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Vukovar – a lesser known take on the Balkan Wars

I have always tried to see to the fact that my blog will show the beauty of the former Yugoslavia and not purely concentrate on the remnants of war; and I chose to do so because from my experience people will think about war anyway, while the amazing charms of the Balkans have yet to be made known to them. Kami of Kami and the Rest of the World has recently reminded me of my own reaction to the most recent Balkan history when she wrote this moving and accurate post about Mostar. It brought back to mind that it is very important to speak not only of the beauty, but also of the dark past of this region, because people are sadly uninformed. But the war is still part of society in the Balkans – and not only in destroyed buildings, but in people’s heads, in politics, plainly spoken: in life.

It is a difficult, messed-up story that brought about the war, and I can’t say that I’ve fully grasped it. I certainly shall not try to explain it. I will resort for now to speak of a place that is little known, but that made the recent past’s events more visible to me than any other, and that is Vukovar in Croatia.

City Center, Vukovar, Croatia

Downtown Vukovar – only at a second glance did I notice that the pretty but run-down building was still without windows

Vukovar would never have made it to my list, even if I’d had one. It was recommended to me by one of my favorite couchsurfing hosts of all time. Roni said to me: „If you want to feel what the war meant, you must go to Vukovar.“ So after seeing Mostar’s captivating beauty and the miracle that is the restored Old Bridge, after Sarajevo’s tunnel museum, after the whole Bosnian take on the war, I went back through Slavonia, which is Croatia’s most inland region, to stop in Vukovar for a night before I would go to Serbia’s Novi Sad.

It was one of the first places I went to on my trip that didn’t have many tourists. I walked around asking random people if they knew of a place where I could stay for the night, and I found a nice little guest house well outside of the city center – funnily enough I had already seen it from the bus window. It may have been the only place in town. After dropping off my backpack, I made my way right back into town.

War Ruins, Vukovar, CroatiaWhile at first, on the way out to find a bed for the night, my priorty hadn’t been on looking around so much, everything struck me with greater force now that I didn’t have a backpack and the fear of sleeping outside on me. The long street into town was lined with buildings that were covered in bullet holes. I had seen houses like these in Bosnia, but in Mostar and Sarajevo they weren’t nearly as plentiful.

Bullet hole houses, Vukovar, CroatiaAs I said: Vukovar doesn’t have tourism. There hasn’t been much need, let alone funds, for restorations. You probably haven’t ever heard of the place. Here’s the deal: Vukovar was under an 87-day siege in 1991 and was the third most destroyed city in the former Yugoslavia in the Balkan Wars – after mentioned cities in Bosnia. There was also an ethnically motivated mass killing of more than 250 Croatians in the year of the siege.

War Ruins, Vukovar, CroatiaThe walk into town was tough for me, because the atmosphere struck me as so bleak and desolate that I felt the weight of recent history with a power that hadn’t come upon me before. I had cried in Bosnia, cried over the countries losses and hardships, cried at fates of people I was told, and cried over the incomprehensible divide between the beauty of the country and the sadness of its history. But there had been beauty. In Vukovar on the road into town, I couldn’t even cry. A feeling of utter hopelessness crept upon me, and I was scared of giving in and allowing myself to feel the terror entirely, because I was afraid of breaking at the immensity of it.

Destroyed house, Vukovar, Croatia

What always gets to me is the intact tapestry on the wall.

This was the first moment that I began to understand that in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, there is no one good side and no one bad side. It isn’t World War II, where the essential info is that Germany is the villain. The Balkan Wars are much more complex. There is no clear image of a victim and a perpetrator, and I think that comes clearest when looking at Croatia. I can’t place the Croats‘ role in the war on either one side of the scale between evil and good; or rather: I have to place it on both sides equally.

