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Inside Europe

Croatia: Vukovar is Still Haunted by the Shadow of its Past

During Croatia's war of independence in the early 1990s, Vukovar on the banks of the Danube became a symbol of hate and destruction. Today, the town and its people are struggling to come to terms with the past.

Vukovar still shows signs of the battles from 1991

Vukovar hugs the western bank of the Danube. For centuries, the river helped transform the town into an important trading center, surrounded by fertile agricultural plains.

But the Danube here in Vukovar also forms Croatia's eastern border with Serbia. During the Yugoslav wars in the early 1990s, heavy fighting in the surrounding region resulted in the deaths of thousands and widespread destruction.

Charles Tauber from the Coalition for Work with Psychotrauma and Peace says Vukovar is an extremely devastated place.

"It's not only the physical devastation, it's the human devastation," Tauber says. "People say time heals, but it doesn't. Or they think if you give people some jobs or loans, it'll solve itself. But it won't."

Tauber, an American who specializes in psychotrauma, has been working in Vukovar for this Dutch non-governmental organization for the past 11 years.

"This is a time bomb," he says. "You have this accumulation of trauma, of prejudice, of all these feelings of anger and hatred. It will all explode again if it's not dealt with -- and it's not being dealt with."

Vukovar became Croatia's "Stalingrad"

The trauma that Tauber refers to is a result of events 15 years ago, when Yugoslavia descended into bloodshed. When the war for Croatia's independence erupted in 1991, Vukovar's strategic location sealed its fate.

Yugoslav soldiers arrested many Croat civilians during the siege

For three months, it was under siege by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav National Army and Serbian paramilitary groups. The onslaught was unrelenting and Vukovar became known as Croatia's "Stalingrad."

The town's defenders put up a valiant resistance. But on November 18, 1991, Vukovar was captured.

The destruction of the city was complete and utter. More than 4,000 people were killed or went missing, 15,000 houses were destroyed and 22,000 citizens forced into exile. It was not until seven years later that Vukovar's residents could start returning to their ruined homes.

The people of Vukovar have lost their roots

One of the town's most distinctive landmarks, Eltz Castle, was almost entirely destroyed. This once elegant baroque building housed the city's museum. Staff tried to save as much of the collection as they could. But the building itself was left in ruins.

Part of Eltz Castle has been restored as a museum

A small section of the ground floor has now been restored, and some artifacts and paintings are back on display. Like many others here, the museum's director Ruzica Maric escaped from Vukovar with just the clothes she was wearing.

"Vukovar is a very specific situation and because of that everyone has very strong feelings about it. Losing your roots means you lose everything," Maric says. "When I saw that everything I had was completely destroyed -- my house was gone, I didn't find anything that belonged to my history -- it was a very deeply emotional experience."

Vukovar is "a recipe for disaster"

According to Tauber, the war and its losses has affected close to all of the population. Many locals -- Serb and Croat -- feel they were used during the war and forgotten in peace.

"The manifestations are quite clear," Tauber says. He has noted very high levels of suicide, domestic violence, addiction and alcohol abuse.

"There is complete frustration," he says. "If you add all those factors together, you've got a recipe for disaster."

Tauber is critical of the international community's response to these trauma victims. A lot of aid organizations, he says, are simply interested in quick results, which look good on paper but have no long-term benefit. Funding is a major problem, as is the standard of local health care.

"The competency of medical care here is very low and the number of patients that each doctor has to deal with are very high," he says. "So what do they do? They prescribe drugs, which don't work and just repress the symptoms. And the people walk around like zombies."

Praying for the strength to forgive

Inside the Church of Saints Philip and Jacob, with its battle-scarred walls, is one of the more sickening reminders of the war. Beyond a locked door, broken steps lead down to a dark and musty crypt. There's debris everywhere.

Father Zlatko Spehar doesn't stray from the narrow stretch of walkway that's been cleared down its center. The crypt still contains landmines and booby traps. When Serb forces captured the church, Father Zlatko says, they came down here and opened up the coffins containing the remains of the Counts and Countesses von Eltz, the family that once ruled this region.

Bones and body parts were ripped apart and flung about. It remains that way. Looking closely, one can see a woman's head lying on the ground, the flesh blackened by age, the hair and teeth still visible. The remains of another long dead aristocrat is on the left, still lying in its broken metal coffin.

Father Zlatko says many people have turned to the church to try to find peace from the traumas of the past.

"Seventy percent of the people that come for confession really struggle inside," Zlatko says. "They want to forgive -- not forget but forgive. But they don't have the strength. They have to pray for it."

The main street of Vukovar today

Vukovar on the banks of the River Danube leaves visitors with a sense of shock, despair and sadness at the town's fate. The words of Sinisa Glavasevic come to mind, a local journalist who covered the siege of Vukovar for Croatian Radio.

"Who will care for my town, my friends? Who will take Vukovar out of the darkness?" Glavasevic said. "You must build from the beginning. First of all, your past -- look for your origins. And then, if you have strength left, invest it in the future. And the town, do not worry about it. It was in you all the time, only hidden. Let the butcher find it. The town -- that is you".

Glavasevic was executed along with around 200 prisoners of war in November 1991 after Vukovar fell to Serb forces. He was just 31.

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