Note, Vukovar was the first major victim in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. It is a border town on the Danube, in Croatia but, before the wars, with a slight Serbian majority. The Serbs finally took the town over but after the Dayton Accords the town was administered by the UN before being turned over to the Croats, 13 days before we arrived. Our job was to work with the Serbian radio stations in the region to make sure they got licenses from the Croatian government and to help assure that the rights of the Serbian, Roma and Hungarian minorities in Eastern Slavonia were protected. This was our first real face to face confrontation with the massive destruction of the Yugoslav wars of secession. (we would see much more in Kosovo.) We had been in Dubrovnik and seen the relatively light damage there. The week before we had driven along the Drina and seen the devastated countryside in Bosnia, but this was a city and the damage was still horrific four and a half years after the war had ended. I went overboard writing a 15 page letter. This is a page and a half
February 2, 1998
I think Davor had us drive to Vukovar at night to avoid our first sight of Vukovar being during the day. The night is bad enough. Street lights are out and hulks of wrecked buildings silhouette against the sky.
The view from our hotel window at dawn is shocking. The building across the square is a steel frame with its skin removed, exposing mangled stairways and ductwork. The monument in the center is shot full of holes. A block of flats opposite has its seventh floor missing, morning light streams through the empty space where apartments should be. Laundry hangs from windows on the eight floor above. I wonder if the elevator works.
The elevator in the hotel does work, although when we look at the hotel in the daylight it has the same problem as the apartment block. The fifth floor it is empty.
Vukovar must have been one of the loveliest towns on the Danube. This is the only place along the river I have seen it blue, reflecting the winter shy. Downtown Streets are lined with arcaded shop houses with vaulted ceilings, now mostly gutted, their bones exposed. The main fighting here was in 1991 so many of the buildings in the center of town have brush growing up through their floors, this time of year, tinted with frost. This would be an interesting place for architects and building engineers. They can see what holds up and what falls down under impact. We can still buy old postcards of the way it was.
Some stores still operates, others, remodeled, operate again, but the floors above both remain gutted and roofless. One shop door was padlocked while a shell hole next to it allowed anyone in. There is an international symbol, a blue triangle on top of a blue diamond that designates buildings of particular historic and cultural value. It’s supposed to tell soldiers not to target those buildings. In Vukovar the triangles became targets. Much of the town is uninhabited ‑‑uninhabitable‑‑ acres of empty shells with the occasional exclamation point of a restored building, often with a red cross, UN or EU logo. Buildings in Vukovar have paint slashes. One slash means it is habitable. Structural damage escalates with the number of slashes. We saw people living in three slash houses, but where else do you put 95,000 people. I watched a typical looking grade school kid with a backpack negotiate a pile of rubble to skip into a shattered flat after school.
On a hill overlooking the town two churches, one Catholic, its spire looking like a broken tooth and one Orthodox, its dome looking like a rusted bird cage, sit across the road from each other. The devastation is not limited to any one or two sections of town, it’s the whole town, and no photo I can frame can catch it. There’s a rumor here, I think it is an urban folk legend, that after the battle of Vukovar Reuters offered $1,000 for a photo of an undamaged building, according to the legend, there were no takers.
Walking in town at night is especially eerie. We were having dinner in a very nice restaurant in a reconstructed building in the arcaded section of town. It was pretty good, a flavorful beef and pork dish, nice salad, good wine. We were feeling very normal until we went out the door and Vukovar confronted us. The empty windows, scared walls and charred roof beams brought us back to a kind of reality. Some apartment blocks with walls blown away on one side have lights on in the other. Walking home we could feel the ghosts.