The Unhappy Heroes of Vukovar, Croatia
For happiness one needs security, but joy can spring like a flower even from the cliffs of despair.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh
At 8:30 a.m., we leave the cruise ship wondering what we will hear in this tragic city, still struggling to rebuild itself from the siege by Serbian troops in 1991 that reduced it to rubble and marked the collapse of Yugoslavia. From the ship we have already seen the towering white cross on the riverbank, which commemorates the lives lost during the conflict.
When we reach the busses, we see our tour guides – none of them out of their twenties. Is it too difficult for those who lived through the conflict to talk about it, I wonder? Or has it been deemed unwise for us to hear what they might say?
“Bosnian President Milosevioc wanted control of Vukovar because it is the largest river port in Croatia.”
How similar this sounds to yesterday’s guide explaining why Serbia was so often attacked. I wonder if she would see the irony.
“Many Serbs lived here then, and Milosevioc promised them the houses of wealthy Croatians if they assisted him,” our young guide continues. “He thought it would take three days to conquer Vukovar. Croatia, after all, didn’t have its own militia; we were all part of Yugoslavia, and the army was centralized in Belgrade, where the government of Yugoslavia was situated.
“But Vukovar held out for three months. This made Milosevioc so angry he ordered the city destroyed and hundreds of civilians massacred. We call them our heroes, because they gave the rest of Croatia time to organize a militia and defend themselves—they saved Croatia from being occupied.”
She speaks well, but it sounds like a history lesson she learned in school. She’s too young to share personal reminiscences of the time, as the Serbian guide did.
“From 1991 to 1998 this city lay in rubbles, deserted. Then people came back, to rebuild. Some had lived here before, but many who lived here never came back; they had built a new life elsewhere. We call those who came back to rebuild heroes, too, because it is not easy.”
She doesn’t have to explain why—the shells of bombed-out buildings are all around. Gaping window openings stare back at us from walls riddled with bullet holes. Half of the city buildings look habitable, another quarter in the midst of reconstruction, but at least a quarter of the buildings are still just gaping shells or the broken rubble of what once stood there.
We leave the bus to walk through the city behind her. Croatian citizens pass us, going about their business as though it is normal to live in a war-torn city. They don’t look happy, but neither do they look devastated, as I imagine this setting would make me feel. I am reminded of our Serbian guide’s comments on the Island of War. Can you get used to looking into the face of war?
“Thirty-seven thousand Croatians live here now, and seven thousand Serbians,” our guide tells us. I ask how they get along.
“The Serbians keep to themselves,” she says. “There are coffee shops for Serbians, and other coffee shops for Croatians. At the market there are stalls the Serbians buy from, and others the Croatians buy from.”
We have reached the open market now, and I look around for a Section separated from the other vendors. “The barriers aren’t real,” she explains, “they’re self-imposed. They just know who to approach, who to avoid. The Serbians want it that way. They lobbied for separate classrooms for their children, so they won’t mingle with Croatian children. The rest of Croatia doesn’t feel that way, only here in Vukovar.”
I nod. I can see the people around me, getting on with their lives, but I am not surprised that there’s another story underneath. This desecrated city won’t let them forget until it is entirely rebuilt. Perhaps not even then.
“I myself am from a nearby town,” our young guide tells us. “We don’t make any distinction there. I have only seen it here. We are very similar after all, Serbians and Croatians. We understand each other very well. Our languages are very similar, and there are lots of friendships and relations on both sides. I am the child of a mixed marriage. I was brought up to believe that no race is entirely bad, and no race is entirely good.”
I wonder at the reference to absolutes: entirely bad, entirely good. Have her Serbian-Croatian parents had to contradict other influences? ‘Not entirely,’ I hear them telling her.
“History has proved that we cannot work together, so it is better that we are separated,” says this girl who is too young to remember Tito, or the union that was Yugoslavia. And who am I to say she’s wrong, that it was just one man, a sick egomaniac of a president, according to our guide in Belgrade. That some people remember it did work. How do I know whose perception was correct?
“Things are getting better,’ our Croatian guide says, as we walk past buildings stalled I reconstruction by insufficient funds. “Last year the president of Serbia came here and apologised to us.” She pauses. “Some Serbians try to deny what happened. But the fact is that we were attacked. That’s a fact. There,” she points to the remains of a building. “There was a hospital. Near the end of the siege, many Croatians hid there, in the basement. When the Serbians broke through our defenses, they took everyone from that hospital. The youngest was a six-month-old baby and the oldest a sixty-four year-old woman. They took them all out to a farm nearby, and massacred them.”
She’s too young for this to be a memory, yet she says it with emotion: a history lesson drilled into her. ‘Not entirely bad,’ I hear her parents’ moderating voices. Which was the Serbian, mother or father? I pity him or her.
“The sick people in the hospital also?” someone asks.
She nods. “But we are very good neighbours, now,” she adds. “Of course we have to be if we want to join the European Union.”
We arrive at the market and she gives us ten minutes to look around it, before walking back to the ship. A group of teenagers passes us. They are blowing whistles and laughing; some have painted their faces. The girls are in fancy dresses, the boys swagger and joke and blow loudly on their whistles. Their faces are bright and eager and joyous.
“Today was their last day of school,” our guide says, smiling. “They are graduating from high school. Today they celebrate.”
Back at the pier as we board our ship more teenagers pass us, laughing and calling excitedly to one another. They converge at a small amusement park beside the river, where I can see a Ferris wheel, a carousel and several other rides. Music blares forth, loud and lively, as joyous as their laughter. It follows us as we sail away up the Danube, joy springing up like flowers in the midst of despair.