Vukowar and peace

VUKOVAR, Croatia- Sometimes, after having had enough of life on the mainland, Ivica Franić, a Vukovar war veteran, comes to the winter marina or the „parking lot“ of his ten meter long aluminum ship. He built the ship with his own hands in four and a half months. All the comfort you can think of is at hand on the ship. He can eat and sleep there, and it can even be heated in winter. Now is the time of the year when Franić cruises the few kilometers along the Croatian part of the Danube river, while enjoying himself. „I cruise alone most of the time. I do have girlfriends, though,“ the massive man with big hands smiles knowingly.

Things are quite clear for Franić. In his view, the real culprits for the Yugoslavian wars were never tried and hence, never sentenced by the ICTY Hague tribunal: „My 17-year-old stepbrother was killed just because he was my brother. But then again, he had a Serbian father and Croatian mother.“ He has bitter words to say about Tomislav Nikolić, the current Serbian president: „He must never be allowed to enter Croatia. He was photographed with men in the chetnik uniforms, do you understand what this means?“ Franić has no high hopes about the EU accession of his country. „For my generation, it will bring nothing spectacular. However, the elimination of borders will provide new possibilities for the young.“

Once a widely recognizable symbols of Vukovar, the city’s water tower, frequently targeted during the siege, won’t be restored. Instead, it will remain in its present shape to serve as a memorial.

By the way, how about the elimination of borders? It was here in Vukovar that the tensions between opposed ethnic groups largely subsided. On the other hand, Drago Hedl, a journalist with the daily  Jutarnji list made a good point when he wrote that: “Are these groups still divided by an invisible glass wall? This city is frequented by groups of journalists, including from the foreign media, wanting to find out whether Croats, who are the majority, live „together“ with Serbs, or rather „side by side“. The journalists, however, need not probe deeply and search for barriers, because the former take on reality is true.  The irony of fate, though, makes old traumas reappear. Such was the recent case of a Serbian woman who criticized the Croatian state for failing to repair a school. Her husband, though, was one of the chetnik fighters who threw grenades at the school during the war.

Let‘s return back to Franić, though. A former colonel in law enforcement, he retired six years ago. Hiis family gives meaning to his life, along with his ship, water, and the Danube island of Mala Ada. The location can be seen from downtown Vukovar. The head of the Danube Sports and Fishing Association that has 500 active members (one fifth of them being Serbs), Franić organized a number of voluntary work events in Mala Ada over the past few years. The result is breathtaking: they planted 200 trees on the island with sandy beaches, built two playgrounds for beach volleyball, and a number of shelters and restaurants. Furthermore, each year in June on the Danube Day, they would give away a thousand portions of fish soup. The inhabitants of Vukovar hunt for clayfish in the clear water, relax and engage in sports. And, they’ve mostly forgotten about what their elders went through.

„There was a primeval forest and we also cultivated parts of the area,“ Franić  says with pride when showing the pictures of the island on his cell phone. „However, the Yugoslavian army shelled Vukovar from Mala Ada during the war. The helicopters took off, fired a rocket and then landed back to safety. The only thing you could do was to pray that their engines would stall,” he says after a pause.

A monument in remembrance of 260 patients and hospital staff killed by Serb troops at Ovcara farm.


Heroes and traitors

Croatia has long deserved accession to the Union, although the country had to wait for five years for the arrest and trial of Ante Gotovina and two other generals. However, a Hague court recently acquitted them of all charges due to lack of evidence about the war crimes they allegedly committed against the Croatian Serbs during the Storm (Oluja) operation. Today, Gotovina is a national hero for Croatians, while for Serbs, the court in Hague lost the little credibility it ever had. The people in Belgrade speak about selective responsibility. However, each year at the end of November, they devoutly remember the fall of Vukovar in 1991.  The city was conquered by the Yugoslavian army and Serbian paramilitary units that committed many massacres and war crimes. The most atrocious of them all was the execution of about 260 injured Croatian fighters and medical staff from the Vukovar hospital, which occurred on a nearby pig farm in Ovčara, now a memorial site.

The local people would like to forget about the war and how the world betrayed them, but they can‘t. They celebrate their generals instead. In Croatia, they are certainly far greater heroes than politicians. One of the politicians, Ivo Sander, was an former Prime Minister who was recently sentenced in Zagreb to ten years in prison for a large scale corruption scheme taking place between 2003 and 2009, while he was in office. He had allegedly receive over 12 million Euro in bribes from the Hungarian MOL concern and the Bank of Austria.

Ivana Ivanković, a journalist from Zagreb, speaks about the deep frustration that pervades the Croatian society before the EU accession. The research shows that 48 to 52 percent of people support the EU accession. In her opinion, Croatian people are not really interested in Europe. This can change, however, if some countries, the neighboring Slovenia in particular, would try to hinder the process. „Sanader is today the most hated person in Croatia. At the same time, people realize that it‘s correct to show Brussels that we can hold even a top-notch politician accountable, although he, ironically perhaps, did the greatest work for EU accession,“ says Ivanković. She adds that the general disgust in politics also increased due to the case of Radimir Čačić, the first Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy, who had to recently resign after being  convicted of causing a traffic accident in Hungary in which two people died. You can add the falling Croatian economy for the fourth straight year, and the rising unemployment which ranked as the third highest in the Union after Greece and Spain. „The only good news is the fact that we experienced the best tourist season in our history,“ says Ivanković.

