Picture of Croatia: Vukovar 2012 – 21 years on

Paying respects to the victims at Ovcara, Vukovar
Photo: Barbara Matejcic

To mark the 21st Anniversary of the Fall of Vukovar into Serb hands I have translated most of the dialogue in the above documentary film by Karolina Vidovic-Kristo. The film is notable especially because it covers Vukovar today – it’s children of today, its victims of war, its school system that separates Croatian and Serb children.

Ethnically cleansed of Croatian and non-Serb population Vukovar was returned to Croatia in 1995, but Croatian refugees only began returning to it in significant numbers in 1999. Perhaps this is the reason why Vukovar’s school children don’t attend classes together and mainstream education is not in the Croatian language? Perhaps Serbs had their children attending classes in Serbian language between 1991 and 1999 and once Croatian refugees began returning, new classes – in Croatian – were set up separately. A sad reality, indeed! How are all the children these supposed to feel and say: this is Croatia! How are they supposed to grow up without confusion of belonging and with feelings of equal rights?

Respect of ethnic minorities, to my view, cannot compromise mainstream services in a sovereign country. If it does, the sovereignty and the national interests of a country are practically minimised, which leads to confusion and troubled allegiances. While ethnic minorities should have the opportunity to maintain their specific language and culture on personal preference basis they should in no way be placed in situations that question their full belonging to a country’s mainstream establishment. What seems to be happening in Vukovar is a continued smoldering of ethnic differences rather than citizenship commonalities, and this to my view cannot be a healthy way to build a future of complete peace, reconciliation and coexistence. Having children in separated mainstream education classes maintains the culture of separation. It would seem that Croatia has accommodated international pressure for rehabilitation of refugees in an extreme, damaging to its mainstream national identity way. I wish Croatian governments have been stronger and modeled ethnic minority life on Western democracies rather than caving into pressures of political biases which, I dare say, often came from the same Western countries that enjoy mainstream services and education, with “extracurricular” provisions for all ethnic minorities.  Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb); B.A., M.A.Ps. (Syd).

Below: Karolina Vidovic-Kristo HRT film: “Vukovar today” and translation into English of dialogues in it:

Karolina Vidovic-Kristo:  “Welcome to Picture of Croatia, the occasion is the 18th November, anniversary of the Fall of Vukovar, day of remembrance of victims of Vukovar, victims that brought victory to Croatia.

We are in the church of St Philip & Jacob in Vukovar . The hole is in the church’s wall. After the liberating battle Storm in August 1995 and the Dayton agreement in November 1995, the Serb aggressor withdrawing from occupied Vukovar wanted to leave behind them an even greater havoc. Hence, they dug 22 holes across the church in every bearing wall to place in them explosives, with the aim of blowing up the whole church building to the ground.  Holes like this one were dug into all bearing walls of the church and explosives placed into them…”

At 2.47 minutes Child Care Centre “Joy”: “Are all children in your centre of Serbian nationality? Slavka Loncar: Mainly yes, but there are children of other nationalities but in a lesser number. But we don’t divide the children according to nationality but according to geographic principle, because this is an educational organisation and there are no politics here. The specificity of this organisation, that is its educational program, is that work is carried out in the Serbian language with mandatory learning of the Croatian language 2 hours per day. Is it not important that a child in its early years learns its mother language? Yes. It’s important.

But isn’t the reverse system perhaps more logical. I. e. that parallel to regular State program, which is offered to its children, to offer extracurricular teaching of mother language? Yes that can be too. But in this moment, where we live and where education is registered in accordance with Croatian law, in accordance with Constitutional law and law on ethnic minorities, and law on pre-school education, which enable learning, that is work of children in Serbian language “.

At 4.30 minutes: Primary School Nikola Andric, Vukovar.  Zeljko Kovacevic: “These are all Croatian Schools, where lessons are carried on in Croatian language and Latin writing, that’s half the pupil population, and the other half of pupil population receive all lessons in the Serbian language and Cyrillic writing”.

