Croatia And Serbia And Not Talking About The War

Visiting Serbia And Croatia And Finding Serious History

We left Croatia recently after five days of traveling across Serbia and Croatia. People were often eager to talk history but that usually meant railing against the Ottoman-Turks or Communists. In Belgrade, Serbia one woman recounted remembering the incoming American Tomahawk missiles and how Serbia was treated unfairly by America and Western Europe.

Our last evening in Serbia we attended a lecture by a professor who went into great detail about the old rival factions in the Balkans. All about the Romans settling the region, conflicts between Catholicism, the Orthodox church, and the six major Slavic groups that call the region home. Throw in the Ottoman-Turkish invasion with a few hundred years of occupation and war, followed by World War II and Communism and you end up with a boiling piece of geography. Under Communism, Yugoslavia was created with a strong arm dictator named Tito and subdivided along ethnic lines into six republics under one government.

After Tito’s death Yugoslavia quickly dissolved and even though they spoke a common language, Servo-Croatian, they had different histories, wildly different religious beliefs, and very distinct identities. By 1991, Slovenia and Croatia each declared independence from Yugoslavia. Soon a bloody war broke out in Croatia where Serbs tried to create their own new state. A year later, Macedonia formed its own state with little conflict. Next to go was the republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But Bosnian Serbs wanted to stay with what was left of the Yugoslav Federation and that led to three years of more war.

Oddly, nobody we talked to seemed to have anything to say about the Muslim populations that remained behind after the Ottomans pulled out or a number of campaigns that devolved into ethnic cleansing.

Shortly before leaving Croatia we found ourselves in the town of Vukovar on the Danube at the Serbian-Croatian border. A cute place with outdoor cafes, parks, several historic churches and a museum and it was getting ready for an annual film festival. We spent a few hours taking pictures, discussing points of interest with some locals and noted a number of half destroyed buildings around town. It was only on the next day when I was researching local geography and this town that I discovered we had missed something important.

A number of buildings have been left as memorials from the siege
The remains of Vukovar’s famous water tower

In 1991 between August and November the Battle of Vukovar was an 87-day siege of the town in Croatia by the Yugoslav People’s Army, and by various paramilitary forces from Serbia. Before the Croatian War of Independence this town was one of the most mixed communities in the Balkans with Croats, Serbs, other ethnic groups and a sizable Muslim population. Serbia’s President Slobodan Milošević along with Croatia’s President Franjo Tuđman began fostering nationalist politics. In 1990, an armed insurrection was started by Serb militias in Croatia, supported by the Serbian government and paramilitary groups, who took control of Serb-populated areas of Croatia. The Yugoslav People’s Army got involved with the Serbs in Croatia and in May 1991 they launched a full-scale attack against Croatian-held territory in eastern Slavonia, focused on Vukovar.

Vukovar was defended by around 1,800 lightly armed soldiers of the Croatian National Guard and a couple of hundred civilian volunteers, against a force of 36,000 soldiers and Serbian paramilitaries equipped with heavy armor and artillery. During the battle, shells and rockets were fired into the town at a rate of up to 12,000 a day. At the time, it was the fiercest and most protracted battle in Europe since 1945, and Vukovar was entirely destroyed. When Vukovar fell on 18 November 1991, several hundred soldiers and civilians surrendered and were massacred by Serb forces and at least 20,000 inhabitants were driven out of the area. Overall, around 3,000 people died during the battle. Most of Vukovar was ethnically cleansed of its non-Serb population and became part of the self-declared proto-state Republic of Serbian Krajina. Several Serb military and political officials, including Milošević, were later indicted and in some cases jailed for war crimes committed during and after the battle of Vukovar.

A Stork nest on a Vukovar rooftop

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