Jadranka Kosor: A Town Stands

Total Croatia News

Vukovar is not just a symbol. It is a living town with joy and success and life, a city of heroes which doesn’t need large or superfluous words on November 18.

It is as if November 1991 was yesterday. I was a journalist in the news programme of Croatian Radio. Studio 9 received the final reports from Siniša Glavašević and his colleagues. We didn’t say they were final, but we knew they were. Siniša knew, his closest colleagues too, just as they knew if the enemy entered the town, they would look for the journalists first.

In one of his final reports, Siniša’s voice and tone echoed with bitterness and disappointment, but no fear. I listened to him for the last time leaning against the door of studio 9, and just slid to the floor. From frailty, misery, anger and sorrow, tears rolled down in silence.

Some days after, I spoke to refugees from Vukovar, mostly women and children settled in Zagreb hotels. The children played and I, inadvertently, fighting anxiety and fear, concluded out loud how nice it was that they were not subdued and were still able to play. An eleven-year-old boy stopped and looked at me too seriously. With the look of an old man, he said: “Lady, if you only knew how we feel inside.” He shamed me to the bone.

Yes, indeed; those of us who were not in Vukovar when the sky and land burned cannot really know how the survivors made it and survived. No-one knows how things were in the Vukovar hospital, except those who saved lives there and those who were cared for.

Many who could speak of this are gone. Long gone is Dr. Njavro, dear friend and doctor who often told me of the unimaginable wounds he saw, and what he accomplished in those impossible conditions. And how long he hadn’t slept or eaten or thought about anything but those people who were on the verge of life and death. He just worked and worked. Like Dr. Vesna Bosanac who even today, humbly and quietly, rummages through memories if anyone asks about those days in Vukovar hospital.

We’ve forgotten a lot about Vukovar and its residents and we never knew a lot either. Tens of thousands of people who visit the town every year on November 18th come to hear of suffering, sorrow, heroism, the fall and the rise. Rarely does anyone talk on other days of the specific and real people who defended the town, believed in its invincibility and loved it in many different ways. Some with arms, some through work, some just with the fact that they stayed and shared the fate of the defenders. Rarely on other days do we speak of Marko Babić or Blago Zadro. We should speak more often of Pilip Karaula, Ivan Kovačić or Zoran Šangut. The latter is currently heading a large project that includes the School of Peace, but he is relatively unknown.

I remember the miraculous day on 15th January 1998, and the final ceremony which concluded Vukovar’s peaceful reintegration when the keys of the city were again handed to Croatia. Much of that day has also faded from memory, except for a lively image and a song of the youth of Vukovar. The song of all those who weren’t there, but who should have been, as they were of utmost importance to us. This song of the youth of Vukovar reduced the entire hall to tears, and from that moment the city began its renovation and repopulation.

I have heard the most wonderful stories of love, sacrifice and hope from Kata Šoljić, a mother who lost four sons. She has spoken often of Vukovar, with equal love of her children, always somehow remaining defiant and proud. And another Kata, Katica Zadro, often brought us together, consoling and comforting us through her memories of her husband and son.

Just like Jozefina Varga, who is often overlooked, although at 95 she remembers to this day every detail of wartime Vukovar, but also life before and after the horrific war. Her son was killed on Ovčara, taken from Vukovar hospital, but not identified until 2000. Jozefina Varga knows who is responsible for her son’s death, but she has made peace with all that life has given and taken from her. With incredible strength, she has resisted hate. Also amazing is the supernatural force that keeps her optimistic and positive, even though she now lives in a retirement home. She is more vital and fresh than many Vukovar politicians who often just squeal in vain.

My friendship with Tihomir Purda also connects me to Vukovar. He was arrested on phantom indictments which were – and still are – initiated from Serbia as ongoing retaliation against the prisoners from the Serbian prison-camps. After the fall of Vukovar many defenders were murdered, and many taken to camps, where they were tortured, raped, beaten and killed. Among the latter was Fred Matić. Later on, when he became the Croatian Veterans’ Minister, his fellow combatants, dissastisfied with the way he treated them, demonstrated against him by setting up camp outsiode his Ministry.

And yes, let’s admit and remember: for the past several years on Memorial Day for the sacrifice of Vukovar there have been demeaning scenes and fraught discussions. Although the file towards the cemetery always began from the courtyard of Vukovar hospital, suddenly there was a politicization which divided the marchers, with too few, too weak voices to resist. They demeaned the victims of Vukovar, and their labels of “theirs” and “ours” intensified the troubled atmosphere and evoked fear, shame and anxiety.

Many today speak of respect for the sacrifice of Vukovar and promote unity in the Remembrance File. But, today is the day to ask: surely love for Vukovar is also the fight against divisions? Surely loving Vukovar also means denying anyone the right to dictate who loves Vukovar most, or less or not at all? Is it love for Vukovar when invitations for the city’s feast day are not extended to any worthy citizens who happen not to be in favour with the party bosses at the time? Surely love for Vukovar means appreciating what others have done previously for the town, especially if it is your first time for joining the Remembrance File? And today, in 2016, does not the love for Vukovar also mean respecting the opinions of others, meeting with them, righting injustice – and not manipulating the survivors of the war? Love for Vukovar should also mean forgiving Siniša Glavašević’s son if he has said or done something unnecessary, hasty or unacceptable? And does that love not mean publicly showing concern when journalists are threatened today, remembering that Siniša Glavašević and Branko Polovina were brutally executed on Ovčara just for being journalists? Yes, all of this is part of the love for Vukovar and its people who were in those days for which we are honouring them BRAVE PEOPLE.

Memories get submerged and overtaken. On Ovčara and many other mass grave sites across Croatia, there is a simple memorial with a dove. I worked on that project with Dr. Njavro as well as the monument erected at the Vukovar cemetery. An eternal flame burns there. I remember vividly the exhumations of this, the largest mass grave since the Second World War, revealing 938 bodies. And then the identification of the bodies in tents and the burials of dozens of those identified every week. Crushed after all these burials we attended, Dr. Njavro fell ill.

In October 1999 with Vladimir Šeks I proposed that November 18th should be declared the Memorial Day for the Sacrifice of Vukovar.

Proposing it then (on October 26th, 1999) I said: “This day, with dignity and calm, is in honour of all the defenders who took part in the defence and creation of Croatia. Vukovar is a symbol of freedom, dignity, the best of what we are and the best of how we should be.”

Yesterday, 17th November 2016, the current Mayor of Vukovar said the government must decide whether “Vukovar will live or die.” He certainly knows that no government can just create jobs or employment, nor can it force people to return to the city, or to go into cafes and bars where “those others” go. Nor can any government make “our” children have classes with “their” children. When every local authority and national government adopts a clear stance regarding these problems, life in Vukovar will be better and more prosperous.

Vukovar is not just a symbol. It is a living town with joy and success and life, a city of heroes which doesn’t need hyperboles or excessive words on November 18th.

Vukovar is alive and will continue to live. Oh yes! Just as it survived when it was meant to die. And we will always remember this, because “memories are the secret of salvation.”

And if from tomorrow we also try to be better people, we can do nothing better in honour of the town that saved Croatia.

For the original and more from Jadranka Kosor’s blog, click here.


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