The Fall of Vukovar: Oral History of a Croatian Town’s Destruction

Illustration: Igor Vujcic/BIRN.

The Fall of Vukovar: Oral History of a Croatian Town’s Destruction

18. November 2021.15:17
18. November 2021.15:17
On the 30th anniversary of the fall of Vukovar to the Yugoslav People’s Army and Serbian paramilitaries, local residents and Croats who fought to defend the town look back on the devastating three-month siege and its brutal aftermath.

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When the siege began, many of the town’s residents, particularly women, children and elderly people, went down into their basements to hide from artillery bombardment, tank fire and air strikes.

Manda Patko was living with her husband and mother-in-law in Bogdanovacka Street in Vukovar’s Milovo Brdo neighbourhood. From late August 1991, she and her mother-in-law spent most of their time hiding in their basement, as their house quickly became uninhabitable due to heavy damage from shelling.

“You could not go outside or talk to other neighbours, as our house was away from other houses, and shells were falling in the street all the time. There were days when you couldn’t even come out from the basement. I was counting shells. If I counted six, it usually stopped or continued. If it stopped, I would come out from the basement to the toilet in the garden. I would get the water at our neighbours’ during one of those breaks in shelling,” Patko said.

Iva Radic was eight in 1991, with a Croat father and Serb mother, living in the Sajmiste neighbourhood. Like Patko, she hid in the basement.

“The whole neighbourhood was coming to our basement, from different ethnic background: Croats, Serbs, Ruthenians, Slovaks. In the neighbourhood, there were basements where there were only Croats and ones with only Serbs. However, ours was the only one where everyone was,” remembered Radic.

After the Croat part of the Radic family, who lived in the coastal city of Split, refused to take them in, they fled to Serbia on September 7.

“We escaped through a road in the cornfields in a column of seven cars. On the way, the ZNG [Croatian National Guard] stopped us and searched us but let us go. We passed by checkpoints held by the JNA [Yugoslav People’s Army] and other Serbian paramilitaries. We later heard that the same evening that route had been cut off, which means we escaped at the last moment,” she said.

Jelena Zera, who was ten and lived in the same neighbourhood, remembers a massive tank attack on September 5.

“Until then, we were still all in our houses; we didn’t realise that the JNA was so close. Only when they came some 20 to 30 metres from the house, we realised it was a tank assault. We [her mother, grandmother, and older brother] quickly took the things we needed most and ran out of the house, running away from them, down the street, towards our car that was parked a bit further away. As we were running, machine guns from the tanks shot at us. We were very fortunate that they didn’t hit us,” Zera recalled.

Improvised urban resistance

A Croatian soldier in a destroyed house near Vukovar a day before the town fell in November 1991. Photo: EPA/PAUL JENKS.

As well as Croatian commanders Mile ‘Hawk’ Dedakovic and Branko ‘Young Hawk’ Borkovic, one of the people organising the defence of the town was Danijel Rehak, whose title was Secretary for People’s Defence for Vukovar County.

“The majority of people killed during those months were the ones killed on the streets or even in their cars, as shrapnel would kill them once a shell hit the concrete,” Rehak said.

Vukovar’s defence was organised using volunteers from the town and elsewhere in Croatia who set up fortified defensive positions at strategic locations. Ilija Ackar came to Vukovar on September 26 as a part of a group of Croatian Defence Forces, HOS fighters – members of a paramilitary unit under the control of the far-right Croatian Party of Rights, HSP.

“There was no division as it exists in regular armies, but we had the [defence] points, as we called them. We were placed behind a row of houses. At the back of them, there were small gardens and then a big cornfield. Whatever came out from that cornfield, we would open fire. Whoever fired first got the better of it,” Ackar said.

In October, Marin ‘Miso’ Krajnovic joined the fighting on Hercegovacka Street in his neighbourhood of Borovo Naselje. As well as combat, he provided first aid for wounded soldiers, as he had received some medical training during his mandatory service in the JNA.

“This included bandaging wounds, stopping the bleeding, and organising transport to the hospital, as some very basic medic. We took bandages and the most basic stuff for disinfecting the wounds from the local clinic,” Krajnovic explained.

As Vukovar’s defenders fought the well-equipped JNA in the streets of the town, Krajnovic found urban warfare a shocking experience.

