In his book on the wars in Yugoslavia, British journalist Misha Glenny describes how he reached the outskirts of the Croatian city of Vukovar, on the banks of the Danube, in 1991, the second day of what would be a bloody 87-day siege by Serbian militias and the Yugoslav National Army (JNA).
He and another journalist were told they could enter the city, but decided it was too dangerous.
“We later confessed how many times and how deeply we regret that decision,” recalled Glenny. “We had traveled to the brink of a crime unmatched in post-war Europe. It was our duty to report the precise details about Vukovar, but we were too scared.”
The Stalingrad of Croatia
The total destruction of Vukovar during what would be the first phase of the wars in Yugoslavia invited to compare it with Stalingrad during World War II. The city was surrounded by 40,000 JNA soldiers and Serbian paramilitaries and, for 87 days, defended by only 2,000 Croatian National Guard fighters. Even when the Serbs finally took the city, it was a Pyrrhic victory.
“The jubilation of Serbian fighters and many civilians at the news of Vukovar’s liberation can to some extent be explained by ignorance. But anyone who believes that a pile of useless ruins that you have created can be freed needs a remedial education in semantics, “wrote Glenny in his 1992 book, The Fall of Yugoslavia.
Hundreds of Croatian fighters were killed when Vukovar was taken, and tens of thousands of non-Serbs were expelled. When it was finally returned to Croatia in 1998, the city was rebuilt and became a symbol of Croatian independence and resistance, as it remains today. Every year, tens of thousands of people gather in the city to commemorate its fall on November 18.
But it is what happened next that helped secure Vukovar’s reputation among the massacres that would define the Balkan wars, which would only come to an end four years later with the Dayton Accords mediated by the United States.
Despite the agreement between the JNA and the Croatian government that Croatian soldiers and civilians from the city would be evacuated, 261 men taken from Vukovar hospital were transported to a farm in Ovcara, on the outskirts of the city, and beaten. They were then taken in groups of 10 to 12 to another place where they were shot and buried in a mass grave.
In 1996, Slavko Dokmanovic, the Serbian mayor of Vukovar at the time, was charged with war crimes for the incident and detained by the UN. He later hanged himself in jail. At least two JNA officers were subsequently convicted by the International Criminal Court, and it was one of several war crimes for which Slobodan Milosevic was charged before his own death in 2006.
Despite the convictions, Vukovar remained a thorny issue between Serbia and Croatia, and Zagreb asked Belgrade for reparations for this matter. In 2015, the International Court of Justice ruled that, despite serious crimes having been committed in Vukovar, Croatia had not proven that genocide had been committed during the hospital massacre.
In response to the lawsuit, Belgrade alleged that Croatia had committed ethnic cleansing by expelling 200,000 ethnic Serbs from Croatia in 1995. The ICJ, once again, found that, although crimes had been committed, the evidence was inconclusive.
It concluded that, although the forces of both countries had committed many crimes during the conflict, neither side had succeeded in demonstrating the intention to commit genocide through the “total or partial destruction of the population”.
Reflecting on the atrocities committed by both Serbs and Croats in the early 1990s, shortly before the massacres of Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo gave Balkan cities their names, Glenny cautioned that justifying the massacres by pointing to the on the other side, it would only guarantee the continuity of the pattern of violence.
“There is no point trying to blame Croatian and Serbian extremists for their vile murderous activities,” Glenny wrote. “Because once the logic of the conflict had passed the point of no return, massacres were inevitable.”
This article was originally published in October 2020.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.