Thursday 7 December 2023

The Siege of Vukovar (1991)

 Nowadays it is possible to cruise the River Danube's lower stretches, apart from the point at which it reaches the sea where the delta area is dangerously close to the current conflict in Ukraine. The journey from Budapest traverses four countries - Hungary, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria. It also winds its' way through areas that were fought over during what the Serbians call the 'Yugoslavian Civil War' and the Croatians call the 'Croatian Homeland War of Independence'. The Croatian town of Vukovar is pleasant enough nowadays, but in 1991 it suffered an 87 day siege and attracted the epithet 'the Stalingrad of the Balkans'.

A view of Vukovar from the River Danube

 The tragedy of the Balkan upheaval following Tito's death still resonates today. Whilst Croatia is enjoying renewed prosperity - partly through its' membership of the EU, tensions remain in the region. Some a human legacy of the conflict and others concerned with disputed geography and issues of self-determination - in particular Kosovo. However, with just a few hours to visit the town, my focus was on an imposing waterside structure which the Croatians have elevated to the status of a national icon - the Vukovar Water Tower.

Vukovar Water Tower comparison chart

Vukovar Water Tower

Those under siege were defended by elements of the Croatian National Defence force. Croatia had declared independence and the Serbian controlled Yugoslav National Army (JNA) assisted by Serbia irregular troops sought to capture this strategically important town. Arguing that they needed to protect the minority Serbian population, the JNA used maximum force to take Vukova and the surrounding settlements. The bomb and artillery strikes are still evident in that there are many shattered homes and factories in the vinicity.

Semi-derelict building in the centre of Vokovar

The Water Tower is a fifteen minute walk from the centre of town - a walk that passes by facades damaged by shrapnel, plots once occupied by bombed out dwellings and wall murals celebrating Croatian war heroes and martyrs. Local legend has it that during the siege a local fighter climbed the smashed water tower every night after dusk in order to replace a Croatian flag which was regularly ripped apart by Serbian artillery fire. It was, apparently, an ideal sniper position. The shattered structure has been left in its' original state but an impressive iron framework has been erected inside - with several galley floors, audio-visual interpretation and a lift for easier access to the roof which now sports tiered terraces and a giant Croatian flag. 

Hero's Footsteps

The exploits of the brave individual who climbed the tower every night are marked in a very literal way. Footprints embedded on the rooftop flag stand and a striking graphic at the bottom of the access stairs. The siege ended in a JNA victory notwithstanding the bravery of the Croatian defenders. In 1998 the town was consolidated into modern day Croatia after a period of political manoeuvring. Subsequent to the resumption of Croatian control evidence of was crimes was uncovered and two former JNA officers were convicted by the International Crimes Tribunal for their part in what is known as the Vukovar Massacre.

Screenshot from Water Tower visual presentation

I have read that the town is still divided along ethnic lines - Serbians on the one hand, and Croats on the other. One would hope that such divisions will dissipate over time and the fact that tourists are now regularly visiting, must be a positive - driving as it does, local employment and improved prosperity.