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Saturday, 28 February 2009

War-torn Vulkovar, Croatia

Written by Andrea MacDonald
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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.

War-torn Vulkovar, Croatia, travel eastern Croatia, hospital museum, Slavonia, Serbia, breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbo-Croatian war, Hotel Dunav, Andrea MacDonaldForgetting 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.



Vukovar was heavily populated by Serbs at the beginning of the breakup of Yugoslavia. This small city in easternmost Slavonia, an hour away from Serbia, became a target in 1991 as Serbia tried to claim as much territory as it could before Croatia declared independence. Since Croatia had no substantial army at the time, some two thousand Croatian residents defended their city, and Croatians around the country were glued to their televisions -- if Vukovar could hold back the Serbian invasion, there was hope for the rest of Croatia as well.

War-torn Vulkovar, Croatia, travel eastern Croatia, hospital museum, Slavonia, Serbia, breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbo-Croatian war, Hotel Dunav, Andrea MacDonaldThe Croatian citizens were able to defend Vukovar for eighty-seven days through a siege which caused destruction on a level that is often compared to Stalingrad. One thousand people were killed during the fighting; five thousand were taken prisoner.

Vukovar remained under Serbian rule until the war ended when eastern Slavonia was placed under United Nation control for two years. Vukovar was re-integrated into Croatia in 1998.

I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between Vukovar and Sarajevo. I knew very little about Sarajevo’s history when I arrived there, but within a couple of days I’d learned a good deal of its history. Sarajevo had a museum with photos, newspaper articles and artifacts that detailed, sometimes excruciatingly, what had happened there. ‘Sarajevo Roses’ were strewn along the ground: mortar holes filled in with red paint – and were impossible to miss.

In the city, a guided tour was offered to the tunnel that lead Sarajevans to safety when they were under siege. The tour guide, Mustafa, showed my group the spot in the mountains where part of the Olympic Luge swept down through the trees -- during the war this was the point from which soldiers fired down into the city. There were commemorative plaques everywhere, like the one on the former National Library that said: ‘On this place Serbian criminals in the night of 25th, 26th August 1992 set on fire National and University’s Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Over two millions of books, periodicals and documents vanished in the flame. Do not forget, remember and warn.’

Unlike Sarajevo, there were no signs on Vukovar’s buildings. No red markers calling attention to its wounds. The city remains divided. The ethnic communities split evenly into separate churches, schools and coffee shops. The justice process has been long and drawn-out, with new charges still being filed, almost two decades after the initial siege. The infrastructure has not been restored and unemployment is estimated at forty percent.     

After walking around for two hours amongst the shadows of death and rubble, I was more than ready for a drink. The last thing I wanted was to offend anyone by going into the wrong bar but I couldn’t tell which was Croat and which was Serb. In the end, I decided upon the bar nearest to my hotel.


I wanted to speak to someone, but how could I ask questions about the war and still remain sensitive? I sat alone at a table on a covered patio, the heat trapped inside by thick plastic walls. I was ready to go when a stranger came up to me with a question of his own..

“Excuse me, are you a foreigner?”

I’d noticed him when I first arrived. He’d been sitting with friends, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. There was a motorbike helmet on the chair across from him.

“Yes, how can you tell?” I asked.

“I can just tell,” he said. “What are you doing in Vukovar?”

“I’m traveling around Croatia and Vukovar is an important city, so I came to see it.”

“Why is Vukovar important?” he asked.

“Well, because of what happened here during the war.”

He lit a cigarette.


“Well, I was here during the war and I can tell you about it. I want the truth about     Vukovar to be heard.”

I’d been so afraid to bring up the past and here this man was, offering me it to me with a fresh beer.

I shouldn’t have been so surprised. I learned that you don’t need to be in a conversation for very long before a Croatian will almost always bring up the war. It’s still very much a part of their lives.

As I gathered my things and moved to his table, he continued, “I should also mention that I’m Serbian.”

His name was Nenad, which translated meant “to become suddenly.” His father was from Serbia. His mother, now widowed, was Croatian. He had lived in Vukovar all his life, except for five years when he had moved to Britain. That was in 1999, two years after Vukovar was returned to Croatia. Upon his return he no longer felt welcome.

As I spoke with Nedad,I was haunted by his eyes. When he told me about the war he spoke with his entire being. His body swayed and his hands moved with his descriptions of the fear of death. Everything about him was animated – all but his eyes which remained fixed on me. He told me about living for a year in his basement in Vukovar and about having to see a post-traumatic stress counselor in London. When he smiled with his tightly drawn lips his eyes never changed.  

Nedad described the dead bodies lying in the streets, the decapitations of both soldiers and citizens alike and about seeing people everyday who did these things during the war.

“So they killed a few people, who am I to judge?” he said, his eyes still staring.        
Needless to say, there wasn’t much laughter in our conversation -- even when he talked about the house he lived in just outside town. He described his mother and eleven stray cats and dogs, the hens that pecked their fill in the yard and the plum and apple trees that grew in the back. He also spoke of going for a swim in the Danube when he felt stressed. All were happy memories, but nothing could change the somber effect of his war stories.



Under normal circumstances, I might have felt callous for asking the questions I did, but Nedad seemed to want to talk about his experiences. Despite his willingness to discuss the war he spoke in hushed tones, as if we were conspiring.

“I’m not like anyone else here,” he said. “People here are mad but they don’t want to do anything about it. It is like they are dead. I’m different from everyone else, but I can act. I like acting.”

Nedad said he felt disconnected to Vukovar and hated the people still living there for not doing anything to change their situation. He felt strongly about his opinion but that was exactly the impression I got from him myself -- a man who wanted to leave but didn’t know how to or where to go.

A couple of hours and a pack of cigarettes later, the smoke inside the plastic walls was suffocating.  Nenad offered to take me on his motorbike to the hospital museum. There was nothing I wanted more than to be told the story from someone who knew it first-hand.

When we reached his motorbike, he held out his hand to me. But I passed up his offer. There was something in his ever-staring eyes that I didn’t trust.

I’d been angry at the silence in Vukovar. I wanted the story spelled out as vividly as the ‘Sarajevo Roses.’ But when it came right down to it, when offered a chance to find out what happened, I wasn’t ready.

That night in my small hotel room I slept fitfully. I woke up a few times in the middle of the night and went to the large bedroom window. The sunny day had turned into a bitterly cold night. The sounds of the shrill, howling wind crawled up my spine.

The town square outside my window was empty, still subdued from the effects of a war that seemed to have never left.

© Andrea MacDonald

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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