The war is not over in Vukovar.

The restoration of Eastern Slavonia to Croatia after four years of brutal occupation did not put an end to the war of lies and deception.  Amid disingenuous and euphemistic discussions of ‘minority rights’ and ‘reconciliation’, the truth is still struggling to be heard.  Europhiles beholden to the quasi-Communist notion that peace and goodwill can be legislated are deaf to the alarm bells ringing loudly in Vukovar.

Truth ought to be indiscriminate, but I can assure you that only a tiny part of the truth about Vukovar’s post-war ‘reconstruction’ is being heard.  This is especially the case for those of us who are not native to Croatia.  We are very much deceived if we believe it is as simple as the people of Vukovar failing to ‘move on’ after the war.  The danger in such lies is that they contain an element of the truth.  That element lulls us into trusting the lie as a whole.  So allow me to begin by sorting out some of the prevalent misconceptions about the current situation in Vukovar.

It is true that Croatia’s constitution requires bilingual signage when a minority of the population exceeds one-third, and that the 2011 census estimated the Serb population as 34.8%.  However, there is considerable doubt about this statistic when the number of Serbs registered in the city (42,000) exceeds the entire population of Vukovar (27,000).  It is furthermore not true that this is a European legal requirement.  Despite being a forthright advocate for cultural diversity, the EC has stated that “decisions on the placing of bilingual signs are not regulated by European law”.

It is also true that Vukovar’s municipal authorities have affirmed Croatian as the official language of Vukovar, but it is not true that they have “banned” Serbian.  They have merely exempted the city from the constitutional requirements, which may be rather wise considering the aforementioned doubts about the ethnic proportions of the local population.  This does not affect the local Serb population’s general use of the language, and (furthermore) Serbs understand and read Croatian in the same way Danes understand and read Swedish.  Nor is it an endangered language like Venetian, especially when Serbia proper is literally across the river.  This is not a practical issue but a symbolic one.

So, practical issues aside, Europhiles advance another part-truth.  They argue that Cyrillic signs are just a small first step in the process of reconciliation, and that we must not assign collective guilt to the Serb population, especially twenty years later.  This is a disingenuous perversion of the truth that casts the victims as stubborn and “intolerant”.  It is highly reminiscent of the scandalous way in which Israel is often portrayed as a bully and violator of human rights.  This part-truth that focuses on minority rights deliberately ignores the truth about both past and present and additionally confuses the idea of civic responsibility with the repugnant phrase “collective guilt”.

Critics of Vukovar’s resistance to Cyrillic say we mustn’t dwell in the past and need to ‘move on’ in order for reconciliation to take place.  But the past isn’t past in Vukovar.  How can one be reconciled to those who deny history and perpetuate its wrongs?  There are still 1,689 people missing from Vukovar.  It is a city in which a number of the Serb minority have lived freely despite being war crimes suspects.  This is exemplified by the Serb leader Vojislav Stanimirovic, who was Mayor of Vukovar during its wartime occupation, decorated by Radovan Karadzic, and is the subject of ongoing criminal allegations.  Despite all this, Croatian authorities accepted him as a member of the Croatian parliament in one of the eight seats reserved for minorities, and he remains a prominent leader of the Serb minority in Vukovar.

So, let’s not dwell in the past.  Let’s see what Stanimirovic has to say about the use of Cyrillic in Vukovar: “Let’s be honest: the language itself is not a problem, but what is being taught in Croatian about the war is unacceptable for us.”  And what is “unacceptable” about what is being taught?  They’re being taught that “Serbs were aggressors” in the war.  In other words, Stanimirovic objects to the truth.  He objects to the truth that only one hundred or so Serbs joined the defence of Vukovar when it was razed almost to the ground as part of an attempt to create a Greater Serbia.  He objects to the truth that Serbs carried out a policy of ethnic cleansing first in Croatia then in Bosnia, setting up concentration camps such as Manjaca and Omarska.  I suppose he also objects to the truth that veterans of the siege of Vukovar were transported to Serbia proper where they were tortured in camps like Sremska Mitrovica.

