Print Edition - 2019-02-02  |  On Saturday

In search of solace

  • Croatia wears Vukovar like a badge of honour despite it resembling a scar, the place I’m most familiar with
- Thomas Heaton

Feb 2, 2019-

The bus reeks of decades of cigarettes and creeks from years of driver brutality. Seated in front of me is a buzz-cutted portly fellow, sporting a brown leather coat with sheepskin lining. Humming along to the traditional music playing for all to hear, he takes his calls on loud speaker. He clutches a walking stick, hobbling on and off the bus, despite it seeming beyond his years. He talks to everyone, and everyone seems to know him.

The driver takes calls, obviously bored by the route. It’s flat, straight and everything is white. About a foot of snow covers the plains to the east, while a dead forest extends to the west. For everyone on the bus, it’s boring, while for me, it’s an exciting return to a place I used to know.

Tree branches lean under winter’s white weight, and the horizon is shrouded by fog, we’re gliding through a white desert to reach Vukovar. Having come from Belgrade, it’s a short trip from the Serbia-Croatia border. This small town sojourn, however, is a major reason for returning to Europe. Croatia wears Vukovar like a badge of honour despite it resembling a scar. Dubbed the “Town of Heroes”, this little town on the Danube was subjected to an 87-day Serbian siege during 1991’s Croatian War of Independence. Fleets of tanks and over 35,000 soldiers surrounded and attacked the border town, while a motley 2,000-strong civilian militia held them off—until they didn’t. Many died fighting, and others were massacred upon Vukovar’s capture.

Back then Croatia and Serbia were part of one country, Yugoslavia, along with Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia. The breakup was violent all over, but Vukovar is the place I’m most familiar with. The Danube, a river, divides the two nations, I was six when I last visited. I was as ambivalent as any six year old would be; I knew what happened was bad, but I wasn’t faced with its morbid reality. It was 1997, at that time a warzone, and the town was laden with blue berets. There was no fighting, just the ruins of war. My father was one of those wearing a beret, leading the UN peacekeeping team charged with making harmony between the parties. Living in Slovenia, over the other border, my mother, brother and I visited sporadically. When we did, we stayed with him.

Hoping to find some closure, or understanding of what went on, I am returning. I begin to recognise things, I think, because I’m not sure if I’m forcing memories on myself. The first time I’m truly sure is upon passing the Vukovar Water Tower. The water tower is covered in scaffolding but despite its exoskeleton, I can see through. It’s not changed since I was last here. My chubby legs once clambered up the tower with my family 20 years ago, being lifted over blown-out steps and overcoming vertigo. I clung to the building’s inside walls, looking at the blown-out town through blown-out windows. I’ve no hope of getting up there now, but I’m looking for more than the water tower.

Winding through the streets, searching my memory for something familiar, I was overtaken by disappointment. Nothing—but every-thing—seems familiar. Searching for memories in the closet of my brain, the few memories I find are to do with my father’s dwelling. The rest are irrelevant images in my mind’s eye. Even though I interrogated my family before leaving, I can only muster a few more. I remember the house we stayed at, with its faded pink facade, freckled with bullet holes. Then there were the piles of bricks where houses once were, down the road, and the patches of grass we could not explore for fear of mines. I don’t remember anything past that, so I plod along the streets searching for familiarity and, hopefully, that house.

But there’s a mall now, with a movie theatre and fast-food; trendy shops and restaurants, along a marble promenade; the jetty, with fancy boats moored. But there are the scars. Some wear their bullet holes proudly, with perfectly renovated interiors, while others have partially covered their facade with fresh paint. The town seems happy to show off its battle wounds.

On the northern side of town, there’s the museum, court house, a war museum, and the hospital. They are all done-up, with minimal hints of the past. The hospital is perhaps the most well-known, for what happened there in 1991, but you would not have an inkling with its ultra-modern construction.

Some two-hundred-sixty people were dragged out of this hospital when the town was captured, trucked out of town to Ovcara Camp. Almost all of them—including two women, one five months pregnant—were executed and dumped in a mass grave there. What my father did tell me, however, was that massacre was just one atrocity of many. There were so many horrific things that went on here, and there is so much blood in the town’s soil. But, despite this, Vukovar lives on.

Bearing the scars of a turbulent past, it is burgeoning as a tourist destination for its proximity to The Danube and its generally wonderful vibe. Its people are cheery, friendly and they’re happy to see you; its wine is good, and best imbibed with their equally good food.

While I might have seen my father’s old house, I have no idea and must remain content. I was able to indulge in my past, in a way that many Croatians might not want to. I somewhat glorified the experience, in a way many Croatians wouldn’t.

But, thinking back to the bus ride in, I can’t help but think about that portly fellow in front. Too young for his limp and cane, he seemed content.

Just like that man, humming along to the music, perhaps this city has come to terms with its limp and cane. Perhaps it’s powering forward, without a worry, acknowledging its past with a keen eye on its future. It can’t change its limp but it can carry on, and it is.

Heaton is a food and travel reporter at The Kathmandu Post. He tweets

@ThomasHeaton16

Published: 02-02-2019 11:30

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