Croatia v Serbia the rematch: memories of riots, battles and war crimes

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Eighteen years ago they were engaged in one of Europe's most bloody conflicts since the end of the Second World War. Now, they meet on the football pitch for the first time as independent states

Vukovar

It was in the Maksimir Stadium that the tremors that presaged the Yugoslav wars first erupted, as a mass riot broke out between fans of Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb in May 1990. With fists flying and knives drawn, dozens were injured in a brawl between the two sets of fans, many of whom would soon be facing each other on real battlefields.

It is in the same stadium tomorrow night that Serbia and Croatia will face each other for the first time on the football pitch as independent nations in a World Cup qualifier that is overlaid with memories of riots, battles and war crimes.

Football-mad at the best of times, there is much more at stake than the chance to edge closer to a place at next year’s World Cup. Serbian fans have been banned from the stadium in an attempt to avert violence, just like their Croatian counterparts will be when the two teams meet in the return leg in Belgrade in September.

In Vukovar, a town on the border with Serbia, the tension is palpable. It saw heavy fighting under seven years of Serb occupation before it was handed back to Croatia in 1998. The population is still mixed, with Serbs making up about one third of the inhabitants, but the two ethnic groups live segregated lives.

Sparks have flown in recent months as the Serbian population fights to have the town’s street signs written bilingually, and Serbs say they will not dare to leave their homes during tonight’s game for fear of being attacked by the local Croat population.

“All the Serbs will be watching at home; we’ve had bad experiences in the past when we’ve tried to watch Serbia games and Croats have come and thrown stones at the cafés we’re in,” says Djordje Macut, president of the town’s Council of Serbian Minorities over a beer at Mornar, a smoke-filled café. “And those times, we weren’t even playing Croatia.”

Mornar looks like many other cafés in the city, but a closer look reveals it to be emphatically a Serbian one, with Serbian news on the television and waitresses serving Jelen, a Serb brew not available elsewhere in Croatia.

“Croatia is the country in which we live, but Serbia is our homeland,” says Srdjan Milakovic, a Serb community leader and local councillor. “We’ve lived here for centuries, we have as much right as anyone else to be here.”

One of Vukovar’s most famous Serbian sons is Sinisa Mihajlovic, the current Serbia manager, who was born to a Croatian mother and Serbian father in the city. He gave his own view of the tragedy of Vukovar, which was levelled by Serb-led forces during a three-month siege in 1991, in a recent interview with the Italian media. “I saw fellow Serbians killed, our cities razed to the ground, hospitals, schools and civilians bombed: all blown away,” he recalled. “My best friend destroyed my home. When my parents left Vukovar... my uncle, a Croatian and the brother of my mother, phoned her and said: ‘Why did you leave? You should have stayed here. That way I would have killed your husband, that dirty Serbian piece of s**t.’”

Croats have a very different view of who was responsible for the devastation of Vukovar. Today, posters demanding a “Croatian Vukovar” decry the moves to introduce Serbian Cyrillic street signs in the city, an EU requirement given that Serbs form more than 33 per cent of the population. Thousands of Croats have taken to the streets to protest in recent weeks, saying that in a city that suffered so much at the hands of Serbs, Cyrillic streets signs would rub salt into the wounds.

“The people that did this are still free, they are still living among us, and nobody talks about it,” says 26-year-old Kristijan Drobina, a Croat who works at a memorial complex at Ovcara, where more than 200 Croats were massacred by Serb militias in 1991. “The equivalent of two atomic bombs fell on Vukovar and... If we don’t talk about the past we are condemned to repeat it in the future.”

“People say all Serbs are aggressors, that we were responsible for everything,” counters Mr Milakovic. “There is always tension here... we feel insecure in our own city. But the more pressure they put on us the more we want to stand up for our rights and identity.

Serbia’s manager Mihajlovic, who has not returned to Vukovar since the war, has called for tonight’s game to be played “in the right spirit” and for the two nations to “offer a hand of friendship”. But given his outspoken views on who was responsible for the conflict this is a tall order, especially with his personal history with Croatia’s manager, Igor Stimac.

In 1991, as war was breaking out, the pair were involved in an altercation during a game between Mihajlovic’s Red Star Belgrade and Stimac’s Hajduk Split, during which the Croatian allegedly told the Serb he hoped all his family would be killed in the conflict.

After a number of subsequent vicious challenges, both players were sent off. Stimac denies making the comments, but the pair continued public sniping for years afterwards, with Mihajlovic saying that Stimac was “the only person I could strangle with my bare hands”.

Mihajlovic also played in Zagreb in 1999 for a Yugoslavia team that met Croatia for a place in the European Championships, and nearly caused a riot after crossing himself in front of a banner that read “Vukovar 1991”.