What happened during the war may be past, but the truth of history is a matter for the present.  After World War II, Germans were forced to take responsibility for the Holocaust.  All children were taught the truth about what happened during the war.  Germans repudiated Nazism.  There is a culture of responsibility that remembers pivotal historical events such as Kristallnacht with innovative reminders that bring the past into the present.  Right across Europe, Holocaust denial is taboo, as it should be.  In contrast, among Serbs, genocide denial is commonplace.  If there is a stumbling block to reconciliation in Vukovar, peacemakers should address the issue of Serb denial.

Then there is the truth about how minority rights in Vukovar has fuelled intolerance.  Stanimirovic is adamant that Serb children will not attend classes with their Croatian peers unless the truth is replaced with Serb propaganda.  The current Mayor of Vukovar, however, has recognised that even though “the system of segregated schooling was introduced in order to guarantee that minority rights were respected” it should perhaps be changed, as the theory has not worked and children are leading entirely separate lives.  It is true that minorities must be protected from discrimination, but what if a minority uses its rights to segregate itself and teach propaganda that fuels ethnic hatred?  What if demands for minority rights are a ruse and part of a campaign of chipping away at Croatian sovereignty?

Vukovar’s Serb minority may be able to wriggle out of responsibility for the war by claiming it’s in the past, but this is here and now.  And those who have similarly suffered at the hands of the Serbs should beware of denying Croatians justice because they have not received it themselves. It is undoubtedly true that in neighbouring Bosnia Serbian is an official language, but this does not mean that the injustices stemming from the Dayton peace accords should be replicated in Croatia.  It is true that there are Cyrillic signs in Sarajevo, another city brutally besieged by the Serbs, but Sarajevo was not destroyed.  It never surrendered, and it was never occupied.  Sarajevo was not ethnically-cleansed of its non-Serb inhabitants.  It was never part of ‘Greater Serbia’.

It is true that there is a litany of insults when it comes to post-war Bosnia, particularly in the Serb Republic.  Bosniaks and Croats in Republika Srpska have to deal with school segregation, genocide and war crimes denial, monuments to the Serb aggressors, obstruction of refugee return, and a President who not only denies the past but has donated state funds to the Serbian Orthodox Church in the name of Serbian “unity”.  The Bosnian situation makes the dispute over Cyrillic signs pale in comparison, but this is all the more reason to nip it in the bud in Croatia.  In Croatia, where the situation has not been entrenched by international meddling, where the aggressors were not rewarded for their crimes, the false justification of ‘minority rights’ must be opposed before it is too late.

It’s all very well to say it’s not about the past, but we have a responsibility to the past.  Many, if not most, of Vukovar’s Serbs are old enough to remember the four years it was occupied.  I certainly can, and I was only there relatively briefly while working for the United Nations.  Not many Croatians witnessed the occupation because most had been ‘cleansed’ from the area, that is murdered or deported.  Those Croats who remained were usually too old or incapacitated to travel and never left their homes for fear of being killed.

I remember the Serb tanks patrolling the streets, the replacement of all Croatian signs with ones in Cyrillic, and the hospital staff who celebrated the city’s “liberation” from Croatia.  I remember a man vowing to kill his wife and son because she was Croatian.  And I remember convoys of Serb troops passing through the area on their way into Bosnia to assist with the ethnic cleansing there.  Vukovar’s Serbs surely remember these things too, and they have a civic responsibility to tell the truth about their city’s past.  They are citizens of Croatia and always have been.  Even before the war, Vukovar was part of the Socialist Republic of Croatia in the federation of Yugoslavia.  But Vukovar’s Serbs are not acting like Croatian citizens, and this is the real sticking point.

Vukovar twenty-two years ago was a battle against the odds to protect Croatia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  Today, it is once again a battleground.  Veteran defenders of Vukovar are rallying to defend their city and their country from a back-door attack.  Cyrillic is not the issue.  Even the ruling Social Democratic Party’s Vice-President, Milanka Opacic, recognised this, suggesting that un-apprehended war criminals roaming around in full sight of their victims is the real “problem”.

