Stalingrad, Sarajevo… Vukovar? November 18th is the anniversary of the end of a siege that I’d never heard of until I strayed from Croatia’s beguiling coastline and saw its aftermath for myself.
There was no ignoring the fact that something bad happened in Vukovar. There was an abandoned tank parked on a front lawn, leading the way into town.
As I walked through the centre of town, I didn’t see a single other person. There were no mothers, no elderly ladies, no open shops or grocery stores. Just me, looking through the holes in buildings with pop cans and old newspapers strewn around the rubble inside. A sign for the Diksi Bar on an empty building. A blue square address plaque on the only wall left of a house that was no longer there.
I followed signs leading to the Hotel Dunac. It’s located on the bank of a narrow section of Danube. The grass around it was dead.
On one side of the hotel was the brown, garbage-strewn Vuka river that emptied into the Danube. A man and a little boy were fishing along the bank. On the other side of the hotel was a giant building, completely gutted, that must have been majestic at one time. I thought it might have been a government building; I was later told it once was a cinema.
The concierge was a big man who didn’t smile; he took my money, gave me a big key and told me to leave it at the front desk if I went out. My room was at the end of a hallway with no lights but big, bare windows at one end. I quickly dropped off my things and went back out.
I walked around town for an hour before finding the water tower. It was cone-shaped, the bottom half grey concrete and the top a band of burnt red. A Croatian flag flew on top of it. I walked around it, careful not to step on broken shards of beer bottles. The tower was 50 metres high and too enormous to fully take in. Patches of blue sky shone through the giant bomb holes all over it that had been left as a reminder of what happened here. It was the symbol of a city that was symbolic for the rest of the country.
Because Vukovar was heavily populated by Serbs at the beginning of the breakup of Yugoslavia, this small city in easternmost Slavonia, an hour away from Serbia, became a target in 1991 as Serbia tried to claim as much territory as it could before Croatia declared independence. Since Croatia had no substantial army yet, some 2000 Croatian residents defended their city, and Croatians around the country were glued to their televisions; if Vukovar could keep back the Serbian invasion, there was hope for the rest of them too.
The Croatian citizens were able to defend Vukovar for 87 days through the siege which caused destruction on a level that is often compared to Stalingrad. One thousand people were killed during the fighting; 5000 were taken prisoner.
Vukovar remained under Serbian control until the war ended and eastern Slavonia was placed under UN control for two years. It was re-integrated into Croatia in 1998.
I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between Vukovar and Sarajevo. I knew very little about Sarajevo’s history when I first arrived, but within a couple of days I learned a good deal of its history. It has a museum with photos, newspaper articles and artifacts detailing, sometimes excruciatingly, what happened there. There are Sarajevo roses on the ground: mortar holes filled in with red paint so they can’t be missed.
There is a guided tour to the tunnel that lead Sarajevans to safety when they were under siege. The tour guide, Mustafa, showed us the spot in the mountains where part of the Olympic luge sweeps down through the trees, which at one time was the point from which soldiers fired down into the city. There are commemorative plaques everywhere, like the one on the former National Library that says:
_ ‘On this place Serbian criminals in the night of 25th, 26th August 1992 set on fire National and University’s Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Over 2 millions of books, periodicals and documents vanished in the flame. Do not forget, remember and warn.’_
Unlike Sarajevo, there are no signs on Vukovar’s buildings, no red markers calling attention to its wounds. The city remains divided, the ethnic communities split evenly into separate churches, separate schools, separate coffee shops. The justice process has been long and drawn-out, with new charges still being filed almost two decades after the siege. The infrastructure has not been restored and unemployment is estimated at 40 per cent.
The symbol of the city looms over the town with gaping holes that have not been filled in.
At 5 o’clock, I was ready for a drink. I didn’t want to offend anyone by going into the wrong bar but I couldn’t tell which was Croat and which was Serb. I went into the one nearest to my hotel.
I wanted to talk to someone, but how do you ask questions about war? I sat alone at a table on a covered patio, the heat trapped inside by thick plastic walls.
And then a question was asked of me.
“Excuse me, are you a foreigner?”
I’d noticed him when I first arrived. He’d been sitting with friends, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. There was a motorbike helmet on the chair across from him.
“Yes, how can you tell?” I asked.
“I can just tell,” he said. “What are you doing in Vukovar?”
“I’m traveling around Croatia and Vukovar is an important city, so I came to see it.”
“Why is Vukovar important?” he asked.
“Well, because of what happened here during the war.”
He lit a cigarette.
“Well, I was here during the war and I can tell you about it. I want the truth about Vukovar to be heard.”
I’d been so afraid to bring up the past and here he was, offering me it to me with a fresh beer.
I shouldn’t have been surprised; you don’t need to be in a conversation for very long before a Croatian will almost always bring up the war. It’s still such a part of their lives.
As I gathered my things and moved to his table, he said, “I should also mention that I’m Serbian.”
His name is Nenad, which means ‘to become suddenly’. His father was from Serbia, his mother, now widowed, is Croatian. He has lived in Vukovar all his life, except for five years when he moved to Britain. That was in 1999, two years after Vukovar was returned to Croatia and he no longer felt welcome.
What I couldn’t get past were his eyes. When he spoke about the war, they stayed fixed on me. He told me about living in his basement in Vukovar for a year and about having to see a post-traumatic stress counsellor in London. When he smiled his tight smile his eyes didn’t change.
He told me about dead people lying on the streets, decapitations, about seeing people every day who did bad things during the war.
“So they killed a few people, who am I to judge?” he said, his eyes just staring.
There wasn’t much laughter in our conversation, even when he talked about the house he lived in just outside town with his mother and eleven stray cats and dogs, hens, plums and apples, or about going for a swim in the Danube when he felt stressed.
I would normally feel callous for asking the questions that I asked Nenad, but he seemed to want to talk about it. He spoke in a hushed tone, like we were conspiring.
“I’m not like anyone else here,” he said. “People here are mad but they don’t want to do anything about it. It is like they are dead. I’m different from everyone else, but I can act. I like acting.”
He said he felt disconnected to Vukovar and hates the people in it for not doing anything to change their situation. But that’s exactly the impression I got from him. A man who wanted to leave but doesn’t know how or where to go.
A couple of hours and a pack of cigarettes later, the smoke inside the plastic walls was suffocating. Nenad offered to take me on his motorbike to the hospital museum. There was nothing I wanted more than to be told the story from someone who knew it first-hand.
When we reached his motorbike, he held out his hand to me. But I passed up his offer. There was something in his eyes that I didn’t trust.
I’d been angry at the silence in Vukovar; I wanted the story spelled out as vividly as Sarajevo roses. But when it came right down to it, when offered a chance to find out what happened, I wasn’t ready.
That night in my small hotel room I couldn’t sleep. I woke up a couple of times in the middle of the night and went to the window. The sunny day had turned into a bitterly cold night with a shrill wind.
The town square outside my window was still empty.