War Memorial, Vukovar, Croatia

The War Memorial in the city center reads „To Those Who Died For A Free Croatia“

Finally I reached downtown, and there was something I noticed. The houses in the center were in ruins still – mind you, the siege had happened almost 20 years ago. But while the first floors didn’t have windows and were not habitable, the ground floors – well, they were!

City Life, Vukovar, CroatiaThey held shops and coffee houses and ice cream parlors. People were working on the restored ground floors to make money in order to rebuild the top floors. They were trying to reanimate their city, to defy the odds, to make a living inspite of previous deaths. This was the amazing attitude I had also found in Bosnia. The desolation was much harsher and more present here in Vukovar, but the readiness to fight it and restore good living conditions, to not give up or bend, was the same.

Downtown, Vukovar, CroatiaIt is this spirit that kindles and constantly rekindles my deep love and admiration for this region, its people and its culture. I do not think I could have fully understood this, had I not come to Vukovar. It was very important for me to see war remnants outside of the central and well-known places. They showed the tragedy and complexity of it all to me with detail that I didn’t see anywhere else – unabridged, unadorned, unvarnished.

What do you think? Would you visit a place like Vukovar – or have you even been? Is this kind of „war tourism“ unethical or weird to you?

15 Comments

  1. Wow I have never really been to this kind of place, surely this is an off-beaten track to feel a certain sad history visibly there for you to see. Great post as always, keep exposing the great Eastern Europe for us! 🙂

    • bridgekeeper

      Februar 26, 2013 at 10:54 pm

      Thank you darling. It isn’t easy to write about a place like this, but it amazes me how the spirit of the people brings ray of hope to all the sadness of history.

  2. Thanks for your comment!
    I have to admit that my stay in Slavonia two years ago was the one with my first steps in so called Eastern Europe ever. In Vukovar, we were only waiting for the bus to Novi Sad, so I didn’t take that many pictures like you did. „War tourism“ is something that hasn’t been exploited yet in this region, but it’s only a question of time when people will start making money of this, especially when Croatia has joined EU.
    More steps in Eastern Europe will follow and as I see at first sight, your blog might help me planning the next trips 🙂 nice work!

    • bridgekeeper

      Februar 26, 2013 at 10:53 pm

      All the happier does it make me that you didn’t shy away from Eastern and Middle Eastern Europe after Slavonia – it is certainly not the most accessible place, but it is definitely worth a visit. Funny that we should decide to write about it almost at the same time. War tourism is actually startign to be a big deal already, especially in Bosnia. Srebrenica has a weird double life between a spa town and the site of the biggest genocide since World War II – or so I hear. I really need to visit soon. Thanks for stopping by, I look forward to exchanging travel tales with you, Christopher!

  3. Hi, I clicked over from Kami’s blog!

    This is a beautiful post. I agree with you – the countries of the former Yugoslavia are incredibly beautiful with forests, mountains, lakes, rivers. I was incredibly moved by the natural beauty when I visited Serbia in 2010 and long to visit the lakes and beaches in Macedonia, Montenegro and Croatia.

    But yes, it is important to talk about the war sometimes, especially as all of the locals I’ve spoken to across the Balkans speak about it a lot.

    Vukovar is very high on my to-visit list. I’m going to Split, Sarajevo and Mostar in May but I will definitely be heading out to Zagreb and Split next time.

    • bridgekeeper

      März 1, 2013 at 1:45 pm

      Really glad you found me, Mandy! I am always so happy to meet other lovers of Eastern Europe. Vukovar is definitely worth a visit. Enjoy Split, Sarajevo and Mostar for now though. May is the absolute BEST time there, it is so lovely, not too hot, yet perfect weather, flowers in bloom, the hills of Bosnia exploding in green, it really is one of my favorite countries, if not my favorite in a way. And if you need any advice on where to stay or what to do, just shout!

      • I’ll definitely keep that in mind! Thank you! One of my Serbian friends is meeting us in Sarajevo, so we should be good.

