As the bus neared Vukovar, a city known as the biggest river port in eastern Croatia, there was no getting around the fact that something bad had happened there. The giant tank parked on a nearby field leading the way into town was my first clue.
The city was quiet when I arrived. The heavy artillery and eerie silence only fueled my anxiousness to get settled. The bus station was at the end of a long parking lot, so I slung my backpack over my shoulder and followed the signs to the Hotel Dunav.
The Hotel Dunav was on the bank of a narrow section of the Danube surrounded by patches of dead grass. On one side was the brown, garbage-strewn Vuka river that emptied into the Danube. A man and a little boy were fishing along the bank -- their catch nowhere near the level of quality found along the Adriatic. On the other side of the hotel stood a giant, run-down building -- the former shadow of an old cinema.
Before arriving in Vukovar I’d heard that the Dunav housed journalists during the Serbo-Croatian war. I entered the inn hoping there might be plaques on the walls telling the hotel’s history -- something kitchy that I would have fond memories of on my way home. My hopes were unfounded as I’d found nothing upon my arrival but a menacing concierge, a big man who didn’t smile. He took my money, gave me a big key and gave hurried instructions to leave my novelty key at the front desk if I went out. My room was at the end of a hallway lit not with floor lamps or a rickety old light bulb, but a pair of large, bare windows at one end of the room. I quickly dropped off my things and went back out.
My walk around town was encompassed by an unnatural stillness -- I didn’t pass a single person even as I made my way through the centre of town. There were no fretting mothers or screaming children, no open shops or grocery stores. Just me, myself and I, staring through the war-torn holes in buildings -- pop cans and old newspapers scattered among the rubble. A sign for the Diksi Bar was the last mark on the empty building of a once flourishing business. Nearby, a blue square address plaque hung on the only wall left of a house that no longer existed.
I wanted to visit the hospital that had become a museum, but there were no signs to tell me in which direction to find it. Vukovar is commemorated by the citizens of Croatia; I expected at least some form of commemoration there.
Forgetting the hospital for the moment, I spotted a water tower in the distance. It was cone-shaped and highlighted by two off putting colors -- the bottom half, grey concrete and the top, a band of burnt red. A Croatian flag flew majestically on top of it – the flag was seemingly the only thing that moved throughout the dead city. I made my way to the tower and walked around it, careful not to step on the broken shards of beer bottles that littered the base. The tower was fifty meters high and too enormous to fully digest. Patches of blue sky shone through the giant bomb holes all over it that had been left as a reminder of what happened here. The tattered Vukovar water tower represented the effects of a devastating war that was symbolic for the rest of the country.