Warning: The following article contains images of political symbols that have been used to incite ethnic hatred.
Today, the 18th of November, I’m not going to discuss what happened on this day twenty-two years ago. I want to talk about what happened afterwards under the veil of Serb occupation. Most of you will be all too familiar with the carnage and suffering of the Siege of Vukovar itself. If you are not, I suggest you refresh your memory by watching this short video.
The world saw very little of the Serb occupation that began on November the 18th. Indeed, even Croatians were cut off from what was going on in their own country. You couldn’t make a ‘phone call from Vukovar to Osijek thirty-five kilometres away. Non-Serbs who were left behind found themselves on the wrong side of a front line under the brutal dominion of the warlord Arkan and his ‘Tigers’. The 18th of November 1991 marked the beginning of a harrowing episode in which the massacre of hospital patients and transportation of non-Serbs to concentration camps was just the beginning. It was a portent of the incomprehensible horrors that would be perpetrated in Bosnia in the following years.
There are many stories I could relate of the time I spent in Serb-occupied Croatia, but today I want to share some evidence I have kept for more than two decades. My first instinct when I received these ghastly mementoes was to reject them, to throw them back in the faces of those who gave them to me, to wash my hands of any association with these supporters of ethnic cleansing. You see, even though I was a foreigner working for the UN, I immediately understood what they meant. I had spent months in the refugee camps on Croatia’s Adriatic coast and become friends with survivors of the war from all over Croatia and Bosnia, including Vukovar. I had studied ‘Serbo-Croatian’ (as it was called then) at UCLA and could read the Cyrillic script. I was able to recognise the sinister nature of the gifts I received.
I was in Vukovar Hospital, you see. In a desperate attempt to provide urgent assistance to those trapped in the occupied zone (which in effect meant the fifteen thousand non-Serbs who didn’t manage to escape the advancing JNA/Serb troops), we had just delivered a convoy of medical aid to the hospital which was to be used under the watchful eye of an astute British medical officer to ensure that non-Serb patients actually received the treatment they needed. (We’d already rescued an elderly Hungarian woman whom Serb doctors had initially treated under UN supervision but then left to die as her amputated leg festered in urine and faeces under their ‘watchful’ eyes. So we were under no illusion as to how the medical supplies would be used if we didn’t keep them under UN control.)
In gratitude, one of the nurses presented us with some “souvenirs” of Vukovar. I should preface the pictures of these souvenirs with the explanation that very little had changed between the fall of Vukovar on the 18th of November 1991 and the summer/autumn of 1993 when I was there. According to my Macedonian interpreter (who was in genuine and well-founded fear of his life for refusing to support the Krajina Serbs), the only difference was that the dead bodies had been hidden in an assortment of mass graves and the rubble cleared sufficiently for vehicles to pass. Serb tanks patrolled the streets incessantly and my boss informed me he’d had his camera smashed when he last tried to take photos. The occupiers didn’t want the world knowing what it was really like in occupied Croatia. Arkan’s paramilitaries regularly terrorised aid convoys, and UN vehicles would occasionally spontaneously combust (no doubt with the assistance of Serb munitions). We weren’t exactly popular. So we didn’t know what to expect when we were told we must accept some “souvenirs” of Vukovar.
The initials ICV on this first sticker stand for Information Centre of Vukovar (Informativni Centar Vukovar). The sort of “information” peddled by this propaganda unit is demonstrated in the paraphernalia that follows. Notably, according to the ICV, the only civilian experience of what they called the “liberation” of Vukovar was the disappearance of twenty to thirty Serbs, blamed on Croatian forces.
This sticker says “Serbian Army”. The initials RSK denote the Republic of the Serbian Krajina. The shield with the four Cyrillic letters ‘S’ represents the Serbian slogan “only unity saves the Serbs” (Samo Sloga Srbina Spasava). During the war, I often saw the symbol of the four ‘C’s in the quadrants of a cross scrawled as graffiti on walls in areas that had been ethnically cleansed. Its connotations (despite a more innocent heraldic background) were not dissimilar to that of a Nazi swastika.
This sticker in the colours of the Serbian flag has the words “Vukovar”, “First Year”, and the date of the first anniversary of the fall of Vukovar. The picture is of the “Vukovar dove”.
This badge is of the Serbian Army. It is further proof that the destruction of Vukovar was done in the name of ‘Greater Serbia’ and not (as some naively argue) just an attempt by the JNA to keep Yugoslavia together or a ‘civil war’ started by rival ethnic groups.
As we stared at these stickers and patch badges, the nurse explained they were issued to celebrate the “liberation” of Vukovar. As is my wont, I said what I thought: “Don’t you mean the destruction of Vukovar?” Her disingenuous response was that they “had to destroy it in order to liberate it”. She said it was “unfortunate”.
I exchanged dismayed whispers with my colleagues, bit my tongue, and resolved to keep the disgusting souvenirs. I’ve kept them for twenty-two years as ‘evidence’ because, as a historian, I know people will forget. And they have. Now, even some Croatians are pushing for the official use of Cyrillic in Vukovar. I’ve already outlined my main objections in a previous article, but I’m hoping these “mementoes” will provide a visual reminder of why the sight of Cyrillic in Vukovar is so very objectionable.
It wasn’t a soldier or one of Arkan’s minions who gave me these souvenirs of Vukovar. They were a gift from a supposedly peace-loving civilian nurse, a woman whose job was to take care of people. She considered herself a humanitarian and she thought she was giving me something valuable and precious. Indeed, she only had four sets to give away and ushered us aside so that the others wouldn’t feel like they’d missed out. We were supposed to feel privileged.
I didn’t feel particularly privileged at the time, except in that I felt lucky to be alive. I had a blue UN identity card, which meant I could cross international borders and front lines without a passport. Along with my UNHCR radio and 4WD, my ‘blue card’ would ensure that I could get to the safety of Hungary if anything went wrong – a distinct possibility as we were on orange alert. I could escape from the so-called Republic of the Serbian Krajina. There were thousands who could not. The souvenirs made me feel sick and I wanted to abandon my professional demeanour and cry like a baby. But they were proof of the real situation in occupied Croatia, proof that the local Serb population was not only complicit in but supportive of the occupation. So I kept them. And I drank a lot of vermouth that night as I tried not to think of the two hundred plus ‘ceasefire violations’ that had the potential of killing my friends and colleagues on the other side of the front line.
However, these particular reminders of the past are not how I’d prefer to commemorate the 18th of November. I don’t want these pictures to be ‘the last word’. These tokens of slaughter and destruction are how others think of Vukovar. If you read The Alarm Bells of Vukovar you will understand that many still deny Serb responsibility for the war and war crimes. The director of Vukovar Hospital at the time is still leader of the local Serbs and has sat in the Croatian parliament for many years despite being a war crimes suspect. These mementoes from twenty years ago illustrate how the fall of Vukovar would still be commemorated if Croatia had not taken the initiative of Operation Storm. They are evidence of the perversity and depravity of those who supported the Serb occupation of the Croatian Krajina region.
So, instead, and in honour of those who perished as well as the survivors “among the ruins”, allow me to finish with a poem by Dragutin Tadijanović. Lest we forget….
Thousands of the Dead and I
Here thousands of people
Perished. And now they lie
Under marble slabs
With regulation name and number
Already obliterated by rain. And I
Still stroll among the trees, alive.
Hiljade mrtvih i ja
Ovdje su hiljade ljudi
Poginuli. I sad leže
Pod mramornim pločama,
S rednim brojem I imenom
Već zbrisanim od kiše. A ja
Među stablima šetam, još živ.