So what’s the big deal with Cyrillic signs?  If it’s not the real problem, why not just let it pass?  Why not make it a gesture of reconciliation?  The answer is that gestures of peace and friendship are signs of weakness to those who wish to dominate.  Putting up signs in Cyrillic is, symbolically, like handing the keys of Vukovar to the Serb leader Vojislav Stanimirovic.  To do so sends a message that there’s nothing wrong with a minority that segregates its children from the rest of society, feeds them lies about the society in which they live, and denies their parents’ part in aiding and abetting warmongers.  It sends a message that harbouring war criminals whose victims are still being dug up is perfectly fine.

The bottom line is that if Vukovar’s Serbs were to denounce what happened during the war, teach about it in their schools (or attend the Croatian ones), and help find the bodies of those still missing, Cyrillic signs might not be an issue.  If the Vukovar Serbs had a good and just leader, instead of a suspected war criminal who was in charge of the city as part of the occupying regime, he would declare the Serb community’s support for the Croatian defenders and plead with the government to allow an exemption, suggesting that if there is going to be Cyrillic in Vukovar the very first Cyrillic writing should be on a Serb memorial to honour those who fell in battle defending Vukovar in 1991.  He would extol the Serbs who fought to defend Vukovar, heroes to be emulated and role models for Serb youth, and disavow his community’s former links with the push for a Greater Serbia.  That would indeed be a gesture of reconciliation that might just heal some wounds and lead the way to lasting friendship and voluntary bilingualism.  Alas, I doubt I will see that in my lifetime.

Vukovar is a warning to us all.  It isn’t the only place that Serbs are entrenching a culture of denial and separatism.  Having won half of Bosnia with a policy of genocide, Serbs in Bosnia as well as Croatia are waging a continual propaganda war, using the weakness of the West to consolidate their gains with the façade of legitimacy.  Ever since Croatia changed the course of the war in 1995 and shamed the world into action over Bosnia, the Serbs have spun the story that they are victims too, that everyone was guilty in the conflict.  And where everyone is guilty no one is.  This is the conclusion being pushed in Vukovar.  We are supposed to trot out the old “they’re all barbarians” chestnut that’s been going around ever since there was a notion of ‘the Balkans’ and assume that only European ‘tolerance’ can solve the problem.  However, when tolerance translates into moral equivalence, tolerance means harbouring traitors and penalising victims.

When is the world going to wake up to what the citizens of Vukovar have known for almost two decades?  The war isn’t really over.  The victims – the survivors – are doing their part and telling the truth, but the perpetrators are still at large and conning us with their lies.

If there is ever to be a lasting peace, the whole truth must be told, and not just in Croatian by the Croats.  The true story of Vukovar must also be told in Serbian by Serbs.  That is the Cyrillic writing that Croatia needs.  And that is the Cyrillic the Serbs of Vukovar need.

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Mishka Gora

Mishka Gora is a Tasmanian writer specialising in matters of conscience. Her experiences as a humanitarian aid worker during the 1990’s conflict in the former Yugoslavia are a driving force behind much of her writing, and they have formed the basis for an enduring interest in international affairs.

12 Comments

  1. Shame on the Gov and my people for letting these stupid .. tear apart a potential superpower. We could have been making Porsche, our own milk, foods, and #1 worldwide Tourist spot, exporter, not a 45% unemployment rate in some regions, kids drunk all day and the empty … well, Croatia still is and always will be. The other side sadly will never. No matter how many times they claim the Virgin Mary appeared. If you wanna go see real hospitality, real food, and clean pristine environment, heaven … snorkel the Adriatic. Try Karlobag. Hvar.. keep going… Stay away from tourists spots. Ask for Burek, try chese and meat. Add ajvar. Sip a Karlovacka beer. Stop. Listen to nature. Smile. You got it good. Turn off your cell phone and laptop. 1 month. Enjoy.

  2. what about the 250 000 serbs ethnically cleansed from Croatia in 1995? And… what is taught in the history books about WW2 Ustashe and the slaughter of sebs? Jasenovac?

    • PeaceIsNotShameful on

      Ustasha is denounced in the schools in Croatia. No one speaks about Ustasha in a positive matter unless you are from a village. WW2 was terrible and all sides that commited crimes were punished.
      If you want to use the past history as means for future crimes than we can say the Ustasha movement came about because of the assasinations of prominent Croat politicians under the Kingdown of Serbs,Croats and Slovenes.

