A building riddled with bullet holes in town of Vukovar
We leave Hungary, continuing south to Croatia. Most tourists to this country visit cities on the Adriatic coast, such as Dubrovnik. However on a river cruise, visitors instead stop in the small town of Vukovar where the Danube separates Croatia from its eastern neighbor, Serbia. When Croatia declared its independence and seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991, the Serbian-based Yugoslavia army invaded and Vukovar bore the brunt of that brutal conflict.
Our tour guide today is a 21 year old college student, born four days after the beginning of the Serbia/Croatia war. We see the ruins of bombed structures and bullet holes on many buildings, including the high school. We hear stories of brutality that do not fit with our expectations of the civilized, developed world. Yet Croatia and Serbia are both developed countries with educated people that thrived in the not-so-distant years of Yugoslavia.
Our tour continues to the nearby city of Osejik, a bigger city that suffered somewhat less than Vukovar, though still underwent occupation and destruction by the Serbian army. We tour a school, which lifts our spirits to see the bright hopeful faces of children. Not the least bit interested in politics, they are excited that one of the passengers lives near Justin Bieber in Canada.
The highlight for today is lunch served at the home of a local family. We divide into groups of ten, each going to a different home for an intimate afternoon over a home-cooked meal. Our hostess lived through the war as a young teenager, separated from her family for a time. Like most Croatians she did not want to dwell on that tragedy, though did mention that she lost some family members in the conflict, and that her house was completely destroyed.
Now she prefers to look forward, having recently completed the ten-year process of rebuilding her home. She has two young children, and like most citizens here also lives with her mother-in-law and grandmother. Four generations under one roof. They grow much of their own food and are resourceful out of necessity, rising to meet the challenges of war-torn adversity. She is self-taught in English which she learned by watching American cartoons and movies.
We find it difficult to understand the root causes of these violent conflicts, though seeing the physical damage and the sadness carried by many of the older citizens motivates us to learn the story of this region.
Bordering the northeastern corner of the Adriatic Sea, Croatia is one of six republics of mostly Slavic people that formed the nation of Yugoslavia. Under the skilled and generally respected leadership of Tito, these diverse peoples of the Balkan region functioned reasonably well for thirty-five years after WWII. Tito used methods similar to the old Ottoman empire in leading a diverse group of people, promoting tolerance and playing to their strengths to avoid conflict. Born a Catholic, once a disciple of Stalin, and then a member of the Freemasons, Tito was primarily a pragmatist. He leveraged his leadership skills as a Nazi resistance fighter to gain control of Yugoslavia. Initially brutal while establishing his authority, he soon evolved into a benevolent dictator. Yugoslavians operated under ‘communism lite’ in that they were allowed to travel freely, invest abroad and enjoy some private ownership. Tito played both sides of the superpower fence, receiving funds from both the NATO allies and the Soviet Union – essentially as payment-in-kind money for not allowing ‘the other guy’ to build bases in Yugoslavia. This all worked well until his death in 1980. Like most dictators though, he failed to plan for succession. When Tito died, his Slavic experiment began to unravel. Within a dozen years Yugoslavia became a tragic example of the difference between a nation of laws and a nation of men.
In the years following Tito’s death, politicians from each of the original nations of Yugoslavia competed for power, some using the time-tested method of rallying their constituency by creating a common enemy. The success with which these politicians transformed their constituents from peaceable neighbors into brutal murderers is frightful. Several of these men are now in the Hague on charges of war crimes. The central figure of these conflicts, Slobadan Milosevic, died in the Hague in 2006.
Today Croatia is an independent nation. They will join the European Union in a few months. Yugoslavia is no more, each of its republics having reclaimed independence within their pre-Yugoslavian borders. Conflict continues however, as the small area within Serbia known as Kosovo seeks independence. Some nations have recognized Kosovo while others have not. This political football is preventing Serbia from entering the EU, continuing the contentious pattern of the Balkans.
On the evening of this visit, just before leaving, we gather in the boat lounge where local Croatian musicians entertain us. They finish with an uplifting rendition of ‘Ol Susana’, sung in Croatian. We sail away, aware that we have barely glimpsed a few pieces of a much bigger Balkan puzzle.