Vukovar, Croatia – “It’s cows,” says Marko Mlakic to his friend Grga Krajina, describing the smell in the fields of Vukovar, a town on the border between Croatia and Serbia.
Twenty-four years ago, it was the smell of war that filled the air here as 200 Croats were massacred and thrown into a mass grave. Another 60 who disappeared on the same day were never found.
As Mlakic and Krajina approach the tall bronze statue in the middle of the field their voices drop and their body language changes. They become more upright and walk more decisively. This is the grave of Mlakic’s grandfather, two of Krajina’s cousins and many others who they know from the stories of those who lived through the war.
“We are all marked by the generation before us. We embrace their stories,” says Krajina.
“I am 25 years old and I can tell you the names of the people who murdered and raped here. Everybody knows these names,” adds Mlakic.
Those buried here are all victims of the “massacre of Vukovar”; one of the worst atrocities committed during the 1991 “Domovinski rat” or homeland war, which pitted Croats against Serbs.
It was a war whose seeds were planted 11 years earlier, when the president of Yugoslavia, Josip Tito, had died. With their “benevolent dictator” gone, the various entities that comprised the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia nurtured a growing nationalism.
As Serbian nationalists attempted to centralise power in Belgrade, states such as Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina tried to break lose.
In those areas where the population was mixed, clashes and, ultimately, war ensued.
Vukovar was just such a place.
Located on the border, the predominantly Croat town was home to many ethnicities and a sizeable Serbian minority.
When the war broke out, it was besieged.
For 86 days, 1,800 lightly armed Croatian soldiers, together with civilian volunteers, tried to defend the town as the Serbian-led Yugoslav army fired rockets into it.
The remaining citizens, including a few thousand Serbs, hid in cellars.
Even the hospital wasn’t spared. The overcrowded intensive care unit had to move into the basement.
When the last Croat soldiers ran out of ammunition after 86 days of fighting, they surrendered. It was November 18, 1991.
The Croatian authorities negotiated the evacuation of the 400 or so people still sheltering in the hospital basement.
But when a Red Cross convoy tried to access the town on November 20, they found the bridge they needed to cross to reach the hospital blocked by Serb forces.
As the convoy came to a halt, about 300 people, including wounded soldiers and civilians, some only in their teens, were being taken out of the hospital, herded on to buses and driven to a patch of farmland outside the town, close to the Serbian border.
A different history
In a dimly-lit pub called History, all the customers seem to know somebody who died in the massacre that followed.
Mlakic and Krajina shake hands with the others in the pub.
“We all know each other here. Of course we do, this is our bar,” says Krajina, 23, before adding: “Serbs have their own pubs.”
It is a division that goes beyond where you choose to drink in this town of 27,000 people.
A third of the population here are ethnic Serbs, who are predominantly Orthodox Christian and use the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet. The mainly Catholic Croats, who form the majority of the residents of Vukovar, use the Latin alphabet.
But perhaps the main difference between the two communities is their version of what happened here during the 1990s, and how they now choose to remember it.
At the History pub, Croats are eager to talk about the past, keen to tell strangers about the events that unfolded in their town 24 years ago.
The Serb residents seem to prefer not to discuss it.
At the memorial centre just outside town, Croats explain to visitors what happened in the aftermath of the Battle of Vukovar: a story of Croat victimhood and Serbian invasion.
Few Serbs dispute that a massacre took place, and, in 2010, Boris Tadic, the Serbian president, visited the site and apologised for it. But many, when they do talk about it, stress that people died on both sides of the conflict.
In an old barn by the massacre site, the victims were beaten for several hours before taken out to the field where they were killed.
Portraits of the dead and their personal belongings remind visitors of the lives lost. Mlakic and Krajina point out the names of their loved ones, engraved on a circular stone frame.
“This is where the division starts in our city,” says Mlakic, who is president of the municipality’s Youth Council and therefore responsible for organising sporting and musical events for the town’s young people. It is one of the few areas in which Croats and Serbs must work together.
“I have a good understanding with some Serbs and respect them. Also my parents have nice Serbian colleagues,” Mlakic says. “But it is hard to become close friends if you disagree on fundamental issues [such] as who invaded who in the 1990s.”
Krajina agrees: “Serbia crossed the border and attacked us. But they claim that it was a civil war and that they only tried to keep Yugoslavia together.”
It doesn’t help either that the younger generations do not only hear opposing versions of events at home; they are also taught them at school.
“Many of us go to school separately and that has not only to do with language; we have different history lessons,” says Mlakic.
National minorities in Croatia have the right to be educated in their own language and script, particularly in areas with sizeable minorities.
Some of the schools here are what has become known as “two schools under one roof”, whereby the different ethnic groups share the same building but at different times of the day.
“This week, Serbs use the afternoon and Croats the morning,” explains Mlakic.
It’s a system that isn’t unique to Vukovar.
The result is an almost institutionalised form of separation that seems to be a pragmatic way of agreeing to disagree. But even this cannot stop there being conflict.
What’s in an alphabet?
In Croatia, bilingual signs must be displayed in every municipality where more than a third of the population belongs to an ethnic minority group. So when the percentage of Serb residents of Vukovar reached 34.8 percent in 2013, the town was destined to turn bilingual.
But not everybody was happy about this.
Some Croats took to the streets, destroying the “Serbian signs”. For a portion of the Croat citizens, the Cyrillic script reminded them of the early 1990s and what they call the “Serbian invasion”.
Krajina says that it was just way too early, the wounds still too fresh, to introduce Cyrillic signs to the town. He didn’t participate in destroying them, but he does defend those who did.
“We are still facing Serbs on the street who worked back then for the military, that’s hard already. We cannot face their alphabet as well.”
The signs still have not been returned and in the spaces where they should be hanging, only screw-holes and handwritten messages remain. “If you put it back in Latin, everything will be okay,” say some of the notes written on government buildings.
‘Who dies bravely’
Whether or not they choose to talk about it, it seems that nobody in Vukovar has forgotten what happened here. There are reminders everywhere – many of the bridges, buildings, and statues that were rebuilt, bear the names of those who were massacred.
Mlakic and Krajina often visit the statue. And they are not alone. Townspeople and tourists regularly come to pay their respects.
But there is one group of people who do not tend to visit.
“Serbs won’t come here,” says Mlakic in front of the grave his grandfather shares with so many others. “All the school classes come here8 , except for the Serbian ones.”
As the two friends head back into town, they pass a small electricity building adorned with graffiti: “Who dies bravely, lives for ever.”
It may well be the only historical reference the residents of Vukovar can agree on.