COURTESY BOB JONES
The water tower in Vukovar, Croatia, bears the scars of the massacre of more than 1,000 civilians by Serbs in 1991.
Battered, bloody Vukovar exposes folly of ethnic war
No one who's been to Vukovar in Croatia can ever forget that visit or the horror of what happened in 1991 in that once picturesque city on the Danube River.
In fact, many buildings and a water tower have been left in their battle-torn state so that no one will forget.
It is where, after an 87-day siege by artillery and tank fire, the Yugoslavian People's Army came in and turned the city over to local Serb militiamen. They rounded up about 200 people from the hospital, trucked and bussed them to the Ovcara Farm on the outskirts, shot them and buried them in mass graves.
Of the Croatian army defenders at Vukovar, 600 were killed. At least 1,000 civilians were killed. Some 10,000 were taken to concentration camps to Serbia and about 600 of them didn't come out when the war with Serbia ended.
At long last, the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague has dispensed at least a touch of justice. This week it convicted two former Yugoslav Army officers of the massacre of 194 of those 200 civilians taken from the hospital. Mile Mrksic was sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment for murder and torture. Veselin Sljivancanin was sentenced to five years for torture and acquitted of extermination.
But as I said, you must go to Vukovar to truly understand what can happen when nationalism and religious differences turn into a killing field. Serbs felt they were getting back at Croats who'd joined the Nazis during World War II and imprisoned many of them. Croats are Roman Catholic and Serbs are of the Orthodox Church. The two do not mix well in the Balkans.
Prior to the war, Vukovar was a prosperous town with a river cargo port and textile and agricultural industries. But Serb tank fire and artillery hit every structure and the Croats that remained huddled in basements. When Croats regained control in 1998 after the peace accords, the region was resettled by 150,000 Serbian refugees who'd lived there fairly peacefully until that war started. My daughter, Brett Jones, did resettlement for a European agency there and later for the U.S. government in Kosovo. That's how I came to visit Vukovar.
There had been gorgeous architecture and magnificent churches for the Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Bosnian Muslims. One side or the other trashed almost all of them or blew them up.
One of the survivors who gives only his first name, Niksa, says, "I knew there was no house in town that wasn't totally destroyed by bombing. I knew all historic monuments of Vukovar were systematically destroyed by Serbian forces in order to erase any sign of its European heritage.
"I was totally shocked by my emotional reaction when I visited Vukovar again in 2004, first time after the war. Walking among the ruins of baroque houses I could only feel that at this moment I was unable to produce any voice. And that tears are coming down my cheeks.
"After hearing the local priest telling us about the deliberate destruction of the church and the monastery, I was still unable to understand the strength he had when at the end he called us all to forgive them."
Most Serbs don't deny what happened in Vukovar and other Croatian towns. But they claim that up through the '90s, Croats went on Serb-killing sprees. I've talked to many knowledgeable people about that and it seems to be true -- but on both sides. As it was explained to me, men of either ethnicity might get drunk in a local tavern and decide to go to a nearby village of opposite ethnicity and burn down some houses and perhaps shoot some fleeing people.
I guess you could say that what happened in Croatia (and similarly in Bosnia) was exactly what's happening today in Iraq.
There are few things more savage than warfare based on differences of ethnicity and religion rather than simple territorial disputes.
I'll never forget Vukovar. Maybe we'd all be better people if we all could make such a visit, see the destruction and talk to the survivors.
It burns itself into your brain.
Bob Jones, a former NBC correspondent and Hawaii anchorman, is a MidWeek columnist who occasionally contributes to the Star-Bulletin.