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.