Simon Mundy

Echoes of Vukovar

Back in 1997 I found myself in the ruined town of Vukovar, on the West bank of the Danube in Eastern Slavonia. The river formed the border between Croatia and Serbia, once joined as republics of federal Yugoslavia but then locked into the lingering aftermath of five years of war. Vukovar a quarter of a century ago provides a capsule of what the occupied areas of Ukraine will be like once the fighting stops.

I was sent there as part of a small Council of Europe mission to work out ways to bring the furious communities in the town back together. This was largely a war between two versions of a similar culture. The differences were cultural, not ethnic; therefore it needed cultural solutions as well as military ones. Both nations had been part of the Austro-Hungarian imperial provinces, only becoming defined as countries with borders after WWI. Croatia was largely Catholic and wrote in Latin script, feeling kinship with Germanic Mittel Europ. Serbia was largely Orthodox and used Cyrillic script, seeing its allies as Russia and (more marginally) France.

When the Serbian bombardment of Vukovar started in 1991, most of the Croat occupants fled West or were deported by the invaders, often to become slave labour, leaving just a few confused locals behind. The Serbian side encouraged settlers to cross the river and occupy the abandoned properties. It soon became clear that the promises of riches were a myth. The so-called Yugoslav Army had left barely 10% of the town’s buildings undamaged. Much of the place was a bombed-out wreck. By 1997 the UN Peacekeeping Forces (UNTAES) were in charge, maintaining an absence of war but no true peace. The inhabitants (most of whom had never been abroad or even to a capital city) were as stunned to be patrolled by soldiers from Jordan as they were by their hopeless living conditions.

By then there was still plenty of tension. Black-shirted gangs roamed the streets at night, armed with knives. There was not much work around, so in the daytime middle-aged men sat glowering in cafés, segregated by cultural allegiance. There were regular tit-for-tat bomb threats against each others’ churches, often real. UN and CoE teams were housed in the one multi-storey hotel on the edge of the river – which was fine if you did not mind bullet holes in your room walls and bed, or the plague of mosquitoes off the river. Our mission started in a cultural centre, but soon had to move back into the gated UN compound, surrounded by light-armoured tanks – hardly the best place to invoke normality.

To get to Vukovar meant boarding a UN military transport plane in Zagreb (‘Just walk up the back ramp and hang on to a strap’ – the seats were only for senior officers) and flying to Osijek, from where a UN minibus took over. Once in the protected zone, the grass in the fields was lush and waist high. Nothing had been mown for six years, thanks to landmines, and the grass was in constant motion – not because of the wind, but courtesy of the rabbits, which proliferated: unlike their predators, they were too light to set off the mines. Flocks of delighted sparrows and finches colonised the abandoned houses. The shattered town was alive with birdsong.

All the UN vehicles were painted white, with the initials stencilled on in huge black letters. The aircraft and their crews, though, were from contributing nations. Our flights were courtesy of the Ukrainian Air Force. In those days they still had Antonov transports to spare – and, with Ukraine’s post-Soviet economy in tatters, they were grateful for the Peacekeeping subsidies. It feels an absurd flip of history that a generation later the successors of those pilots are now ferrying soldiers and supplies to their own country’s battle zones. In the Danube region they then patrolled, the trauma is still not far from the surface and, though many of those who have fled have returned, it will be a long time yet before the tyrannies are forgotten.

Vladimir Putin’s determination to undermine the creation of a post-Warsaw Pact Europe began as soon as he was given the opportunity by the shambling Boris Yeltsin. The invasion of Ukraine was long in the making and only became his preferred option, at whatever cost, when he realised that the country had finally abandoned the corrupt Presidents who were prepared to be his puppet rulers. His hold on the emotions of large chunks of Serbian rural communities is still strong, though. The townspeople of now firmly Croatian and EU Vukovar know too well what their fellow Slavs along the banks of Dnieper are going through.