans for disposing of bodies before 1945.
According to that article by Knittel (2014) the specific memorialization of the foibe is politically motivated, beginning with a campaign to emphasize “Italian victimhood” that was apparently instigated by Silvio Berlusconi and his centre-right government in the 1990s. The right-wing agenda aimed at glossing over the role of Italian fascism and its crimes, by portraying Italy as a victim of aggressive Yugoslav partisans. And of course painting the communist partisans as “just as evil” as the German Nazis is politically convenient from the right-wing perspective. Hence the assumed number of victims is stated as being on a similar scale as those of the Nazi concentration camp of the Risiera di San Sabba.
Yet, while it is clear that around a quarter of a million Italians were displaced from the formerly occupied territories in Istria and Dalmatia (now Croatia) in the turmoil of the final stages of WWII and its immediate aftermath, and there had been killings by Yugoslav partisans, these were never properly documented. And so it is impossible to produce even halfway accurate estimates of numbers of victims. Historical sources put them at (very) roughly between 1500 and 2000, but the “le foibe” memorialization in Italy tends to put the numbers much higher, at between 10,000 and 30,000. Hence the usage of the term “mass massacres”. Moreover, the killings are described as “genocidal”, i.e. as directed against Italians for the very reason of them being Italians. The fact that the Yugoslav partisan campaigns were primarily meant to be anti-fascist is thus swept under the rug, as is the fact that amongst the victims were also Germans. The main thing, politically, was to “delegitimize” the role of Yugoslav partisans as “liberators” (i.e. the role the partisans have always been understood to have had in Yugoslavia's commemoration of WWII and how it ended).
There'd be much more to be said about this issue, but I'll leave it at this here. The main thing I wanted to make clear is that if you visit this site you have to be aware of the controversial nature of the narrative attached to it.
Yet the visitor numbers the site has attracted since the reconstruction of the site in 2006-2008 and the more mainstream promotion of it (prior to that it was only a memorial for the far right) has grown to indeed compete with those at the Risiera. At some points a few years back it even clearly exceeded the numbers at the latter. Now the official museum website of the city of Trieste states annual visitor numbers at both sites roughly on a par (ca. 10,000).
My own experience was that when I came to the Foiba di Basovizza, there were two coachloads of teenagers on school groups who had just been given a guided tour. Yet at the Risiera, where I went straight afterwards, I encountered only two other visitors in the whole time I was there …
What there is to see: Not much. The main monument consists of a big concrete slab clad in rusty metal – so that it actually looks like a big steel plate – that covers the actual shaft below. A symbolic crane structure rises above it, topped by a black Christian cross. Behind it is a wall with an inscription in Italian, apparently a poem for the victims.
Dotted around the area surrounding the main monument are various individual memorial stones, set up by different groups of stakeholders, all with their own dedication. One stone stands out as it has a graphic depiction of the shaft with markers at different depths showing what's allegedly down there, from dumped WW1 weapons and ammunition to the alleged layer of bodies of those killed in 1945.
In the north-western corner of the area is a small stone bungalow that houses the documentation centre. This is a single room lined with photo-and-text panels and with an altar-like shrine in the centre. The texts are all in Italian only, so won't be of any help if you don't know the language. But from what I read about the memorial, the texts wouldn't really be all that enlightening anyway. They are there more to bolster the narrative of Italian victimhood. And the photos of dug-up victims of the foibe massacres are not from this site. So you won't miss all that much if you don't go and see this small exhibition.
All in all I found this a rather underwhelming site, to be frank. But it is indeed clearly being propagated as an important thing for school groups to see. When I arrived at the site there were two coachloads of teenagers just getting back from their tour and ready to depart. So I waited a bit in the back before starting my look around once I had the site to myself …
I'd say it's the far less important place to see when coming to Trieste (as opposed to the overall rather more impressive Risiera di San Sabba) and could possibly be missed altogether. If you decide to go make sure you read up on the subject in advance (see above), because at the site you won't learn anything of substance about it.
Location: about half a mile (800 metres) south of the village of Basovizza in the hills above Trieste, north-eastern Italy.
Google maps locator: [45.6343, 13.8642]
Access and costs: quite remote and far from the city centre, requiring a car; free
Details: Getting to this rather forlorn site is easiest if have your own means of transport, ideally a (hire) car. There is no scheduled public transport to the site. The best you could do if you're without a car is to get a bus to the village of Basovizza and walk from there. Bus line 39 goes to Basovizza from Trieste's central train station (15 stops, ca. 20 minutes). Walk down Via Dragotin Kette, cross the main road (SS14) and head south for ca. 800 yards.
If you do have a car, you can drive from Trieste city centre along the SS14 road which winds up past the university and into the mountains and then goes south to Basovizza. Once there continue on the SS14/E61 rather than entering the village centre and you come to a small road branching off to the right. There is a small brown sign for the Foiba memorial.
Coming from Slovenia on the main A1 motorway between Ljubljana and Koper, get off the motorway at Kozina and turn right to get onto the No. 7 road (E61), which turns into the SS14 once across the Italian border. From the border it's 2.3 miles (3.7 km) to the turn-off (sharp left) for the Foiba memorial.
There are sufficient parking spaces just outside the memorial site.
The open-air site is in theory freely accessible at all times, though it wouldn't make sense to come here after dark. The small documentation centre has the following opening times: Between March and June daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., between July and February open only to 2 p.m. and closed on Wednesdays (as well as Christmas Day and New Year's Day).
Admission free.
Time required: Not very long. Some 15 minutes is enough to walk around the memorial site. The documentation centre isn't very big either, but if you can read Italian you may spend another 15 to 20 minutes in there.
Combinations with other dark destinations: see under Trieste.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The area the Foiba memorial is in is actually a scenic landscape park of sorts, with a cave that can be visited (called “Black Cave” alluringly) and an experimental plantation. Not far from this, a couple of miles to the south, is the very scenic Vedetta di San Lorenzo valley and hiking trails across the karst mountains.
And then of course there is all that the city of Trieste has to offer.  
  • Foiba 1 - main entranceFoiba 1 - main entrance
  • Foiba 2 - small visitor centreFoiba 2 - small visitor centre
  • Foiba 3 - memorial room-cum-exhibitionFoiba 3 - memorial room-cum-exhibition
  • Foiba 4 - main monumentFoiba 4 - main monument
  • Foiba 5 - heavy metal lidFoiba 5 - heavy metal lid
  • Foiba 6 - wreathsFoiba 6 - wreaths
  • Foiba 7 - memorial stone with drastic depiction of the pitFoiba 7 - memorial stone with drastic depiction of the pit
  • Foiba 8 - various further memorial stones dotted aroundFoiba 8 - various further memorial stones dotted around
  • Foiba 9 - scenery in the vicinityFoiba 9 - scenery in the vicinity

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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