      Also, do you believe it is okay for countries such as England, Israel, France, etc to start killing innocent germans today because of the misuse of propaganda of the past in nazi Germany. Because the way you are writing your comment is that you are justifying the brutal killings of Croats because of wars 40 years earlier. This is completely wrong, immoral and least of all disgusting. I hope to god one day no one does this to Serbs because although Serbs have wronged, no innocent civilian deserves to die in the future.

    • I’d like to know why and how they could get away with this but on the other hand Serbs are in The Hague? Care to explain?

  3. What happened to the couple hundred thousands of Serbs living in croatia in 1991? We’re they…. ethnically cleansed during operation storm maybe?
    –EDIT– Sexual slurs will not be tolerated –EDIT–

    • PeaceIsNotShameful on

      These so called 200,000 serbs (that took up arms within croatia, blocked major highways and routes for transportation of people and goods, self-proclaimed rebels of a new state within croatia, and supporter of Greater Serbian expansion) fled Croatia for neighbouring western bosnia 2 days before the arrival of Croatian Troops.

      Croatian troops DID NOT bomb and destroy serbian towns in Croatia while Serbs were living in them. Serbs feared for their lives that Croatian troops may retaliate in the same way Vukovarians suffered and hence they left before anything chance of that could. There are pictures and videos of this all over the internet. Therefore, they were not ethnically cleanses (ethnically cleaned means to kill all inhabitants, destroy written records, etc – almost denying their existance wholeheartedly).

      Why are you being rude to the author? She is simply illustrating what happened and who these people in power today were in the past.

      • That doesn’t change the fact that hundreds of thousands of Serbs were driven from their homes by neo fascist croat wanna be Ustaša.

  4. I was born in Vukovar to a Serb mother and a Croat father. They divorced because he cheated on her and than left us with nothing (2 years prior to the war) I was only a baby at the time. My mom tell’s me how at least 10 years prior to the war, many Croats were given heads up warning in their catholic churches and were secretly preparing for the outbreak of the civil war. They received money from Germany and the weapons were smuggled through Hungary. Croats hated being part of Yugoslavia, so when Tito died they seized the opportunity to create their own country, thus ignoring the overall populace census of the former Yugoslavia and its inhabitants. Most Serbs living in Vukovar felt fine and everyone minded their own business. But sadly the provocations have started at political level when former president Franjo Tudjman adopted the new flag of Croatia (which btw was a republic, not ever a an independent country). and the emblem on the flag was a U shape in the middle with red and white checker squares. This symbol was used in WW2 during the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia, which was adopted by the popular movement of the Croatian Catholics who joined the Nazis and felt that was the only way to create their own country. During the WW2, many Serbs living in Croatia were exterminated in the most brutal manner humanly described. There are countless pictures, videos and history books written about it, and this is something that many Croats either flat out deny or say it was a tiny fractions of the killings that took place and the Croat participants aggressors against the Serbs, were most so seen as “few rotten apples” but in reality mot Croats continue to glorify the Ustasha movement and even wear the traditional military hats and carry insignia to label themselves as such. That is the one main thing that I cannot stand about the average ignorant and sadistic hate-filled Croatian, is that they deny the truth about atrocities they committed against the Serbs historically and over exaggerate the story and manipulate the outsiders by telling them false propaganda about how they were the victims when in fact going back to 1991, the first people to take up arms were the CROATS they were the actual AGRESSORS who were Croatian men that formed secret groups and would at night go kidnap Serb males, torture them, beat them up, and kill them. They would break and mash Serbian property in attempt to create fear and of course the aim was to provoke the Yugoslav authorities. Serbs sow this as radicalization of the Croats who were going to stop at nothing in order to achieve their old plan and that is to kick out ever Serb who lived there just as-long as they have, and to ethnically cleans the country which sadly they succeeded via international and very bias channels- because Germany backed them and America as most know, which itself became an engine of international meddling of other countries internal affairs in order to pursue their own geo-political agenda. And this Woman who wrote this article is clearly a very hateful, one-sided, bias racist, you can tell she flip flops on the view of peace and how on one hand people need to move on, but on the other they cannot move on and should always remember the war in their mind. You used to work to UN in 90’s? You should be more fair and ethical and should not take only one side of the coin because after all, you are helping to spread more hate and separation. What is it that Croats truly want from the Serbs? You got your independence, you got your country now. No one is bothering you, is it still YOU that is bothering others! If you’re such freedom loving and peaceful people than why are you so stuck in the past?? According to your logic, Serbs should forgive all the bad shit that was done to them and should even then not have a right and should fear to express their heritage because you might be offended? Wow.. since when did you get such a special status as being the only fair and nice tolerable nation of people who were the one and only victims? That is absolute bullshit! Oh ps: MORE SERBIAN BLOOD WAS SPILLED TODAY’S CROATIA than the Croatian. I noticed over the years the Croats use the statistics and flip them around when it suits them. For example: the Serb victims in Vukovar were later treated as the Croatians just to suit your own needs and to appear like you were the victim once again even though you were the first aggressors. Period. The Ustase movement in 1991 once again was seen as revival and opened many fears and old wounds of the WW2 horrors against the Serbs and was viewed the resurrection of the Fashistic Croatia. Serbs tried to plea and keep Yugoslavia as one- but since they noticed that Croats did want nothing to do with it- They naturally had no choice but to pick up arms and defend their homes against the increasingly growing Croat aggressors who started to use the means of terrorist attacks in order to expel the Serbs out of Croatian republic. If only a fair and democratic referendum was held, the majority of people in ex- Yugoslavia would have choose to stay and live side by side in peace- but no, the minority radicals .made more noise and pushed everyone in mass panic and hysteria. In closing, Vukovar was a city which seen casualties on both sides. It would have never happened that way if the Croats did not start the persecutions against the Serbs first. And once again, I am proud to be more Serbian then Croatian, because you people lie a lot and I know your kind.. You are very proud of your Nazi like past and most of you are two-faced hypocrites who can not be trusted. You show your act of class very nicely the way you treat Serbs who are no threat to you now whatsoever. Now we see who the REAL haters and aggressors are and that is YOU.