“Only when I saw fighting first-hand did I realise how powerful their weapons were. They launched a shell, destroying a house that was serving as cover, blowing up both the person and house. You realise that a wall isn’t protection at all, as anti-armour bullets pierced it as if going through cheese. Shrapnel cuts a metal pole in half like a twig. Seeing that, we started to dig trenches, as that was the only proper protection,” he said.

Hospital becomes a target

Jelena Zera looks out of a bus window while leaving Vukovar hospital in November 1991. Photo courtesy of Jelena Zera.

After being driven out of their neighbourhood by the fighting, ten-year-old Jelena Zera’s family decided to move to the hospital in Vukovar, near the town centre, as her father drove an ambulance there. They lived in a clinic at the hospital, alongside other women and children, until the town fell in November.

“Wounded people were coming into the hospital until the last day, people were dying, we saw it all as we were strolling through the hospital. It’s almost funny to say, [the hospital] was our playground. You are ten years old, and what are you supposed to do? We went among the wounded, talked with them. We visited the wounded children to see if the injuries were hurting them,” Zera recalled.

The hospital soon came under attack by the JNA.

“Bombs were falling at the hospital all the time; it was heavily damaged from constant attacks. It was covered in shell holes, parts of it were burning on a few occasions. Some rooms were completely unusable, and people had to stay in the corridors,” Zera said.

As an instrument nurse at the Vukovar hospital, Agneza Aksentijevic took part in numerous operations on wounded civilians during the siege, and did not leave the premises from September to November.

“Wherever war wounds needed operating upon, I was there. Of around 1,000 people who were working there before 1991, there were only around 350 of us, and 120 nurses. We worked around the clock during the siege… without medical and other equipment, without electricity, under candles and battery lamps. Everything was done in provisional operating rooms in the basement,” Aksentijevic recalled.

Surrounded on all sides, the town’s defence was crumbling from late October, with depleted military reserves and heavy human losses. Although many commanders were aware that the defence was doomed without major help from outside, they hid it from their soldiers to maintain morale.

“Even when the town’s defence was breaking down, many people didn’t know what was happening. I used to visit the wounded, and they would ask me what the situation was. I would reply, ‘We’ll kill them all; they don’t stand a chance,’” Rehak said.

“It was obvious from the beginning that Vukovar wouldn’t be able to defend itself. However, we placed our faith in peace negotiations brokered by Zagreb. This is why we, as sort of lower-level commanders, almost lied to our soldiers that we need to hold the line for one more day, and then one more day after that,” Ackar said.

“Vukovar couldn’t defend itself. We were too close to the enemy lines to conduct any serious offensives. We were positioned on one side of a house while they would be on the other side. They were tearing down walls one by one to get to us. It wasn’t even regular warfare, where you know where your enemy is. Here [in Vukovar], our lines overlapped,” he added.

The JNA, helped by the Serb-led Territorial Defence force and Serbian paramilitaries, slowly cut the town’s lines of defence, closing on Croatian forces. Soon some parts of the town were cut off from the others and fell under Serbian control. As they lived close to a JNA barracks, Patko, her husband and mother-in-law were captured already on November 8.

“The reservists that captured us wanted to shoot us next to a nearby school. One reservist, who said he was from Valjevo [in Serbia], said that he wanted to shoot us… My husband and I were looking each other in the eyes as this man had his finger on the trigger,” Patko said.

“Then, at the last moment, we were saved by a man who said that he was a JNA officer, who suddenly arrived there and ordered the reservists to transfer us to Velepromet [temporary prisoner camp in Vukovar],” she added.

“My husband was taken for a short interrogation [at Velepromet]. After he came back, he said that they would take him to the JNA’s barracks for questioning. I never saw him again after he was taken for interrogation that second time. To this day, I haven’t even found his remains.”

As Croatian units started to lost territory and fall back, they hoped a relief force would arrive.

“Until around late October, early November when we started to fall back, we believed [in victory]. Even then, we still believed that reinforcements would break through the perimeter of the siege. People were saying that help was coming any minute now. The relief force that would break through enemy lines was organised, but the whole operation was stopped; no one knows why,” Krajnovic remembered.

“Only at the very end did one realise it was the end. Before that, there was always hope. But when people started organising groups to break through the besieging forces, and when our commander left, then we realised it was the end,” he said.

Krajnovic’s unit fell back, deep into the Borovo Naselje neighbourhood, which had been surrounded by enemy forces. They were now fighting for survival.