A war memorial in Vukovar


Violence against urbanism

Two months, three weeks and three days. This is how long the siege and the war itself lasted in 1991 in Vukovar after Croatia‘s declaration of independence. The multiethnic city of 40,000 inhabitants who once had beautiful baroque architecture saw, on one side, 1,800 lightly armed defenders of the Croatian National Guard, among whom 10 % were Serbs, plus some 300 police officers and 1,100 civilian volunteers. Against them stood a vast force of 36,000 heavily armed soldiers of the Yugoslavian army (JNA) and Serbian paramilitary units that „took care“ of the ethnic cleansing. The war resulted in more than two and half thousands of victims on both sides. A total of 700,000 grenades and rockets fell on the city where starving civilians hid in cellars for many months. At times, the city was shelled by 12,000 rockets and grenades a day. Vukovar became the first city in Europe that was completely destroyed after World War II.

Many JNA soldiers refused to obey orders after seeing the effects on the city defenders and civilians. Afraid of dropping the morale, the commanders ordered shooting against their own positions and the suicide rate rose. At the end of October, a JNA unit of Novy Sad refused to attack the Borovo Naselje outskirt of Vukovar, and fled instead. Vladimír Živković, a tank driver, lost his nerve and drove his tank from the Vukovar front line all the way to the parliament building in Belgrade where he was arrested. His mutiny provoked a chain reaction. „We are no traitors but we do not want to be aggressors,“ many JNA soldiers shouted in the media.

The siege ended tragically with the fall of the city, and the killings and lootings that followed. Up until 1998 when Vukovar was handed over to Croatia, the city was administered by the United Nations. Remarkably enough, many Serbian inhabitants who lived here for generations in peace with their Croatian, German, Jewish or Ruthenian neighbors refused to listen to the propaganda sent by the warmongering Milošević from Belgrade. They did quite the opposite and defended the city together with the Non-Serbs. And when many Croatian refugees were leaving the city, they preferred to give the keys from their homes to Serbian neighbors whom they trusted, rather than to the Croatian police. On the other hand, the Serbs who settled down here after WWII and the displacement of Germans behaved aggressively. Deep down, their motivation was the destruction of urban multiculturalism. Bogdan Bogdanović, a former mayor of Belgrade, described the war in Vukovar as „urbicide“, that is, violence against urbanism.

Once a thriving multi-ethnic city with beautiful baroque architecture, Vukovar was completely destroyed in 1991 completely. Today life is returning to the city.


A city of parallel worlds

Croatians and Serbians live together in Vukovar, rather than in separate enclaves. There is, however, one place where Franić, the war veteran, would never go. It is the Serbian restaurant Mornar, or „The Sailor“. He would be never able to cross the entrance marked by a neon sign in Serbian Cyrillic alphabet. Nowadays, the identity of Vukovar is represented by traces of war shoved under the carpet, new opulent glass and steel buildings, as well old houses damaged by bullets in the plaster. Also, there is a polarity caused by memories of raids by „chetniks“ (Serbs) and „Ustashi“ (Croatians). There are unrepaired houses, mostly Serbian ones, as well as new apartments for those who returned. Vukovar also means a bitter memory of President Franjo Tudjman who refused to evacuate the women and children during the war. It also means the honorable memory of Boris Tadić who visited the city as the first President of Serbia and bowed to the victims of war. Today, it is the bitter taste left by the words said by Mr. Nikolić, the current President of Serbia. In May 2012, before the second round of presidential elections took place, Nikolić admitted in the interview for the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that „there are dreams that cannot be fulfilled, such as the dream of Big Serbia“. When asked whether he knows that there are more Serbs [in Vukovar] today than ten years ago, he responded that Vukovar used to be a Serbian city, so Croatians have no business in returning there.

Vukovarians know what they know. They know that the time of wars and parallel lives is now over. About half of the pre-war population returned to the city where now every fourth adult has no job. Hundreds of people are still missing. Pain knows no nationality. Both Serbians and Croatians established anonymous phone call centers where people can report findings of human remains. There are no minority schools, only those where the instruction is in Serbian, albeit with the Croatian curriculum. Željko Sabo, a Croatian and the current mayor, represents a nice example. Even though during the war he was deported to Serbian camps and he lived horrible things, he says that he does not identify the language and writing with the war. „I don‘t mind the Cyrillic writing. If more than 33 percent of the total population in Vukovar is Serbian – and the limit has almost been reached – they will have the right to use their language in official dealings,“ says Sabo. He adds that „We have restored the pre-war multiethnicity. The city sends the clear message that all minorities represent its wealth.“ The mayor emphasizes that, over the fifteen years since the end of peaceful reintegration of Vukovar, under the UN administration until 1998, not a single incident or crime related to the war in 1991 occurred, and this says more than anything else.


ANDREJ BÁN is a reporter for Týždeň. This article was produced for the Next in Line project, co-funded by the European Union, and originally appeared in Týždeň. Translated by Lubomír Groch.

One response to “Vukowar and peace”

  1. myrna kostash

    I will never forget the cold, wet, grim mornings in Belgrade when I sat in the reading room of the Canadian embassy and read for hours the Tanjug official reports coming from Vukovar. Vukovar was a nightmare, and the nightmare was only beginning. But I also remember (maybe it was later, on other trips to Belgrade?) the Women in Black silent protests, the stories of the young men who went underground rather than serve in the Yugoslav army, the culture of resistance by Radio B-92, the refusal of some writers and journalists to be published in Cyrillic….Thank you Andrej Ban for telling us this new story of hope from blasted Vukovar.