MIRacles No. 11

Joel GAzis-SAx
23 Kolovoz 1992
Zagreb, Croatia
Copyright 1992 by Joel GAzis-SAx

"Voljeni Vukovar." Love for Vukovar. I see this slogan over a local ice cream stand every day that I am in Zagreb. Near Trg Jelacica, the main square of Zagreb, a hand giving the V sign advertises a shop whose proceeds go to the survivors of Vukovar. And over many election posters for Franjo Tudman, supporters of the ultra-right wing militarist Paraga have written one word: "Vukovar".

"Vukovar" the old woman who shared my train cabin on my last trip back from Osijek said as she pointed to herself and regarded me coldly. She uttered the name of her town as a rebuke for me, the man from California, and for the whole world. The war drags on, creating new scenes of destruction in other places, and the wound that is Vukovar stays open.

Vukovar -- occupied Vukovar -- stands as a central symbol of the injured Croat psyche. The memory of the utter destruction of this city on the Danube both serves to illustrate the need for peace and to obstruct the peace process. "I don't want to hear about the other side," a woman who works with Vukovar survivors told me after she heard about my trip to the city's ruins. "I want to suffer with my people."

That Vukovar and its people have felt the sword of fire is undeniable. You might be convinced, as you pass through the villages near the city, that the Croatian government has created a myth called Vukovar, a big lie that claims destruction where there has been none. There is little sign of the war, save for a few bullet holes in the walls of houses at strategic intersections and of public buildings like the post office. Everything you see is intact. People walk the streets. Life continues. The UNPROFOR checkpoint at the newly renamed "Bridge of the Serbian Heroes" seems completely unnecessary.

Then, the road bends and you look across a field to the burned out shells of multi-storied apartment buildings. The houses in the village facing Vukovar are riddled with holes made by every type of conventional weaponry imagineable: bullets, grenades, shrapnel, large bombs. It is worse across the field. Everyone on the bus stands up and stares. The bus comes closer to Vukovar. This is no myth, no folktale. It is a clear and palpable wound in the world's body.

The train station, the factories, the houses, the shops, the apartment buildings, the kiosks -- EVERYTHING has been scarred or demolished by the heavy fighting. Ten months after the JNA overran this city, there is no avoiding the evidence of the destruction of Vukovar.

The center of town no longer stands as such. Piles of rubble -- bricks, plaster, and bits of metal fittings which you normally don't see -- mark the intersection. Wrecks of the autos which the Croats and Serbs used to block the JNA tanks lay atop these piles. The things that the people owned and treasured are buried in these piles. A few people -- ordinary people -- walk through the heaps.

Perhaps a thousand Serbs live in Vukovar today. You cannot help but look around and wonder what they find to do. Vukovar has lost all of its industry, its riverport, its businesses. The only place to spend money that we found were two cafes: one in the center of town and one on the riverfront, facing Vojvodina. Here and there is a house which the current residents were able to fix, an apartment building whose holes could be patched.

The acting municipal authorities have surveyed the city and marked every building with one to three stripes of spray-paint. Green stripes show that the building has sustained no structural damage. The roof may be gone, the windows shot out, or, in the case of a church, the steeple may have disappeared, but the building inspector is confident that it can be reclaimed with relatively little effort. Yellow denotes that there is structural damage which can be fixed. A wall may be missing. And red marks a total loss. The inspector must bend over low, in some cases, to mark these. About forty percent of the houses I saw were marked with green, about twenty percent with yellow, and about forty percent with red.

The mayor shows us the hospital. A shiny new plate shows the accomplishment in process of a Beograd construction company. Vukovar, he explains, was the result of Croat nationalism. The leading Serbian intellectuals and managers of the town had lost their jobs. He had many Croat friends and he insists that he bears no ill will towards them. He never mentions the JNA.

When the JNA arrived at the hospital, he tells us, they found 350 men in the basement, all dressed in doctor's coats. Some wore military boots and some were barefoot. All of these men, he insists, have since been returned in prisoner exchanges.

I know the story he has been addressing. The Croats say that when the hospital was evacuated, the patients from this hospital were routed through hostile Serbian towns for several days. Some patients were pulled from the buses and never seen again. At least parts of the story have been confirmed by international human rights organizations. Amnesty International, for one, includes human rights violations against some of the Vukovar hospital staff in its 1992 Report.

Six buses from Vukovar, say many Croats, remain unaccounted for. Whether the Serbian story is the truth or a fabrication against the truth or a fabrication in response to another fabrication, I don't know. The truth that I can confirm is that Vukovar lies in ruins, that a tremendous amount of military force was applied here and that, in many places, there is next to nothing left.

How the local Serbs feel about what happened here can be measured in many ways. The mayor speaks for himself and, perhaps, reflects an official view. The four C's in a quadrant, the sign of the Chetniks (meaning "Together we must stand"), appear on many walls and sidewalks. I stop to photograph the shirt of a young boy. It is colorfully emblazoned with Chetnik symbols and historical figures. A Serbian Orthodox priest waves at our bus, holding up the V sign plus a thumb to bless us and to show his Chetnik sympathies.

In a tour of the ruins of Vukovar's castle, I pull one of our guides aside. I tell her about the medical student who I met in Osijek [see MIRacles No. 6] and about the other young Croats who have told me how much they miss their Serbian friends. Tears come to her eyes. "Yes," she says. "We miss them, too. We don't understand this war either." She goes off to tell her other young friends about what I have said. You can see them listen and nod. It is good news acknowledged with much sadness.

I go for a walk after our castle tour. I make sure that my feet always stay on solid ground because unexploded bombs and mines still hide in the dirt. In the courtyard of one of the castle outbuildings, I pick up large, rusty bomb fragments. On one large piece, I can read the date of manufacture: 1986.