“I remember as we were moving through buildings, and there was a hole in one wall through which we were moving, one guy got shot in his chest by a sniper. Seeing that was extremely shocking and tough, as we were neighbours. I tried to bandage him up and put nylon over his lungs so that his lungs didn’t collapse. However, he died quickly, in my arms,” Krajnovic said.

The town centre fell on November 18, and units of defenders in Borovo Naselje surrendered on November 20. Ackar and Krajnovic were captured and saw how Territorial Defence fighters took prisoners away to other villages or prisons. Three days later, Rehak was also captured in Borovo Naselje, where he saw organised looting in the neighbourhood, with trucks of stolen goods leaving for Serbia.

Male prisoners executed

Yugoslav People’s Army officer Veselin Sljivancanin at the UN war crimes court in The Hague in December 2010. Photo: EPA/PETER DEJONG/POOL.

On the morning of November 20, members of the Serb-led Territorial Defence force and paramilitaries entered the Vukovar hospital alongside JNA troops, led by major Veselin Sljivancanin.

“Sljivancanin then appeared in front of all the people, the men standing on one side and women and children on the other. As we wondered why the men were on the other side, he behaved like some sort of humanitarian official, saying that ‘only the men only need to be interrogated’ and that they would join us later,” Zera said.

“Until the final day, we couldn’t believe that all this could happen… It was tough because we were helpless to do or change anything for these wounded people with whom we’d spent all that time. In the end, the worst happened,” Aksentijevic said.

“That same night, they [the men from the hospital] were taken to Ovcara [a nearby farm] and brutally executed,” said Zera, who saw her father alive for the last time that day.

Boris Dezulovic was a reporter in Belgrade for Croatian daily newspaper Slobodna Dalmacija. Helped by a junior JNA officer, he managed to enter the devastated town of Vukovar in early December, not long after it fell.

“A long straight road and a long, long row of demolished family houses. Not a single house was intact. Piles of bricks and wooden beams by the side of the road. There are three dead pigs in one front yard, while the fourth is dying of starvation, its rib cage is visible. Burned-out wrecks of cars have been thrown in a ditch next to the road,” Dezulovic said in his report.

“Our jeep has trouble getting breaking through the debris of Vukovar. The streets are a mess, covered with bricks, beams, roof tiles, soil… and bloody blankets under which 100 corpses were lying until yesterday. The entrance to almost every side street is blocked with yellow tape and big signs with ‘mined’ written on them… One man is pushing a woman into a Stojadin [Yugoslav Zastava car], she doesn’t want to get in. She’s quivering with tears and looking at the place where their home once stood,” he wrote.

Chuck Sudetic, a reporter for the New York Times, also entered Vukovar after it fell.

“Only soldiers of the Serbian-dominated army, stray dogs and a few journalists walked the smoky, rubble-choked streets and the ruins of the apartment buildings, stores and hotel in Vukovar’s centre. Not one of the buildings seen in a daylong visit to this town could be described as habitable,” Sudetic wrote.

Dezulovic described seeing a tractor carrying the mutilated corpses of an older woman and three men. In the local brick factory, he saw more than 100 bodies lying next to each other, mostly covered by black plastic bags. Zera also remembered her shock after leaving the hospital and driving through the destroyed town.

“It was like looking at an old black-and-white movie… The trees were black, burnt, awful-looking. The houses had neither façades nor roofs, there were bricks and concrete blocks all over. I saw bodies lying uncovered by the road,” she said.

Sudetic of the New York Times was in the same neighbourhood at a similar time.

“Today the bodies of seven Croat men lay in a vacant lot next to the department store. All were pocked with bullet holes. A white bath towel tied to a broomstick lay about 20 feet away,” he wrote.

Interrogations, beatings and show trials

A Yugoslav People’s Army soldier in the suburbs of Vukovar on November 17, 1991. Photo: EPA/MAJA ILIC.

Ackar said that after Croatian soldiers and civilians were captured in Vukovar, they were taken through the northern Serbian region of Vojvodina to prison camps zup at agricultural complexes in the villages of Stajicevo and Begejci.

“We were driven through villages in Vojvodina, and that was awful. People screamed, threw things at the bus, shouted ‘kill’, ‘slaughter’ or demanded we be let out, so they could finish us off. However, we were lucky, in Bogojevo, a village just across the Danube in Vojvodina, some people were taken from the buses by the Knindze [a Serb paramilitary unit] of Captain Dragan [Vasiljkovic]. Some of these prisoners were heavily beaten or even murdered,” Krajnovic recalled.

