The city of unravelling ghosts

The European refugee crisis is dragging up the ghosts of Europes own war shame

Photo by: TRT WORLD
Photo by: TRT WORLD

Vukovar - despite the damage the wall and the city name, still stand

Updated Oct 3, 2015

This time, in 1991, vukovar was a tragedy. A three month seige ripped the city apart as different forces vied for control. Croatian Serb fighters had started an insurrection, supported by the Serbian government and paramilitary groups, who seized control of Serb-populated areas of Croatia. 

Ethnic Croats fought back. They wanted independence from the former Yugoslavia. One of the first areas to come under attack was vukovar. 
Serb forces lay siege for 87 days between August 26 - November 18. 2 months, 3 weeks and 3 days of hell. 1800 Croat fighters against 36000 from the Yugoslav people's army (jna). They couldn't hold out, the city fell.

Nonetheless, today, vukovar is known here as the city of heroes.

Most of the city's ethnic Croats fled. Hundreds of civilians were massacred as the jna set about ethnically cleansing the city of non Serbs. So suddenly, thousands became displaced in their own land. Still in Croatia, but very far from home. 

It's estimated about 31000 people left. Many have returned. Many have not. The war wounds are are not just visual: broken buildings, the bullet ridden water tower, the rows and rows of white crosses at the cemetery. You cannot bury scars here; they're raw, clawing everywhere in a city trying to move on.

"We forgive but never forget," says zrinka sesto, who spent a decade away from her home city.
It doesn't take much to disturb the ghosts.

Even if they could forget, a new crisis has brought the ghosts back: the flood of refugees mostly from the Middle East, who are seeking asylum across Europe. In just two weeks, 85000 have moved through Croatia. A refugee camp is just kilometers away from vukovar.
For some here, it's just too real. 

"We see the buses go by, sometimes. I see the eyes of the people on TV, I know that look. I know it. I can feel it," says zrinkas husband zoltan. He's looking off at a nearby building, but his mind is far away.

He fought to defend the city in 1991 and then had to flee. Somewhere in his exile, he lost contact with his mother. 5 years without word. Little did he know Serb forces were coming to her house everyday with guns, looking for him. He finally found her, in what is now Serbia. Zrinkas father too disappeared - he spent six months in an internment camp before he was set free. 

They tried to set up lives, reunite their families and move on elsewhere. But it was weird says zrinka, "I remember I was 19, I just left here. I was in Zagreb and I saw all these girls, full of make up, hair done, dressed to party and I was so furious," she emphasizes, "I was thinking, 'there's  a war going, what do they think they're doing! Then I realized later, they had not been through it so they just do t understand."

That's why many here believe it's Europes responsibility to help the refugees - give what you can. These people were once them.
English teacher zeljko troha agrees. He spent ten years away too and says he never imagined that would happen. "I thought war would never come here, I thought it was an exaggeration, like I'd just go for a bit and come back. But my wife was pregnant and I decided it was better to be safe than sorry."

Now he stands on the banks of the Danube river. A place which holds a lifetime of memories for the 60 year old. Skipping school, swimming, barbecues and family.

"It's the first place I came to when I came back to vukovar. The smell of the river, it's like nothing else. I love it, it's home."
He says he never gave up hope that he would one day return. He says even through the darkest days, he knew he'd stand here once more.

Now thousands of new refugees, so far from their homes, their possessions, their own special places are trying to make their way across the continent. Moving into the unknown. And many of them, like zeljko, will never give up hope that they too, one day, might go home again.

Author: Soraya Lennie