Twenty years after fighting started between Croats and Serbs, the contested border town is back to its old ethnic mix, but far from a melting pot
"Does this train strike you as taking you to a nice place?" asks my only fellow passenger in the sole carriage of an old "Swede". We’re on our way to Vukovar.
The train was built in Sweden in the early 1980s and, having completed its service there, was installed in Croatia in the 1990s. This line in the country’s most eastern region is probably its last stop before retirement.
"In Vukovar you have to wander the streets with a lantern looking for a gentle soul – for people not hardened by hatred and grief," the man in his 50s adds bitterly. "People still look at one another like they’re taking aim. Once you arrive you just want to get back on the train and leave!"
Twenty years after the town fell to Serbian forces and 14 years after its peaceful re-integration into Croatia – an event that marked the end of the war and enabled the town’s exiled Croats to come back home – Vukovar’s return to normality is still a questionable matter.
Shortly after I arrive, a local politician interrupts my first scheduled interview and rambles on for an hour about ethnic relations in the town. He insists on distinguishing Serbs from Croats, defying any sense of shared citizenship. I slowly start wishing I could take the first Swede back out of Vukovar. But two days later, after talking to a dozen other people, it turns out that the politician’s "soul" was perhaps the least gentle of all.
"Reconciliation doesn’t suit the nationalists in the local government," says Srdjan Antic, of the Nansen Dialogue Centre, an NGO working to improve relations between Vukovar’s ethnic communities. "They live on ethnic divisions and dictate what is socially acceptable."
But the nationalists’ grip on local government is waning. In 2009, the Social Democrat Zeljko Sabo was elected mayor – the first moderate politician to hold the post since the war.
The golden days
Vukovar’s strategic position at the eastern edge of the province of Slavonia, a region halfway between Zagreb and Belgrade, made it an important industrial and cultural centre before the war that led to Yugoslavia’s break-up. Large factories attracted workers from all over the country. A 1990 sociological survey by the University of Zagreb showed Vukovar to be a melting pot, with 23 different ethnic groups and few people without work.
But everything changed in 1991 when Croatia declared its independence. Promptly, the town was encircled by the Yugoslav People’s Army and their Serbian paramilitary allies. During the subsequent three-month siege, some 7,000 missiles rained down on the city every day, destroying about 85 per cent of the buildings, according to the Croatian Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs. Vukovar had the dubious honour of being the first town in Europe to be destroyed by fighting since World War II.
Over 3,000 people were killed in the siege and, after the town fell on 18 November 1991, thousands who had resisted the Serbian forces were evicted.
The 1995 Erdut peace agreement between Croatia and Serbia – brokered by the United Nations in what is widely viewed as one of the organisation’s most successful engagements – incorporated eastern Slavonia into Croatia. Slowly, Croats began returning to the town, which was populated almost exclusively by Serbs between November 1991 and 1998.
Today, Vukovar’s ethnic mix has almost returned to pre-war levels. The 2001 census puts the number of inhabitants at 32,000, with 57% Croats and 33% as Serbs, compared to 47% and 32%, respectively, before the war. The population, though, has shrunk from its 1990 level of 45,000.
Mayor Zeljko Sabo describes Vukovar today as a town of peace and tolerance. But many will say it’s peaceful only according to the crime statistics, and tolerant in the sense that Croats and Serbs put up with each other because they have no choice.
"If looks could kill, there would be many dead people every day in Vukovar. This is still a divided place," says Ljiljana Gehrecke of the Europe House, an NGO working on inter-ethnic reconciliation, which she has headed since 2000.
Gehrecke agrees that Vukovar is trapped in the past. "I believe we all have a smouldering desire for mental relief, but we don’t know how to overcome our negative emotions," she says. "Even if all the Serbs or Croats left the town, the hatred would stay behind."
But the causes for this resentment lie not only in the past, but also in today’s political decisions. Ever since Vukovar’s incorporation into Croatia in the late 1990s, Croat and Serb children have attended separate schools from kindergarten onwards. This is because Serbs have a legal right to schooling in their language and the Cyrillic script.
"This institutionalised segregation determines the attitudes of children in Vukovar," Antic maintains. "Starting in kindergarten, children enter a ghetto and have no contact with their peers in the other ghetto. The result is that young people are convinced that a shared life is impossible," he says.
Maja Tanasic and Jelena Stajin are both 16. They are taught in Serbian at their high school, while classes in Croatian are held in the same building. All the students spend their breaks outside the school, but the two groups avoid each other, standing in "their" parts of the courtyard. Maja and Jelena don’t have any Croat friends.
Still, for Maja and Jelena, "bygones are bygones". The war is a thing of the past, and they’re not interested in the topic.
On the November anniversaries of the fall of Vukovar, they stay at home, like most of their fellow Serbs. They do think about the future, however, away from Vukovar. When they finish high school they will both go to university, probably in Serbia as many young Serbs from Vukovar do. Antic calls this a "democratic" form of ethnic cleansing.
A new horizon
"We fought against Serbian politics, not against Serbian citizens," implores the Croatian war veteran, Stanko Zadro. "Those who want to live here have to accept that Vukovar is a multi-ethnic place."
We met at the launch of a book dedicated to his brother, Blago Zadro, who was killed in the war and has become a symbol for Vukovar’s defence. Streets and schools all over Croatia have been named after him.
Stanko returned to Vukovar in 2001. What he found, he says, was a gloomy, half-demolished town. Now, he believes things are improving, not just superficially, because social tensions have eased.
But journalist Zoran Pehar from Vukovar thinks people will turn to the future only once they feel that the past has received its proper epilogue.
"Everyone needs to know what happened to all the missing people that we’ve been searching for 20 years," he says. "The whole truth must come out."
Over the years, about 1,300 victims of the conflict in Vukovar have been identified in exhumations of mass and individual graves. Another 345 people remain missing, but their families have lost hope of ever seeing them again.
"But the truth that may emerge might not suit the Croats," I respond.
"So be it," Zoran holds firm. "Let us learn everything, so we can finally put an end to it all."
Before we part, out of curiosity, I ask why he arranged to meet me in a café mainly frequented by Serbs. Earlier that day, I met Maja and Jelena in the same café and they told me that it was a "Serbian" place.
Zoran shrugs. He thought it was a "Croat" place. We ask the waiter about who owns the café – not an unusual question in Vukovar.
"The owners are a Croat and a Serb," he replies. Zoran and I laugh.
It’s a sunny day as I leave Vukovar on the Swede.