Being in Vukovar on the 25th anniversary of horrid atrocities committed against innocent Croatian people by the Serb aggressor was a sombre, sad, gut-wrenching experience for over 120,000 people who visited there on 18 November and vividly remembered the horrors once again as my last post read. For those who were unable to be there, here is a close-up journal of what Connor Vlakancic’s eyes saw in the day leading up to that big day, on the day of Remembrance itself and the day after; what he felt as any of us might in the same place; he came from the US to be there.
“It is now 03:01, I can’t slumber, I must search about. The sky black of overcast and haze at ground level in the streetlights. The temperature is brisk and a breeze is up. An autumn morning that would have 99% of families asleep so to wake-up for a typical workday. But on this day 25 years ago, nobody blissfully slumbered in Vukovar and so it is every year on this date. And I have been here many times.
Vukovar is dear to me, I was married here in the Church of Philip and James (Svetog Filipa i Jakova) in September 2001, also the first year of the Vukovar Remembrance.
The holes dug into the bottom of all the stone and mortar columns, which the retreating JNA army (Yugoslav Army) would fill with explosives intending to even obliterate survivors’ memories (a hero had prevented their detonation) were all visible with a single candle in each.
On this date the church was long yet to be finished renovated, wounds in the walls and marble floors painfully still obvious, yet the bell in the reconstructed tower [the first work accomplished] was rung for 24 hours.
At 06:00, shortly after daybreak, the buses start arriving at the bus station (autobusni kolovador) the passengers walking to the hospital where the Remembrance Walk will start the five-kilometer march to the Vukovar Memorial Cemetery. As has been every year starting 2001. Me too.
I stand waiting in the hospital South side courtyard. I am up several steps of an alternate side building, watching, and my camera busy, overlooking the area as it fills with people. Veterans of every city, town and village, each it seems with their own municipality regimental flag, such a number of them 1,000+ I can believe.
Following the dedication ceremony commencement and memorial song, the Remembrance Walk commenced shortly after 10:20. With flags flying unfurled, it took 45 minutes for the leading line to reach the cemetery, yet people were even then still just departing from the hospital and so it was for nearly two hours more and another hour for the march to finish for all walking. The time is now 14:00 and memorial flowers and wreaths are placed at the central statuary. I can’t get near. I must return tomorrow to see this up close.
This day commences familiar renewed for me, upon walking back toward ‘center’. Along the return route, again I stand and look up at the Vukovar water tower that stands on a ridge overlooking the Danube River. Built in 1968, it held 2200 cubic meters of water and had a restaurant at the top. It survived an estimated 600 direct hits from JNA bombardment. Many are the pictures of its suffering. I walk to encircle the water tower. There is no fear of walking around and under it. Years ago it was encircled with scaffolding (150 feet tall), all loose bricks were removed and all remaining were made secure. Now, these 25 years past, there are ongoing plans (the financial means accumulated) to renovate it into a new life.
Walking to an adjacent neighborhood, I visit my fondest dearest friends in Vukovar, Vilma and Ruzica. These two heartfelt people embody and mentor all that is Vukovar. Vilma, indispensable to the life flow of Vukovar, has again prepared her specialty, sarma (cabbage roll), enough to feed the Croatian army. Many people come, it is built into our remember. Ruzica is the curator of the baroque Eltz Palace that contains the Vukovar museum.
Soon enough, it is 18:00+ and pitch black. I go with Vilma and Ruza to see what I have not previously witnessed, one thousand candles, each on a tiny boat, one each for all persons missing, not accounted for, disappeared, ‘gone missing’. The Danube flows past Vukovar, a river of history and mystery. A thousand candles for the unforgotten because we remember for them.
One candle each for the thousand persons who are unaccounted for, yet here again, we remember for them. Deposited upstream from three boats, the thousand candles drift downstream longer than a kilometer. My camera cannot adequately capture their breath. The moon, since last extraordinary display event ‘super moon’ in 1948, is in bright display. Yet, its light fails to illuminate this solemn Remembrance. Many people watch, nobody speaks, and a young mother nurses her baby. Tomorrow more will be revealed.
Now Saturday (19 November) morning at 07:00, sleeping a bit longer from physical and emotional exhaustion, I return to Center. The open market has returned to normal typical activity, and much surprise to me too…
I drive past a long tented area. Yesterday it encompassed a great many tables with adjacent food preparation. Feeding 100,000+ people requires such and many more. This morning, even so early, the tables are gone but with human waste of empty cups and paper plates littering the ground.
Onward I drive, returning to the Vukovar Memorial Cemetery to capture 25 years plus one day in pictures. The pavilion (that yesterday you could not get close to as Mass was being celebrated) stands empty with the canvas cover [roof] now lowered to disassemble position. There are a few, actually several, people coming and going that perhaps could not come yesterday because they were service staff working to feed the 100,000+ people that returned to Vukovar Remembrance.
Now about 10:00 in the morning, the cemetery area has been picked-up of human trash, collected in black plastic bags to be disposed of, perhaps in earthen burial pits. Twenty five years ago black plastic body bags were not required for disposing of ‘human litter’!
The day after twenty-five years ago, human litter was human beings. Of the perpetrators, certainly for some of them, I am prayerfully for some of them, the enormity of the deprivation of human life wrought while they were drunk and disorderly, invaded their mind with revulsion for what they participated in and thus captured as the chronicle of their lives.
November 19th, 1991 [be there in your mind] and Remember all of Vukovar murdered heroes. They don’t remember, we must Remember for them.
I returned to the memorial cemetery at dusk. The votive candles, individually lit one-by-one each deposited by an individual person that Remember. By now the temperature has fallen to about 13 degrees with a slight breeze. Yet, as I stand downwind of certainly thousands of candles, the air temperature is 22+ degrees, a LOT of candles. I reflect as this is the warmth of the spirits of the dear departed giving their gratitude to we who come to Remember the chronicle of innocent victim lives.
Grave-sites of those who were ‘eliminated’ between August and December 1991 are adorned with every flower and candle that our Remembrance can enshrine. Here too, the thousand of lost ‘gone missing’ are remembered in an array of 36 by 28 stone crosses. Each Remembered with flowers and votive candles but where are they, dumped in mass graves … somewhere … nearby.
So, that is the point of this Vukovar Remembrance of 25 years ago, the missing are still missing! With 25 years of Remembering, the 25 years of Croatian governments have failed to achieve, even failed to try to achieve, secretly know grave-sites in villages around Vukovar.
For the families of the victims of the JNA executioners, where are the missing buried. This question is foremost what these families remember for all these 25 years!,” Connor Vlakancic