I recently returned from a five-day trip to Slavonia, a region in eastern Croatia that was one of the epicenters of the Yugoslavian civil war in the early 1990s. The marks from the war are still clearly visible – bullet and grenade holes on the facades, skeleton head signs marking mined areas, war references in nearly every conversation with local people.
A short stay in the city of Vukovar was the most disturbing. For those who didn’t know… During the siege of Vukovar by the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) between August and November 1991, the Croatian army was defeated, the city was practically flattened to the ground and most of the Croatian population killed or exiled. Walking among the blackened burnt-out buildings, even with the sun out giving the streets a cheery edge, I couldn’t help but feel the heavy energy of the city’s dark past.
Now, 17 years later, one can pay homage to the war victims by visiting several memorial sights in and around Vukovar. Ten kilometres southeast of the center is the Ovčara Memorial inside a hangar where 263 patients and medical staff of Vukovar hospital spent their final hours before being brutally killed in a nearby field in November 1991. Inside a dark room, photographs of the victims are being projected on the walls, with a candle burning in the middle. At the War Victims Memorial Cemetery, 938 white crosses symbolize the victims exhumed here.
The most disquieting experience was a visit to Vukovar Hospital, a section of which has recently been turned into a multimedia museum. During the siege, the Vukovar Hospital was a favorite target of the Yugoslav National Army – it was hit by thousand projectiles of various kinds on a daily basis. The museum’s vivid recreations of this difficult time portray the struggle of the hospital workers and the suffering of the patients who were crammed into the basement corridors and nuclear shelters fighting wounds, infections, and the shortage of running water, medicine, and food.
As I was leaving Vukovar, my head was a chaos of a million thoughts. I started thinking about war, about wars around the world, and the fact most of the time they seem far removed from our reality. And yet there is a part of us drawn to tragedy – we want to know what war feels like, we want to stand in the spots of suffering…
When in Cambodia a few years back, I felt compelled to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, and the Killing Fields outside the city. I wanted to know, I needed to see, I felt obliged to be alert, awake, aware… Or was I just being a voyeur, buying into the sensationalism of war tourism, back in Cambodia, and more recently in Vukovar?