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.
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.
While 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.
As 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.
The 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.
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.
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!
They 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.
It 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?