Set amidst wheat and cornfields on the west bank of the Danube, VUKOVAR was until 1991 the most prosperous town in Croatia, with a quaint Baroque centre, a successful manufacturing industry based around the Borovo tyre and footwear factory, and an urban culture that was lively, open and tolerant. However, the town’s proximity to the Serbian border and ethnically mixed population (of whom 44 percent were Croat and 37 percent Serb) conspired to place Vukovar at the sharp end of the Croat–Serb conflict. The resulting siege and capture of the town by the Yugoslav People’s Army and Serbian irregulars killed hundreds of civilians, left the centre of town in ruins, and did untold emotional damage to those lucky enough to escape (see Đakovački vezovi folk festival). In January 1998 Vukovar was returned to Croatia as part of the Erdut Accord, though Croats driven away seven years earlier were initially slow to return, either because their homes were still in ruins or because the local economy wasn’t yet strong enough to provide sufficient jobs. There are currently about 18,000 Croats and 9000 Serbs living in Vukovar – about two-thirds of the original population – although social contact between the two communities is virtually nonexistent. Today, the town is a strange mixture of ruined buildings, restored facades and glitzy post-1995 shopping centres.
The siege of Vukovar
The siege of Vukovar
Inter-ethnic tension flared in Vukovar at the dawn of the Croat–Serb conflict in April 1991, when barricades went up between the Croatian-controlled town centre and the Serb-dominated suburbs. The firing of a rocket at the Serb district of Borovo Selo by Croat extremists was a calculated attempt to raise the stakes. Croatian policemen patrolling Borovo Selo were shot at by Serbian snipers on May 1, and when a busload of their colleagues entered the suburb the following day, they were met by an ambush in which twelve of them lost their lives. The JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army) moved in, ostensibly to keep the two sides apart, digging into positions that were to serve them well with the breakout of all-out war in the autumn.
On September 14, 1991, the Croatian National Guard surrounded the JNA barracks in town. Serb irregulars in the outlying areas, supported by the JNA, responded by launching an attack. Croatian refugees fled the suburbs, crowding into the centre. Aided by the fact that many of the outlying villages were ethnically Serb, the JNA swiftly encircled the town, making it all but impossible to leave (the only route out was through sniper-prone cornfields), and subjecting the population to increasingly heavy shelling. By the beginning of October the people of Vukovar were living in bomb shelters and subsisting on meagre rations of food and water, their plight worsened by the seeming inactivity of the government in Zagreb. Some of the town’s defenders suspected that Vukovar was being deliberately sacrificed in order to win international sympathy for the Croatian cause. Vukovar finally fell on November 18, with most of the inhabitants fleeing back to the town hospital or making a run for it across the fields to the west. Of those who fell into Yugoslav hands, the women and children were usually separated from the men – many of the latter simply disappeared.
The worst atrocities took place after Yugoslav forces reached the hospital, which they proceeded to evacuate before the agreed arrival of Red Cross supervisors. Those captured here were bundled into trucks and driven away to be murdered, finishing up in a mass grave near the village of Ovčara, 6km southeast. About two thousand Croatian soldiers and civilians died in the defence of Vukovar, and those listed as missing still run into the hundreds. The fact that Vukovar held out for so long turned the town into an emotionally powerful symbol of Croatian resistance, and also put paid to the JNA as an effective army of conquest.