Few thought that Dubrovnik would be directly affected by the break-up of Yugoslavia: no significant Serbian minority lived in the city, and its strategic importance was questionable. However, in October 1991 units of the JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army), supported by volunteers from Montenegro and Serb-dominated eastern Hercegovina, quickly overran the tourist resorts south of Dubrovnik and occupied the high ground commanding approaches to the city. The bombardment of Dubrovnik began in early November and lasted until May 1992. Despite considerable damage to the town’s historic core, Dubrovnik’s medieval fortifications proved remarkably sturdy, with the fortresses of Revelin and St John (more familiar to tourists as the site of the aquarium) pressed into service as shelters for the civilian population.

The logic behind the attack on Dubrovnik was confused. Belgrade strategists unwisely considered it an easy conquest, the fall of which would damage Croatian morale and break the back of Croatian resistance elsewhere on the Adriatic. The attack on Dubrovnik also presented an effective way of dragging both the Montenegrins and the Serbs of eastern Hercegovina into the conflict, not least because it seemed to promise them ample opportunities for pillage. Attacking forces employed a mixture of bad history and dubious folklore to justify their actions. Dubrovnik’s links with medieval Serbia, and the fact that so many leading Ragusan families had originally come from the Balkan interior, were unconvincingly offered up as evidence that the early republic had been part of the Serbian cultural orbit. In a particularly twisted piece of cultural logic, opportunist Serbian intellectuals painted modern-day Dubrovnik city as a cesspit of Western corruption that could only be purified by the macho values of the Balkan hinterland. A special edition of the Montenegrin magazine Pobjeda published in November 1991 and entitled The War for Peace argued, with startling mendacity/hypocrisy, that Dubrovnik was under the control of Croatian ustaše (World War II fascists) and therefore deserved to be conquered.

Contrary to Serbian–Montenegrin expectations, Dubrovnik’s hastily arranged defences held out, and in the end the siege was broken in July 1992 by a Croatian offensive from the north. Once Dubrovnik’s land links with the rest of Croatia had been re-established, Croatian forces continued their push southwards, liberating Cavtat and Čilipi.

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