Balkans: Remember Vukovar - for the sake of the dead, and the survivors who must bring it back to life

Andrew Marshall
Friday 16 January 1998 00:02

The communities shattered by the Balkan wars are slowly being put back together again. Croatia yesterday reoccupied Eastern Slavonia, an area taken by the Serbs in 1991 and then controlled for the last two years by the United Nations. Andrew Marshall looks back to the horrors of the war, and forward to a future that may also be bleak.

Remember Vukovar? It's one of those painfully angular Balkan names which for a few days or months became a headline during the wars of the first half of this decade. Then it faded away again, just a place on the map and a few curled newspaper cuttings.

Something similar has happened in the town itself. The ruins have softened over time, and undergrowth has hidden some of the worse scars. The shell- pocked buildings have settled into the rubble. It no longer has the appearance of atrocity; rather, of history. As you wander the streets of what was once a fine baroque Habsburg town, you can only guess about the buildings: School? Barracks? Town hall?

You can only guess, too, at the sufferings and the horrors that took place here, on the banks of the mighty and slow-moving Danube. For Vukovar was taken by the Serbs - local Serbs and the Yugoslav army - in 1991, after Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia. Eastern Slavonia was - is - a part of Croatia with a large Serb minority. Vukovar became a symbol for both sides: of Croatian resistance, and of Serb success. For three months it suffered under daily assault, millions of shells falling before the conquerors finally moved in in November.

One popular theory in Britain has it that the Balkan wars were ignited by Germany's decision to press for recognition of Croatia in December 1991. This would come as something of a surprise to the inhabitants of Vukovar. By the time European Union leaders had finished shuffling their papers in the Dutch town of Maastricht, the people of Vukovar - those that were still alive - had emerged from their cellars to find a town that had been levelled by Serb artillery. Then, the remaining houses were destroyed: a land mine in the living room, perhaps, or a tank shell through the front window. In some houses, the gas was turned on and a candle lit on the upstairs landing. Some 200 people were taken from the hospital and murdered.

Yet as you drive through its eerie streets, each reduced to ruins no higher than a man can stand, there are houses that are virtually untouched. For Serbs lived in Vukovar, too. They were not spared the artillery assault, but their houses were left standing. The Catholic church is a ruin; the Orthodox church, though badly damaged and pocked with the ugly acne of shell fire, survives. When you first realise how completely this separation of man from man was done - the energy, the planning, the intent, street by street, village by village - it is hard to keep your sanity.

Vukovar was not the only place where this happened, nor were the Croats the only ones to suffer. But it was one of the first casualties in a war to remove ethnic groups and change boundaries, to take down one flag and put up another. Croatia, in two lightning and deadly offensives, struck back at the Serbs in 1995, leaving Eastern Slavonia as the last under Serb control, expelling the Serbs and cleansing its own boundaries.

There is good news here, of a sort. Eastern Slavonia has changed hands peacefully, after two years of UN supervision, unlike the Krajina, or Western Slavonia, where force of arms was the chosen route. "Two years ago few people believed this would be possible." said Bernard Miyet, UN Under-Secretary-General for peace-keeping operations yesterday.

But now the Russian soldiers crouched in their sandbagged positions on the main road are gone, and this is Croatia again: Croatian number plates, Croatian local authorities, Croatian money. There are 75-80,000 Croats waiting to move back, and roughly the same number of Serbs still there, some living in what were Croat houses, waiting to see what will happen.

That is another reason to remember Vukovar. The Serbs in Eastern Slavonia, some of them refugees from the rest of Croatia, some of them long-term residents, fear for the future, and with justification. There will be revenge attacks.

There will be hatred, and the settling of scores. And there will also (if the evidence of the past is anything to go by) be precious little effort by the Croatian government to make these people want to stay.

There are concerns about their safety, about their civil rights, and about their access to free media.

Franjo Tudjman, Croatia's President, remembers Vukovar well, and has used it to his advantage. It was a potent weapon during the presidential election last year, when Mr Tudjman took a "peace train" to Vukovar. The return of Eastern Slavonia is an important symbol for Croatia: five years after it was first recognised by the international community, all its land is under Croatian rule.

Western diplomats say that Croatia has been more emollient in recent months about the Serb minority. But the US - Croatia's main ally during the war - made clear yesterday that it is watching.

"We expect Croatia to fulfil its responsibilities to guarantee equal treatment and full protection of the rights of all Croatia's citizens," said President Bill Clinton. It remains to be seen if these pious hopes translate into reality.

If the West wants to remember Vukovar, then it has the tools. There will still be international monitors in Eastern Slavonia. Croatia wants good relations with, and eventual entry to, the European Union and Nato; there are plenty of levers. But Europe can remember Vukovar in other ways, too. The town is a ruin, and officials say it would cost some $2.5bn (pounds 1.56bn) to rebuild it to its pre-war splendour. Croatia can find $1bn, but wants the rest to be donated by the international community. It is not much for a town that was destroyed while Europe waited on the sidelines.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in