Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Sad Fate for 'Hero City'

Vukovar has yet to recover from the destruction wrought by the Yugoslav army a decade ago
By IWPR

There are shiny new street signs in Vukovar, the town in eastern Croatia that the Yugoslav army pounded to rubble in the autumn of 1991. There is a Dr Franjo Tudjman Street, named after Croatia's independence leader, and a European Union street, which points optimistically to a day when the former Yugoslav republic will be accepted into the 15-nation group.


But little else is new in Vukovar, the town that Croatian nationalists call the 'hero city' after the resistance its fighters offered the vastly superior Yugoslav forces. A new traffic light blinks lazily on the main road from nearby Osijek. Beside it stand the garish new premises of the Yugoslav consulate. There is a new sports hall in the adjacent village of Borovo, a splendidly restored Franciscan monastery up on the hill, and row upon row of new red-brick homes, rebuilt from scratch with reconstruction funds from the West.


But the town still looks like a ruin. Of the 14,000 homes destroyed in the 1991 war, only about one-third have been rebuilt. Even in the baroque town centre, shops are gutted and open to the sky. Swallows nest in the shattered facade of the railway station.


Before the fighting erupted in Croatia, Vukovar county was a relatively prosperous home to 84,000 people, of whom about 50,000 lived in the town. About one-quarter of the population was Serb, one-third was Croat and the rest was a melange of Hungarians, Slovaks, Ruthenes and Ukrainians, all descendants of the settlers sent by the Empress Maria Theresa to repopulate the area in the 18th century, after the Habsburg armies had liberated Slavonia from Ottoman rule.


Today, only the cemeteries are multi-ethnic - the surnames on the gravestones a testament to an era when practically every nationality in the old Austria-Hungarian empire had a foothold in Vukovar. The Serbs expelled the minorities along with the Croats after they captured the town in November 1991 and only a minority of the 22,000 refugees have trickled back since the area was reunited to Croatia in 1998.


There is no incentive to return, except nostalgia for a past that will never be recovered. Vukovar was an industrial centre in Yugoslavia, strategically positioned beside the River Danube at the centre of trade routes leading to Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Hungary. The giant Borovo rubber complex, which procured everything from shoes to car tyres, was the town's major employer.


The Borovo factory was wrecked in 1991 and no one has come up with a replacement. A wine-shop has opened in Vukovar, marketing white wines grown in the hilltop village of Ilok. "This is the one shop in Vukovar that will never go out of business," the manager joked. The shop's stock of Croatian whites was inexpensive, and their resumption since the vineyard owners returned over the last two years is a rare success story.


The late president Tudjman obliged Croatia's municipalities to contribute to the town's regeneration in 1997, a year before the Croatian authorities took over control from the United Nations transitional administration for East Slavonia, known as UNTAES. But of 29 public projects Tudjman got the muncipalities to sign up to, only seven are near completion. Fifteen are works in progress while the rest have got nowhere.


Once the fuss over the return of the 'hero city' died away, several towns forgot their promises to Vukovar. At the same time, the depression that hit the Croat economy in 1997 meant repairing Vukovar was no longer a priority. Even the Eltz castle, the town's flagship symbol, has been left to gently rot away.


This spring the Croat parliament, the Sabor, adopted a new plan for Vukovar, as a bid to lure back refugees who never returned - numbering at least 13,000. Whether the package of loans, tax incentives and a duty free zone will do the trick remains to be seen. The refugees' unwillingness to come back means - embarrassingly to some - that the 'hero city' remains mostly Serbian.


Bored, unemployed, but fearful of exchanging their current lives with the even worse economic conditions prevailing across the border in Yugoslavia, the Serbs have remained in Vukovar, marooned in a kind of twilight zone. They have their Orthodox church, beautifully re-gilded in the 1990s during the period of Serb rule, and their children attend separate classes from the Croats, following their own curriculum.


For all that, their future seems cloudy. "They got their schools where they use the Cyrillic script," one man told me. 'But I think they made a mistake asking for it. Knowing Cyrillic will not help them get jobs in Croatia."


Perhaps many will not even be applying, given a national unemployment rate of 23 per cent. The Serb political parties, based in Zagreb, are active in the area, encouraging their ethnic kin to stay and develop their cultural and political life. But the 'for sale' signs standing outside many homes suggest this is a community which wants to move.


"I would sell my home, but I wouldn't get the price of a decent car," one man said bitterly. "Even with three bedrooms and central heating, you might get only 30,000 German marks." The housing market is in a logjam. The Serbs want to sell but the Croats do not want to buy. The town's recent history is grim too. "The Croats don't want to live next door to Serbs now," a local journalist said, "not after what happened in 1991."


The 'for sale' signs flap in the summer breeze, turning yellow. The Serbs and Croat returnees wander through their half-ruined, half-rebuilt town, sitting in their respective cafes, tending their respective war graves, doing a little bartering at the weekend flee-market. The odd tourist bus drops gawping foreigners in the town for an hour or two to snap the ruins with their cameras. The birds nest in abundance in the ruined buildings. Only nature, it seems, is staging a comeback in Vukovar.


Marcus Tanner is the author of Croatia, A Nation Forged in War, Yale University Press, to be republished this autumn.