Old ghosts stalk Croatia’s Stalingrad
As Croatia prepares to join the EU, ethnic divisions linger more than two decades after the bitter war with Serbia, and a war of words rages in the border town of Vukovar
Signs of protest: Croatian war veterans protesting in Zagreb in April against plans for the official use of the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet in the Croatian town of Vukovar. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty
War zone: the siege of Vukovar, in the former Yugoslavia, on November 18, 1991. Photograph: Art Zamur/Gamma-Rapho via Getty
At Vukovar the swift-flowing Danube is all that separates Croatia from Serbia. From midnight tomorrow this will also be where the EU meets the rest of the former Yugoslavia, a federation that just 20 years ago was tearing itself apart, killing well over 100,000 people and driving millions from their homes.
Croatia is about to become the EU’s 28th member, nine years behind Slovenia but well ahead of the other ex-Yugoslav states; only this week Serbia received EU approval to start accession talks that have been long delayed by the legacy of war. It’s a war that changed Vukovar forever.
Until 1991 Croatia was known for its wealth, for its cosmopolitan atmosphere and for the fine Baroque buildings that ran down to its busy riverfront.
It was one of most the prosperous cities in Yugoslavia thanks to a huge shoe factory that employed 23,000 people, from all over the country, and to the port that served cargo and passenger boats on the Danube. Back then, locals now recall with a kind of mystified pride, more than 25 ethnic minorities were represented in the town’s population of 45,000.
The world did not know much about the old Vukovar, sitting quietly on the fertile plains of eastern Croatia, deep in the sleepy provinces of what was once the Habsburg empire.
Most of the world learned about Vukovar from the war, which bequeathed new nicknames to this once-envied place – Croatia’s Stalingrad, Croatia’s City of Heroes – and a new term to the lexicon of human cruelty: ethnic cleansing.
This is the darkness from which Croatia has been running since the war with Serbia ended, in 1995. It has been running towards the EU, a union created to heal the wounds of an earlier European war and to prevent its members taking up arms against each other again.
But as Croatia prepares to join the club it finds that it cannot just slam the door on its recent past, and the prospect of EU membership seems only to have give it new life.
“There were about 20,000 protesters here from all over Croatia,” says Suzana Agotic of the Nansen Dialogue Centre, which works to rebuild a multiethnic Vukovar. “Things are very polarised again here now. People say everything is going fine in Vukovar, but it’s not.”
Agotic describes how flag-waving war veterans, many wearing their old uniforms, led demonstrations this year against plans to erect street signs in Vukovar in the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet.
According to the 2011 census almost 35 per cent of Vukovar’s 27,683 residents are Serbs. By law, bilingual signs must be introduced anywhere that a minority comprises at least a third of the population. The bilingual signs have appeared in other areas of Croatia that have large Italian, Hungarian and even Serb minorities.