Hatreds simmer in divided Vukovar 10 years on

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The Independent Online

Storks have have started nesting on an old factory chimney and colonies of swallows and house martins have invaded the train station. It would be fine if it was a rural village, but this is Vukovar, a town that housed 50,000 people a decade ago and was one of the great industrial centres of Yugoslavia.

Storks have have started nesting on an old factory chimney and colonies of swallows and house martins have invaded the train station. It would be fine if it was a rural village, but this is Vukovar, a town that housed 50,000 people a decade ago and was one of the great industrial centres of Yugoslavia.

Ten years after the Yugoslav army siege that claimed 5,000 lives and came to symbolise the futility and the horror of the Yugoslav wars, peace has returned to the border town between Croatia and Serbia. Last week, the Croatian parliament finally adopted a law on rebuilding Vukovar, which aims to give people and businesses incentives to return to the ruined shell, dubbed the "Hero City" by Croatian nationalists for the stubborn resistance offered by the fighters inside to the powerful Yugoslav army.

Liberals have long hoped Vukovar might provide an example of ethnic reconciliation between Croats and Serbs. But although the fighting stopped long ago, there is little that is heroic about Vukovar today and no sign of reconciliation.

Croats live with Serbs side by side in the wrecked town, but they might as well be divided by a glass wall. They pass each other in the streets in silence. They go to different churches on Sunday. Their children attend separate classes in school. The Croats watch Croatian Television, the Serbs tune in to TV Novi Sad, picked up from the neighbouring Serbian province of Vojvodina. The Croats go to their cafés and the Serbs go to theirs. At Café Remy, the Croat coat of arms painted on the walls outside makes it clear who is, and who is not, welcome.

The owner was driven out when the Serbs took over the town from 1991 to 1998, and is sullen and silent when I ask him about the other community. No Serbs come to Café Remy. "Where do they drink," I ask.

"No idea," he shrugs. "They have their places."

When I ask where, he shrugs angrily again. "Down by the market somewhere."

In fact, the main Serbian café is only yards away; the landlord of Remy has simply closed his eyes to its existence. Café Gemini is full, although it is mid-afternoon on a work day. Darko, the owner, is friendly, but reticent on the subject of the 1990s, when his rival had to flee to the Croatian interior during the Serb occupation.

I try to engage the friendly looking waiter on the subject but the occupation is about as popular a topic as a rotting fish. As soon as I mention it he roars off to clean ashtrays in the kitchen.

There is nothing to do in Vukovar now. The vast Borovo rubber complex, which once employed 20,000 people and was one of the biggest industrial complexes in Yugoslavia, is a rusting ruin. Virtually the entire county worked there. Now there are about 100 workers "pushing pens" as one of the denizens of the Gemini put it.

Unemployment is more than 20 per cent in Croatia and soars to more than 60 per cent in Vukovar. The men in the Gemini do not know what to do with themselves. Croatia is bankrupt, but Serbia is worse.

"I would have left but my old dad's sick and I still have two children in school," a large, bearded man volunteers. "My oldest has already gone to Serbia to study for the priesthood."

He is bitter about his prospects. In his mid-40s, there is nothing to look forward to. "I will sell my house in the end, and probably get no more than the price of a car," he says. The man is right. The noticeboards in the town flutter with advertisements for houses for sale. But what would go for £200,000 in the suburbs of Zagreb goes for £10,000 here. The Serbs are selling up but the Croats don't want to buy their houses.

"They don't want to live in a city next door to Serbs," says Drago Hedl, a local journalist with friends on both sides. Mr Hedl drives me through the silent streets. "Look, a new traffic light!" he jokes. It's the first one rebuilt since the war.

The Serb and Croat war dead are divided as they were in life. The Serb war cemetery, beside the recently renamed European Union Street, is clean and spruce but empty. Those who tend it clearly do so after hours. At Ovcara, outside the town, I watched a column of Croat women, dressed in black, filing up to the marble monument commemorating the 200 hospital patients in Vukovar executed by the Yugoslav army under Colonel Veselin Sljivancanin in November 1991, and buried in a mass grave here.

One man survived the slaughter by rolling off one of the trucks carrying the wounded men to their place of extermination and hiding in a ditch.

The former farm looks horribly normal now. The Croatian government has paved the rough track to the site of the mass grave and planted neat little box hedges round the grisly hole. But the women I saw there were not calm. "I will never forgive them," one says.

Her companion muttered something consoling but the woman was not to be placated. "Their sons are not buried here like mine are," she says loudly.

These were peasant women. You could tell by the headscarves. They belong to a social class that knows nothing of the middle-class "peace forums" run by well meaning intellectuals in Zagreb and Rijeka, whom they despise anyway.

To many, though not all, the former president, Franjo Tudjman, whose war for Croatian independence led to the sacrifice of Vukovar, is a hero. The fact that the chief prosecutor of The Hague war crimes tribunal, Carla del Ponte, said she would have indicted Tudjman for war crimes if he had been alive, means nothing to them.

Back in Zagreb I visited the rambling Mirogoj cemetery, where Tudjman's big black marble tomb lies among the sombre monuments to the old Croatian bourgeoisie. It was a bitterly cold, rainy day and I expected no one to be there. But the tomb was surrounded by candles in jars that had been lit that morning and, as I watched, an old woman, accompanied by what looked like her son and daughter, walked up to the tomb. As the younger two fumbled with candle, lighter and jar in the drizzle, their mother crawled on to the tomb itself and began reciting a decade of the rosary. She knelt in the rain to kiss Tudjman's name on the tombstone. As she looked up, she reminded me of the women I had seen in Vukovar.