At 4.53 minutes – interview with school children. “Children, were you all born in Vukovar? Yes. Do you love Croatia? Yes. When you grow up – I’ve noticed that a lot of young people are leaving Croatia because they consider that one cannot live well in Croatia – do you have a plan to leave Vukovar when you grow up? (Children’s responses are various)Yes…Canada…America…Zagreb…some larger city in Croatia where there are maybe better jobs and better wages and bigger opportunities… no, I’ll stay in Vukovar. Now, imagine that you have a magic wand and that you are in a position of power, and that you are the ones who decide what needs to be fixed in Vukovar? Help the poor, that there are no more poor people, fixes houses for the poor, that Croatians and Serbs are not separated, that we all attend the same classes together, and that there are no differences between people. But regardless of nationality you are all Croatians? Yes, because we live in Croatia. ‘Mr Mayor’ what would you ban in Vukovar? I would prohibit cigarettes and alcohol.

At 6.50 minutes – interview with school children. “You’re all from Grade 7a in this school, do you all attend classes in Croatian language? Yes. Do you intend to stay in Croatia? Yes. Are you aware of the fact that your peers who are of Serbian nationality are not to blame for what had happened in the Homeland War, or are you nevertheless a little bothered by that, that they belong to the ethnic group which attacked Croatia then, that you nevertheless have a bit of a distance from them?  Well, I’m troubled by that a bit, I don’t feel good about it. Why? Because they destroyed our school and houses and that a lot of people were killed. But children of your age weren’t born yet, can you separate that fact? Well yes I can.  How do you feel? Well, bad, because they killed my grandfather and that, and the fact that children of Serbian nationality go to school with me it doesn’t matter, they’re not to blame for that. I play with them and all that. Are they aware that they belong to an ethnic group which perpetrated evil but that they themselves are not to blame for that, or do you feel they’re troubled by that a bit? Well, judging by the ones in my school I don’t think they’re troubled by that.

At 9.15 minutes. “Snjezana Karaula Maljak: In the homeland War, in 1991, I was raped, I was a member of Croatian Army, sanitary unit, I was raped in October, I was taken prisoner in September 1991, 14 October first rape, after a couple of days second, and so on, and so on. The rapists are free, one fled to Serbia and I don’t know the whereabouts of the other. I think the first one fled in 2002 when his trial began, he sold his house and fled and the other one was here in Vukovar until September last year, I used to come across him, he fled when his sentencing hearing was on. There were too many victims in this city, too many dead, killed, too many were abused, and today they want to put all that under a key lock, into forgetfulness, to finish as if nothing ever happened and the foundations of this country were built on each and every one of these victims. And that, I think, is a moral mistake of the State and its institutions that they remember we exist only on days of commemorating the Fall (of Vukovar).”

10.34 minutes, “Velepromet” Hangars, Vukovar. “Fanika Janko. And here I remember when I saw the light of day for the first time …here in front of the second or third hangar stood some fifteen of our people, maybe twenty, with their hands up, their backs were turned so I couldn’t recognise them, but I recognised three people who were local Serbs, all the more they were neighbours from the street where I used to go every day, Rajko Smiljanic was dressed in civilian clothes, Mile Ikac and one in uniform with a Kalashnikov on his back. I think his name was Boca or his nickname was something like that. Those men, except the one in uniform, are still here today. The one dressed in uniform had fled to Serbia, and that Smiljanic is still here today, a big business man who even today uses this space as his warehouse”.

At 12.13 minutes. Interview with workers at “Veleporomet” Hangars. “Do you know what these hangars once were? I have no clue… no, I’m not from Vukovar …I have no time, I have to work… Do you know that here in 1991 there was the largest concentration camp since WWII? No, no I don’t know anything”.

