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
Opponents say Vukovar is a special case and should not be subject to the law, regardless of what Brussels says. “There’s no way that we accept Cyrillic,” Dragutin Glasnovic, a spokesman for critics of the move, said at one of the rallies. “Vukovar should be treated differently due to a special respect for its victims on which Croatia was founded.”
Around him protesters wear T-shirts bearing the slogan “For a Croatian Vukovar – No to Cyrillic” and banners reading “This is not Serbia”. For them Serbian is the language of a barbarous enemy that besieged Vukovar for three months in late 1991.
A couple of thousand lightly armed Croats defended Vukovar from more than 35,000 Yugoslav troops, as Serb commanders pounded the city with tanks, heavy artillery and bomber aircraft. Barely a building was left undamaged, and families hid in basements as flying shrapnel and sniper fire menaced anyone who ventured out.
Twenty-two thousand people fled the city, and about 1,700 Croats were killed before Serb-led military and paramilitary groups finally overran the city, on November 19th, 1991. When they did, hundreds of people sought shelter in Vukovar’s hospital, from where they hoped to be evacuated.
Instead the Serbs transported about 250 wounded fighters and civilians to a pig farm at Ovcara, outside Vukovar, where they were beaten, tortured and shot dead. Their bodies were later found in a mass grave not far from the city. “Everyone knows what happened here in 1991,” says Tomislav Josic, a war veteran who leads the Defence of Croatian Vukovar group in its drive to block the Cyrillic signs.
A lot of Croatian and foreign money has been spent on the reconstruction of Vukovar, and, as it becomes a border town of the EU, only a few of its facades bear the scars of the horrific siege.
“The place looks nice, there are new buildings, but scratch the surface and things aren’t so good,” says Ljubomir Mikic of Vukovar’s Centre for Peace, a rights and democracy group.
He explains that communal divisions start at nursery school, where most Serbs and Croats attend classes taught in their own languages, and tend to mix only with their ethnic kin.
“Children are taught to hate,” he says, “and the younger generation is not necessarily more open-minded and liberal than their elders. Some have taken on the wartime experiences of their parents and grandparents, even though they were not even alive then.”
With memories of war still fresh in many minds, employment scarce and political allegiances important in securing a job, people in Vukovar and other areas badly affected by the fighting are easily manipulated by politicians, Mikic adds.
“The messages sent by these protests are not encouraging,” he says. “The fight against Cyrillic is becoming the fight against the presence of the Serb minority. It’s the only card the nationalists have to play. After all, Cyrillic is nothing new here; it has been used in Vukovar for centuries.”