  4. The benefit of a do-nothing Saturday night is that I came across your post and blog. I just said to my girlfriend earlier that most travel bloggers have a tendency to only concentrate on the sights and where to eat, and forget about the background, the hidden essence of a place. So it’s extra nice seeing your writing for this reason as well.

    My roots are in Eastern Europe, although a completely different part, so could be that’s why this story resonates with me. But probably it’s more because I share your view on gaining understanding of a country shold come not only via its beauty but just as much via its painful past.

    • bridgekeeper

      März 4, 2013 at 12:21 am

      Thank you, Pal, for your very kind words and for finding my blog – and for subscribing to it, which means so much to me! I read on yours that you’re originally from Romania? That is one country I am missing… can’t wait to go there. I agree with you wholeheartedly, a country’s past is very important. With me being German, I should know… I will write much about this topic this week, featuring Germany and especially Berlin in my posts because of ITB. I hope you will like what’s coming.

  5. I’ve never heard of that town before, but it seems pretty intense..! Bosnia is such a beautiful country and it really left an impression on me. The people have gone through so much and I can’t believe what it must be like to live every day seeing the evidence of the past everywhere around you and constantly be reminded of it.

    • bridgekeeper

      März 4, 2013 at 12:24 am

      A lot of people haven’t heard of , Sofia – including myself before I came to the Balkans. It was definitely one of my more important experiences. Glad to hear you loved Bosnia!! Where did you go exactly?

  6. I visited Vukovar last summer under pretty special circumstances. I had decided to go explore in Croatia, Serbia and Romania because my father and grandfather are Serbian, and my grandmother Romanian. Croatia was something I just knew I had to see. I was working with a Croatian woman at the time, and she was from Vukovar. I had certainly never heard of the place. Her and her husband were new to Canada, still waiting to bring their kids over, and I was showing them around a bit.

    When I went on my trip they made all arrangements for me that when I arrived in Vukovar, I would be completely taken care of. Picked up at the bus depot and driven to my free apartment to stay in overnight. Free meals and beers, and a boat trip over to the small, shaded island across the Danube River to just relax and drink Rakija. I was most certainly meeting people that had never, ever encountered a Westerner. They said that the only tourism they had was mostly people from within Europe for some sort of cycling marathon. I will always have very powerful memories of this town, which was my last stop in Croatia before entering Serbia. Powerful memories of the town’s appearance and the way I was treated while I was there. I have no doubt that I will one day return and visit my friends over there.

    • bridgekeeper

      Juli 29, 2013 at 9:28 am

      That is a great story, Mike, and thank you for sharing it. I think „powerful“ is the right word to describe memories generated in a place like Vukovar.

  7. Krister Karlsson

    Juli 28, 2013 at 3:58 pm

    Nice post. But for me it is not acceptable to leave out the terrible war crimes of the Serbians. They attacked and killed civilians in Croatia and Bosnia. I have been to Prijedor in Bosnia many times hearing eyewitnesses telling their stories about hundreds of dead bodies floating in the river Sana. All civilians, women, children and men. Stories about mass rapings. The concentration camp Omarska just outside the city. And the Bosniaks have not even got an excuse from the Serbs. To say that the war was complicated -as you do in your post -is like saying that the jews had them self to blame for the Nazi holocaust.

    • bridgekeeper

      Juli 29, 2013 at 9:50 am

      Hey Krister, thanks for stopping by. After reading your comment, I carefully re-read my post and I can’t find that I denied or belittled anything that you said anywhere. I was very careful not to speak much of the Serbs in this post because like I said, I am not even going to begin to try explaining all of that. I am not an expert on the history of that war, and I certainly wasn’t aiming at giving a history lesson that takes into account all the facts. I am very aware of Prijedor, Omarska and of course Srebrenica. But all of that are topics that I don’t feel I am proficient to discuss. I just spoke about Vukovar and what I saw there and how it affected me. If you are looking for anything beyond that, my blog is not the place to look.

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