At 13.06 minutes: Fanika Janko: “Not only Croatian, but everyone who was non-Serb…and Vukovar is a city where the biggest number of minorities lived, 21 minorities before this war, which means that all those who stood on Croatian side were imprisoned here, and regretfully most did not survive this camp. You survived, you’re a witness and you and your husband were imprisoned here? Not my husband, just me, he as member of the National Guard in this region earlier fell into Serb hands – Chetniks and local Serbs from Vukovar –   that day they maltreated him and his friends in all possible ways, he was crucified against a wagon … they shot him the next day at 11 o’clock, his body was blown apart only his hands remained…  On the 18 November the members of Yugoslav Army gathered us here, the young, 14 or 15 years old, they took them …no one returned, we heard gunshots… we heard cries for help, screams…I mean a horrible night when you heard their wild reveling when they’d kill someone… barking of dogs, screaming and cries for help…can anyone imagine a more horrible scene.

At 15.50 minutes. Fanika Janko. “I came to Zagreb…and the next day the woman found my children and brought them … that moment I shall never forget … when I saw my girls…we just cried. .. Did they know what had happened to you? No, it’s hard to talk about it because horrors occurred here it’s too horrible, I admire all the women who gathered enough courage to say what had happened to them. Because when a woman is humiliated in that most callous way I think that that’s worse than any murder.  I believe that many women will take that to their grave. .. I believe that it is too horrible to leave that realization to ones’ children, so that they don’t live in hate … let them grow up healthy for their future and the future of their children. Because, the price paid for that freedom is big.”

At 18.40 minutes “ You’re at Hangar on Ovcara which was used as warehouse before 1991 … this Home of Remembrance arose as a donation from city of Zagreb and from the idea of Croatian Concentration Camp prisoners with its seat in Vukovar… after three months of grenade shelling and street battles Vukovar fell on 18 November 1991. And Yugoslav Peoples’ Army had soon after that occupied the Vukovar Hospital. In the Hospital, on the 20th November, they gathered all the wounded, all the civilians and hospital staff, 261 of them were brought here to this hangar. Here, Chetniks and regretfully quite many of local Serbs from Vukovar and the surrounding places, among which was the pre-war Mayor of Vukovar, waited for them. All those civilians and wounded were brought here first so they could be tortured, four prisoners died the first day from beatings, the rest of them, on the same night – which is the reason why there’s always darkness in this room – were taken by army wagons 2 kilometers from here and murdered there and buried there in one pit. 200 bodies have been discovered in this pit and the search continues for the remaining 61 bodies…the youngest victim was only 16 years old, the oldest 72, and among them were 3 women, one of whom was pregnant…

At 21.50 minutes:   Ivana Kedmenec   “Ivana, how is it to live in Vukovar today? Well good. My husband and I are a young family with three children, we both work and we’re satisfied.    Apart from unemployment what would you say is the biggest problem today in Vukovar?   (Tihomir Kedmenec) “Well I haven’t noticed any larger problems but economic situation would be one of them … I have the fortune of not having lost anyone from my family in the war , my immediate family that is, so I’m not carrying that painful burden like a good part of Vukovar’s citizens are … so my view and my thoughts are perhaps different to theirs…

At 23.24 minutes: Karolina Vidovic-Kristo: “Dear viewers, Petar Baric, otherwise HRT war correspondent, and I have with this film have made an effort to show you at least a part of the picture of Vukovar today, in 2012. And all of you who are in a position to come, come to Vukovar, stroll through the city, have a coffee with Vukovarans and walk the paths of great heroes. Every Japanese child knows what Hiroshima is, it is up to us that every Croatian child knows what Vukovar is, every Croatian child regardless of nationality. We end this Picture of Croatia in Zagreb, Vukovar is Croatia and Zagreb its capital city, this church was built in celebration of freedom, Holy Mother of Freedom, the last words belong to the heroes whose names are engraved here and who say to us:

If the mast of dignity is heavy for you, drive it into the earth where our bones rest, we will hold it.”

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