The war between Croatia and Serbia may be over but in border town Vukovar, which was one of the most destroyed places, a new generation inherits the stories of the war-generation before them due to heavy separation.
Vukovar, Croatia – “Cows,” says Marko Mlakic (25) to Grga Krajina (23) when he notices the pungent smell of manure over the green fields of Vukovar, a town on the border between Croatia and Serbia. 24 years ago, the air was full of the smell of war as 260 Vukovar citizens were massacred and thrown into a mass grave. When Mlakic and Krajina approach the black, tall statue in the middle of these fields, their voices drop and their body language changes. They are nearing the grave of Mlakic’s grandfather, two of Krajina’s cousins and many others they know directly or indirectly.
The ‘massacre of Vukovar’ was one of the most bloody events during the ‘Domovinski rat’ [homeland war]; the war which was the result of Croatia’s call for independence clashing with the Serbian ambition of a ‘Greater Serbia’ in the early nineties. Both powers fought heavily and met each other in and around Vukovar. The citizens and the small town suffered a lot: 2000 residents and Croat defenders of the town died, 800 went missing and around 20.000 inhabitants fled.
All the guests of local pub ‘History’ seem to know someone who died during the war and Mlakic and Krajina are busy, shaking the many hands. “We all know each other here. Of course we do, this is our bar. Serbians have their own pubs.” This clear division goes further than just a bar. It also exists for football clubs, bridge evenings and other social meeting places in the town, with just 27,000 inhabitants.
Different history lessons
One third of the population are ethnic Serbs, which means: Orthodox Christians and users of a different alphabet (the Cyrillic instead of the Latin one) and more importantly: another view on what happened during the 90s.
Although not on purpose, the name of the pub (History) reveals the biggest difference between Croats and Serbs in the small town; where Croats are eager to talk, reminisce and tell strangers about what happened 24 years ago, Serbs prefer to not discuss it. They know that their view on the events conflicts with their fellow-villagers and most tourists. Their story also contradicts the many signs and memorials in and around the town.
“That is where the diversion starts in our city,” says Mlakic who often deals with this as president of the municipality’s Youth Council. “We go to school separately and that has not only to do with language; we have different history lessons.”
This system of ‘two schools under one roof,’ is not unique for Vukovar and something seen in Bosnia Herzegovina and other parts of Croatia as well. Although heavily criticised, it is a system many parents in the Balkans prefer in order to secure their children of knowledge about their own language and ethnical history. It has resulted in a remarkable system of shifts in Vukovar where one ethnical group attends school in the early morning and the second group are taught in the afternoons.
This strict separation is introduced on many levels and seems a pragmatic way of ‘agreeing to disagree’, but even with this pragmatism, clashes are not always avoided. In 2013, when bilingual signs were introduced on municipality buildings, due to constitutional minority laws; people took the street and destroyed the ‘Serbian-signs’. For a portion of the Croat citizens, the Cyrillic script [the orthodox Christian/oriental letters] reminds of the early 90s and the, what they call, ‘Serbian invasion.’
It’s way too fresh to put the signs directly in the street, according to Krajina who didn’t destroy signs but does defend the action: “We are still facing Serbs on the street who worked back then for the military, that’s hard already. We cannot face their alphabet as well.”
The signs have still not returned and in the spaces where they should hang, only screw-holes and handwritten messages remain: “if you put it back in Latin, everything will be okay,” is what people will read on some government buildings now. The wounds are still to open to practice minority rights.
Where the use and recognition of an alphabet can be seen as the surface of the divisions between the two groups, the different views on the ‘Vukovar hospital massacre’ touch upon the deeper cause.
Marko Mlakic in front of headstones which are placed years later after people were found in this mass grave. In the background the memorial statue is visible
The killing of 260 Croats during one of the last days of the war, is a story people visiting Vukovar will easily run into because of the many memorials, statues and signs. Serb militants went to the local hospital to transfer 260 Croats to a farm outside town where they were held as prisoners. The prisoners were then beaten and brought to one of the many pastures around Vukovar. In groups of twenty, people were shot and thrown into a mass grave.
Now a memorial centre, a black statue, flowers and bushes for every person who died, remind visitors of what happened on the vast farmlands outside Vukovar.
Mlakic and Krajina visit the place regularly and they are not alone; the place is a coming and going of people, local, national and international, paying their respects. Although, one big group of the town doesn’t travel here: “Serbians won’t come here,” says Mlakic in front of the grave his grandfather shares with many others. “All the school classes go here except from the Serbian ones.”
When the two friends leave the mass-grave, get into their car and head back into town, they pass a small electricity building adorned with graffiti: “Who dies bravely, lives for ever.”
It may well be the only historical reference people in Vukovar will ever agree on.