In Stajicevo and Begejci, prisoners were crammed into stalls built for cattle.

“At first, there was no straw to lie down in the stable [in Begejci]; later, they brought it. It was freezing,” Patko remembered.

At Stajicevo, Ackar saw inmates beaten up by guards and a man dying from wounds inflicted from beatings during interrogations conducted by the Yugoslav military counterintelligence agency, KOS.

“Guards would take some inmate to hospital, and they would never return. Everyone was interrogated, some of them five, six times,” said Rehak, who also saw abuses at Stajicevo.

He said that the interrogators did not torture or abuse him at the beginning, when JNA lieutenant-colonel Miroslav Zivanovic was running the camp.

“When Zivanovic left… military policemen were beating me heavily for the next 15 days,” he recalled.

From Stajicevo, Ackar was taken to Belgrade by the JNA to be tried for allegedly being a representative of Croatia’s political leadership that caused the war and crimes against Serbs. Outside the military court, he and the other defendants were confronted by an angry crowd.

“People and police had gathered, it looked like in Westerns, when they gather to hang someone,” said Krajnovic, who was also taken to the military court. “People were shouting, spitting, throwing stuff, beating us. Instead of protecting us, the police were beating us alongside the people. They were deliberately walking us through the people, women, children. All this hatred in people, it was unbelievable. A real lynch mob. It was truly horrific.”

Ackar explained that during the interrogations at the prison camps, some inmates were manipulated into signing testimonies written by the military intelligence agency KOS about alleged crimes committed by their fellow combatants.

“Some succumbed to the beatings and pressure and signed, becoming witnesses against the others. These indictments mentioned [Serb] children who we supposedly killed – their eyes, teeth and ears pulled out or cut out, and necklaces made of them,” he said.

The first Croatian detainees were released by the Serbian authorities in mid-December 1991, when Krajnovic and Patko were freed under a prisoner exchange alongside some medical staff from the Vukovar hospital. But Ackar, Rehak and many other prisoners were transported to prison camps in Sremska Mitrovica and Nis in Serbia, and only freed in August 1992.

Vukovar: Key facts and figures

According to the 1991 census, the town of Vukovar had a population of 44,000, which rose to 84,000 if the surrounding villages and nearby town of Ilok were included.

Of this population, 43.8 per cent were Croats, 37.3 per cent Serbs and 7.2 per cent Yugoslav, with the remaining people belonging to other minorities such as Ruthenians, Slovaks, Hungarians, Ukrainians and others.

The situation in Vukovar worsened from May 1991, when Serbian paramilitaries ambushed Croatian soldiers in Borovo Selo in Vukovar County, killing 12 of them. Between June and August, between 40 and 80 Serbs were executed or went missing at the hands of Croatian paramilitaries, according to most reports.

The Yugoslav People’s Army, helped by the Serb Territorial Defence and paramilitaries from Serbia, launched a full-blown attack on August 25. After 86 days of siege, the main forces in the town centre surrendered on November 18, while the last remaining forces in Borovo Naselje surrendered two days later.

Some 7,000 projectiles fell on the town each day throughout the siege, destroying about 85 per cent of the buildings.

Around 3,000 soldiers and civilians died during the siege and its aftermath, including 86 children.

After Vukovar fell, the non-Serb population was expelled, while some 7,000 prisoners, both soldiers and civilians, were transported to prison camps in Serbia.

After being under the control of rebel Croatian Serbs for four years, Vukovar was peacefully reintegrated into Croatia under the Erdut peace agreement in 1996 and 1997.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia convicted two JNA officers of wartime crimes in Vukovar – colonel Mile Mrksic, who was sentenced to 20 years, and major Veselin Sljivancanin, who was jailed for ten years.

According to the UN-backed court’s verdict, Mrksic decided to withdraw JNA officers and soldiers guarding prisoners of war in Ovcara on 20 November 1991, enabling Territorial Defence and paramilitary forces to kill around 260 prisoners, both wounded soldiers and civilians.

The verdict said that Sljivancanin, “despite being responsible for the security of prisoners of war and having visited Ovcara at a time when they were being mistreated, did nothing to stop the beatings or to prevent their continuation”.

Serbian courts have also convicted 16 people, primarily paramilitaries, of bearing responsibility for killings at Ovcara, while Croatian courts have handed down 109 convictions for wartime crimes in the Vukovar area.

Sven Milekic

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