Vukovar: the first forgotten victim of the Yugoslav war
Thirty years ago, at the beginning of September 1991, a colleague and I crossed no man’s land and went to Vukovar. I will never forget the eerie loneliness of the cornfields under clear skies and the absolute silence as we approached the front line from Croatian-held Sotin.
Stretching along the banks of the Danube, Vukovar had been surrounded and cut off from the rest of Croatia since mid-August. Scottish photojournalist David Pratt and I, both young freelancers, were determined to try to get into Vukovar after hearing it was becoming the focal point of a crisis that seemed to signal the rise of nationalism and the breakup of Yugoslavia.
A few days earlier, two Russian journalists had taken the exact same route as us and had simply disappeared. To date, they have never been found.
Dominating the road to Vukovar were three Yugoslav T54 tanks, all with clear lines of fire towards the city. As we approached, walking slowly and carrying nothing in our hands, the hatches lowered and a turret turned towards us.
The soldiers seemed as nervous about us as we were about them, but they held on.
The commander turned out to be rather sympathetic: he knew nothing about the missing Russians, but he advised us to turn around and go back, as the Croats in front would probably shoot first and ask questions later. He added that he had no problem with an independent Croatia separating from Yugoslavia: It was just that Vukovar could not be part of it. He belonged to Serbia.
The captain gave us four boxes of army rations and wished us good luck as we decided to give it a go. A kilometer later, the road descended into a small wooded grove where a dozen large anti-tank mines, only partly covered with straw, blocked the road. A few hundred yards further on, the woods opened up again into fields and from the more distant treeline, the first Croatian defenders of Vukovar leaped at us.
The road into town was blocked off by makeshift cinder-block walls – which probably wouldn’t have stopped much more than a bullet from an AK47 – and guards with sturdy M50 machine guns, thick leather jackets and Rambo style black ribbons around their hair.
David and I were the last international reporters to reach and report from inside Vukovar – and we were very lucky to come out a week later when we did.
Exactly 30 years ago today – on November 18, 1991, the city fell into the hands of the Yugoslav Army (JNA) and Serbian paramilitary forces who had spent three months regularly terrorizing its population and reducing it to rubble.
In just 87 days, it has grown from a pretty red-tiled, partly medieval and prosperous town, to a site of devastation.
Some 1,800 lightly armed Croatian National Guards and Volunteers were wholly outnumbered and armed to those seeking to claim the town and its surrounding fertile farmland as part of a âgreater Serbiaâ.
Towards the end, 12,000 tank and mortar shells were reportedly fired at the city daily. While the exact number of civilian and military casualties will never be known, most estimates put it between 2,500 and 3,000. Almost 100 children have been killed; the youngest victim, Ivan Klajic, was only six months old.
I often wonder how many shells this friendly tank captain ordered to fire and how many people his soldiers killed.
Following a surrender watched by EU officials, civilians emerged from their basements and were rounded up outside the city and passed the victorious and mocking lines in pitiful jagged columns reminiscent of so many films from news from the Second World War.
This surrender should have ended the tragedy in Vukovar. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Despite the presence of the European Commission Monitoring Mission (ECMM), 300 patients and staff from Vukovar hospital were taken to a nearby pig farm in Ovcara by Serbian paramilitaries. From there, over a six hour period, small groups were taken by bus about a mile further into the cornfields and to a natural hollow in the earth. There they were lined up and slaughtered.
War crimes investigators later recovered the remains of 200 victims, but dozens more remain missing.
I returned to Vukovar a few weeks ago for the first time since 1991 for a BBC documentary in Scotland on the break-up of Yugoslavia seen through the eyes and photos of David who recently completed a similar program on his coverage of Afghanistan.
A key objective of the return visit was to try to identify and find out what happened to some of the people we met and whom David had documented in his photos.
The upcoming documentary, which will air on New Years, begins with our return and our memories of the city and our sense of what it symbolized – not so much for us but for Croatia and collapsing Yugoslavia.
One cannot help but wonder if, if the international media and community had been much, much more engaged with Vukovar at the time, would the conflict have taken a different course in some way or another? other ? Could the story have turned out differently in Sarajevo and elsewhere?
After we both dropped off our parts for the Glasgow Herald and Scotland on Sunday, we decided to leave while we still could. The fighting was getting worse and this time we slipped through the cornfields with the help of Croatian soldiers.
Back in London, I spent a few fruitless weeks trying to generate media interest in what I saw during the siege and what I feared to come.
In Vukovar, while we were spending much of our time sheltering alongside the townspeople in the basements of the Dunav Hotel, we met a Croatian cameraman who showed us a video he had. tour of a semi-trailer full of corpses. They all appeared to be civilians.
A series of summary murders of Croatian villagers had just been reported on the outskirts of the town, and his film certainly seemed to provide proof of this.
But that was before email and the Internet. The only way to try to copy his tape was to find a video rental store that was still open, a ridiculous prospect amid the fierce mortars, the bombing of the gunboats on the Danube, and the bombing of the JNA planes. This tape was therefore never copied and the potential evidence was never brought back to London.
I never managed to convince the BBC or ITN to understand that Vukovar was a story worth covering.
The closest I got was an appearance in October on Channel 4’s Right of Reply that saw me ask some key editors and producers why they weren’t trying to report on Vukovar.
The answers were pretty much the same. What and where the hell, they asked, was Vukovar and why should people in the UK care? International reports cost much more to cover than national reports; they were much less popular with viewers.
It was incredibly sad and disheartening to hear.
Ironically, the week Right to Reply aired, the Yugoslav army started bombing the historic port of Dubrovnik. Since so many Britons had visited it as tourists, Yugoslavia finally began to receive media coverage. Old port buildings and historic walls, it seemed, mattered much more than human lives.
The Vukovar tragedy and the Ovcara atrocity occurred when neither the international community nor the media was watching or caring. So the pattern was set: what had happened there had to be reflected and replicated again and again in Bosnia over the years to come.
Alan Davis is IWPR Asia and Eurasia Director.