The game finished in a draw, and he says the opportunity to relive that atmosphere was one of the main reasons he agreed to do his current job. “I’d willingly give up three years of my life to be able to play in it,” he says

While both coaches have been under pressure from Uefa and Fifa to calm tensions, neither has been particularly helpful. Stimac travelled to the home town of Croatian general Ante Gotovina in November to celebrate the soldier’s release from prison in The Hague, after the appeals court of the tribunal into the Yugoslav wars found him not guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Stimac announced that he wanted Gotovina to come on to the pitch and kick the ball before the game with Serbia, a proposal that was unsurprisingly abandoned.

Zdravko Mamic, the executive director of Dinamo Zagreb and one of the most powerful people in Croatian football, added to the tension by directing abuse at an ethnic Serb minister last month. He said it was an “insult to the Croatian brain” that Zelko Jovanovic is Croatia’s Minister of Education and Sport. “When he looks at you, blood squirts from his eyes,” said Mr Mamic. “Looking at his smile, one can only see teeth ready for slaughter.” He is being investigated by police and could face a jail sentence for inciting racial hatred.

While the majority of Croatians have condemned Mr Mamic’s words, it is clear that today’s game is no ordinary football match.

Samir Mazic, a 40-year-old Croatia fan from Osijek, not far from Vukovar, has travelled to almost every Croatia game since 2006, and complains that the obsession over the game with Serbia has little to do with football.

“When we played Macedonia recently there were only a few thousand people in the stadium,” he says. “Now it’s Serbia and people are sleeping in the street overnight trying to get a ticket. The majority of people don’t care about football, it’s about hatred.”

Among the young urban elites of Zagreb and Belgrade today, the war is long forgotten. Serbian theatres and pop stars tour to Zagreb, while for Croatian students, there is nothing cooler than taking a weekend trip to Belgrade. But for many Croats and Serbs, the violence and hatred simmers not far beneath the surface.

Chants during tonight’s game are likely to include “Kill, kill, kill the Serbs” and “For my motherland, I am ready,” a controversial song linked to the Ustasa, the Second World War Croatian fascist movement.

Goran Gunjevic, a basketball coach from Osijek, says: “Instead of a celebration it’s always about hatred. We’re in the middle of an economic crisis and for a few hours it will allow people to forget that they can’t pay their bills, that they aren’t eating well. Instead they can focus all their attention on hating the Serbs.”

Croatia is due to join the EU in July, and with a worsening economic situation analysts warn of a resurgence of radical nationalist ideologies. After years of hope that entry into the European family would spell the end of the country’s troubles, Croatia now joins at a time when the union itself is in deep crisis. “There are no fundamental disagreements between the left- and right-wing parties, and no real idea of how to get out of the economic crisis, which means an increasing appeal to extreme ideologies to rally people,” says Zoran Kurelic, a professor of at Zagreb University.

“Events such as the football match are dangerous. You have 30,000 people inside a stadium who are disenchanted with life, and it can be a very explosive situation.”

In such a context, the timing of tonight’s game is worrying. Victory for Croatia would all but ensure their qualification for the World Cup, while Serbia must win to have any chance. But with emotions running so high, even the prospect of competing in Brazil is a secondary concern for some, with a win for either side a potential spark for violence.

“Perhaps it would be best if it’s a draw,” says Mr Macut of the Council of Serbian Minorities, with a resigned sigh. “Serbia won’t qualify for the World Cup, but at least we’ll be assured of a quiet night in Vukovar.”

In brief: A history of Serb/Croat relations

Serbs are an Orthodox Christian people who spent 400 years under Ottoman rule, while Croats are Catholics who were once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Yugoslavia was formed immediately after World War I following the break-up of this empire. It merged the Kingdom of Serbia with the State of Slovenes and Croatia. Here the Serb/Croat resentment began to take hold, for the early Yugoslavia had a Serbian king and army.

In 1941 Yugoslavia was invaded by the Nazis and the union was dismantled. In its place came a fascist state covering Croatia and much of Bosnia that was run from Berlin, which went on to massacre huge numbers of Serbs and Jews, and forced more than 200,000 to convert to Catholicism. The remainder of the country was controlled by a combination of German, Bulgarian, Hungarian and Italian troops. There began a national liberation war pitting Communist-led Yugoslav republicans led by Josip Broz Tito and Serb-oriented royalists under Dragan Mihailjovic against the occupiers. After the war, Tito reformed the union as a Communist Federation of six equal republics - Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia.

After the fall of Communism in 1991, Croatia elected its own government. Croatia had a 600,000-strong Serb community who had fled the Ottoman occupation, and, mindful of the pain inflicted on them during the Second World War, they rose up against Croatia with support from Serbia. The Croatian war of independence ran from March 1991 until November 1995 and killed tens of thousands. Both sides have filed genocide lawsuits against the other.

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