    • Your mother didn’t teach you very well and I can see just how delusional you are.

      How did your Serb buddies end up in The Hague if your people are innocent? Why we’re our general freed of wrongdoings? How much more propaganda can you possibly believe? Do you have the means to read and see for yourself what the whole entire world saw Serbs do?

      • I know my history very well- The Hague court is a Kangaroo court anyways, it’s a farce court that is totally bias and one sided. We all know that the croats got the backing from the germans, your traditional WW2 buddies… We all know that a huge propaganda was used against the Serbs in the 1990’s because they were and still are the more dominant ones in all of ex Yugoslavia, so as a result, the only way the West can go in there is to fund the separatist/opposition movements (aka: Croats and the muslims) in order to break up Yugoslavia even faster in that sense. I love how you croats always blame the serbs for everything, but yet you find no fault in your actions whatsoever, now that’s what I call DELUSIONAL!

      • And by the way, your so called “innocent” general, is a war criminal. He knew what he was doing when he made orders to shell Serb villages. Case in point: Medak Poket incident, where the croat troops killed innocent unarmed old men and women and burned their bodies and killed their livestock. Even the Canadian UN peace keepers there was a long stand off and a gun fight against the croats who were violating rules of war and were commiting crimes against humanity, and systematic ethnic clensing. But in your eyes, you croats are sweeet, innocent, freedom loving and very open minded people! You can only lie to your self for so long and so much… but that’s okay, the real God see’s everything and one day we shall all be judged accordingly.

  5. My family of Serb origin had grenades thrown at their houses from the local Croats! And killed by Croat forces. The Croats are very fascist you just need to observe when you are there. prior to war in vukovar majority were Serbs and there was peace. Croats decided to fight for independence without thinking of consequences. The biggest ethnic cleaning since ww2 was Serb exodus from Croatia because of western backed operation storm which killed anyone that stayed behind. Fascism is alive in croatia just look at joe simunic the Croat soccer player.