Vukovar Trip Leaves Indelible Impression of Horror
Over the years, I’ve heard many stories about Vukovar, a symbol of Croatia’s 1991-95 war for independence from Yugoslavia, and the city which suffered the heaviest losses in that conflict.
According to some estimates, around 5,000 residents were killed or went missing. Ninety per cent of buildings in this once beautiful city were destroyed.
The worst single crime was committed at nearby Ovcara on November 20, 1991, when Yugoslav Army, JNA, forces removed about 260 non-Serbs from Vukovar’s hospital and transported them to a farm building where they were beaten, tortured and eventually murdered.
I had heard stories about Vukovar’s splendor before the war, the horrors it endured during the conflict, and how it was healing its wounds today. I was told this by people who survived the siege of the city in 1991 and were then captured by Serb forces when they overtook Vukovar in November 1991 and taken to prison camps in Serbia.
As a reporter, I spent a lot of time covering the trial of three former JNA officers indicted by the Hague tribunal for crimes committed in Vukovar – Mile Mrksic, Veselin Sljivancanin and Miroslav Radic. Mrksic and Sljivancanin were sentenced to 20 and ten years’ imprisonment, respectively, while Radic was acquitted.
I also interviewed the victims of these crimes, who described in detail their horrifying experiences, the dire situation at the Vukovar hospital during the siege and the events running up to the Ovcara massacre.
But nothing I heard from the survivors and witnesses of crimes committed in Vukovar could have prepared me for what I experienced when I finally visited this city in November 2011. I went there with a group of young human rights activists from Serbia who wanted to pay tribute to the victims of war crimes on the 20th anniversary of the fall of Vukovar.
As soon as I entered the city, I felt slightly nauseous. I was overcome by guilt and sadness, just as I was during my first visit to the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, another city which was almost destroyed, ostensibly in the name of the Serb people.
It was early morning when we arrived and Vukovar seemed very quiet, unlike my home city of Belgrade which was usually bustling and noisy at this time of the day. It was a cold and grey day, and the remains of the destroyed houses looked eerie, as if time had stood still for the last 20 years.
A man approached me with a warm smile on his face, and welcomed me and the group of Serbian students I had arrived with. This was Danijel Rehak from the Association of Vukovar Defenders, someone I had spoken to by phone many times before.
Over the next few days, I kept on thinking about this meeting with Rehak and with Vukovar’s mayor Zeljko Sabo, who received us at the city hall. I couldn’t stop remembering the way they talked about their experiences in the besieged city and in detention camps in Serbia where they were held as prisoners after Vukovar fell.
In my line of work as a journalist, I have often interviewed victims of war crimes or heard their testimony. They were usually very emotional – justly so – expressing feelings varying from rage to hatred, from bitterness to sadness. But I didn’t observe any of those emotions on the faces of Rehak or Sabo, or of any other Croat who welcomed us to Vukovar.
Our hosts presented the facts, showed us graves bearing the names of victims, memorials, ruined buildings and shell holes. They guided us through Vukovar’s recent history with great dignity and calm, as if they had not participated in it; as if they had not been victims of the crimes committed in this city.
When I returned to Belgrade, I thought a lot about how much strength it took to talk like that about something that had happened to you personally.
While we were driving to the hospital, Rehak shared a story with me about how he carried his wounded wife in his arms to the hospital while shell fell around them. Fortunately, she survived.
We were taking the same route he had taken back then, and as I looked at him I could see nothing on his face other than peace.
The visit to the hospital was the hardest part of this trip for me, as it was for most of the young people in my group. I was not allowed to make recordings while we toured the basement, which housed hundreds of wounded soldiers and civilians during the siege of Vukovar. But that enabled me to stand aside from my work and focus instead on personal impressions. As I walked down the cold, damp hallways, my hands were shaking and my gaze wandered from one corner to another, trying to grasp the fact that so many people lived here for months in inhumane conditions, exposed every day to shelling and terror.
When I got out of there into the cold November day, I felt I needed a break to compose myself and start breathing normally. Seeing the pale and confused faces of the young people accompanying me made me realise it wasn’t going to be at all easy to do what I had come for – to write a story about this landmark visit by Serbian students to Vukovar.
Immersed in their own thoughts and deeply shaken by what they had seen, these young people were not in the mood to talk to me about their impressions. Eventually, I gave up because it was equally hard for me to ask questions.
Maintaining the silence that fell on us as we left the hospital, we headed out towards Ovcara.
There we entered the hangar in which prisoners and the wounded from the Vukovar hospital were detained before being executed. It was dark and quiet there. Holding our breaths, we looked at photographs of the faces of the dead Croats that shone like stars on the hangar walls, and at their personal belongings, found in a mass grave years after the war.
Rehak then took us down the road to a site where the prisoners were executed. None of us could utter a word. It was only after the Serbian students laid flowers at the mass grave memorial and headed towards the buses that I gathered the strength to ask some questions.
The students gave me the same answers I’d have given if somebody had asked me, after a day in Vukovar. They said they would never forget it.
I will never forget it, either. It was one of the toughest days I have gone through, in personal or professional life.
However, I left Vukovar feeling some small sense of relief, because I knew my report would help young people in Serbia understand what the city went through during the war. It was important that they heard the impressions of their peers who visited Vukovar and paid their respects to the victims.
I also found comfort in the fact that after this trip, no one will ever be able to persuade these students that war crimes were not committed in Vukovar.
Iva Martinovic is an IWPR-trained reporter in Belgrade.