I take this piece into my pocket and join the large crowd which walks down the street running closest to the river. We pass blasted homes, apartments, and businesses. Zoltan Toth calls my attention to one shop with the Chetnik sign painted on the window and the plea"Don't shoot. We are Serbs."

Children come to watch the visitors. We bring cameras, tape recorders, and other things which they have not seen in months. We poke our heads into the houses once occupied by their neighbors. In one, a Hungarian reporter from Subotica and I find a Christmas tree with the toys scattered on the floor around it. The children watch our reactions. We come from another world, the world beyond the Danube, beyond the destruction. Vukovar has never been as important as it is this day. They run and hide as we pass.

Zoltan points out the building where the Yugoslav Communist Party held one of its early organizational meetings during the twenties. The beautiful baroque structure is but a shell. A small blue diamond on one wall shows that it is a cultural landmark. The stripes at its base are red.

Across the street, we find a monument to the fallen Partisans. The bronze statue is styled after the Pieta. The shelling has toppled the statue. A large, irregular shell hole gapes in the chest of the young man.

After this we find huge holes in the bridges, sunken boats in the harbor, and a star shaped grenade, still implanted in the sidewalk. We find a riverfront cafe where we enjoy our favorite drinks and the change is given in Serbian Kriyina dinars. I exchange ten dollars for this money from a country which no other nation recognizes, the land of the Serbs of Bosnia, Dalmatia, and Vukovar.

Back in Zagreb, the response to my trip is mixed. Some want to hear all the details. Others prefer to forget. Still others are angry that I made the trip at all. I begin to see the importance of Vukovar as I have never seen it before. Vukovar has taught me that it is not only important for the Yugoslavs to be open to peace: the Croats and the Bosnians must be labored with as well.

The anger of the survivors of Vukovar and other calamities in this war is understandable. When a pilot drops a bomb on you, you do not know know his name. You do know his nationality. What is happening in Yugoslavia is that the man who bombs you is the same nationality as your neighbor. You want desparately to personalize the war, you want a face to go with the bomb so that you do not feel powerless. So you put your neighbor's face on the bomb. Somehow, then, the war begins to make some sense to you. You decide that you do not want to see that neighbor again. He has become the Chetnik, the murderer of your family and your village. Amid all the powerlessness that goes with being a refugee, you find power in your hatred. It becomes all that you have.

The hatred that this generation feels, we must remember, is a new thing. Both Croats and Serbs talk about the sense of loss which they feel as a result of the war. We hear from some outsiders (FCNL in this example) that "The conflicts that have boiled forth in Yugoslavia are tensions that are deep rooted in Yugoslavian history." This is one of the few times I have disagreed with this excellent Quaker organization. If there is a history that is relevant to the conflict, we will find it not in deep-rooted animosities, but in the history that stretches back to Alfred Nobel's invention of nitroglycerine which unleashed new, catastrophic capabilities of war upon soldier and civilian alike and gave rise to the modern arms trade.

The hatred that is emblazoned on the walls of Zagreb, Beograd, Osijek, Vukovar, and doubtless many other places in former Yugoslavia is not congenital to either the people or their culture. The hatred which the survivors of Vukovar feel can be traced to a specific experience: the incessant, anonymous pounding by the most lethal weapons now in regular use in this world. The rest of the hatred in this region can be traced to similar experiences, to manipulation by politicians, and to sympathy for those who have suffered what we have not. We must do what we can to heal this new mental illness among the Croats and Bosnians (which probably also exists among the Serbs in Kriyena) and we must contain that contagion which is common to all wars of our age.

I meet many people who make the rounds of wars: journalists, doctors, peace activists, relief workers. They mutter their litanies of the horrors which they have seen here and in other wars, but next to none speaks of the problem that makes the killing possible: the arms. Focusing on the hatred is just a way of avoiding the big problem. When I speak to the role of the arms trade, I often hear some situation specific variant of "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." One Croat activist told me without the guns, the Serbs would use knives.

The main effect of such talk is to ensure that the killing goes on. When we read and repeat stories of the atrocities we become excited. They become our opium. We are, at once, moved to charity and to bellicosity. The Bosnians and the Croats become saints, the Serbs monsters. I both welcome and warily regard the growing world sympathy for the Bosnians. Preventing the bankruptcy of Croatia and Slovenia while doing all that we can to uphold the dignity of the Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian refugees should be a major part of our work. But if we give help to the refugees, if we come to Croatia to hlp the refugees, if we suffer with the refugees, and we do nothing to ensure that no more refugees are created by this war or any future war, then we are nothing better than war voyeurs.

Today, while I was writing this article, three drunken Germans came to the Centar, hoping that we could arrange a trip to Slavonski Brod where they wanted to photograph the shelling. For them, the killing was an entertainment, their chance to show their family and friends the most exciting set of slides they had ever produced in their life. For the people of this region, for the Serbs, the Croats, and the Bosnians, the killing is something that destroys their family and friends. In Vukovar, many families and friends were lost and not forgotten.

I will always remember Vukovar. But this is not enough. We must support those who seek to heal the residual hatred that Vukovar, Sarajevo, Banja Luka, and all the other civic battlegrounds of this war have left behind. We must remember what to do to prevent more Vukovars from happening. The one factor that made Vukovar's destruction possible was not ethnic tension or economics or any of the usual things that war experts cite: it was the presence of high explosive weaponry. And when peace activists and relief workers fail to speak to this, they ensure that Vukovar -- with another name, another people -- will burn again.

Remember Vukovar. Love Vukovar. Do everything you can to prevent the next Vukovar. It may be your city.