Why Croatia commemorates Vukovar

CBR Editor Brian Gallagher was priviliged to be asked again to give a speech in regards to Vukovar on Croatia’s Remembrance Day service at the Croatian Chaplaincy in London.

Croatian Chaplaincy London, 22nd November 2015

Why Croatia commemorates Vukovar

Brian Gallagher

The 18th of November is a day of commemoration in Croatia. It is the anniversary of the fall of Vukovar in 1991. Days around this date and indeed for the next few months will see commemorations for various crimes and atrocities perpetrated by invading Serbian and Yugoslav armed forces. Such commemorations are similar to Remembrance Sunday in the UK, but there is a greater focus on people killed in atrocities.

A limited look at some events in 1991 should be enough to show why Croatia commemorates Vukovar and thus why we are here today.

The city of Vukovar was bombarded by the Yugoslav Army for three months, reducing the city to rubble. This was an act of unparralled unprovoked aggression. Many people died defending the city, most of whom were just civilians prior to the war. At Vukovar Hospital patients had to go to its Atomic bomb shelter as the Serbs were shelling the hospital.

Ljubica Došen, a witness at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia said of conditions in the hospital:

“It was terrible for me. First of all, there were very many wounded people, there was no water, there was no food, there was not any medicine. The shelling was very frequent. Civilians were coming in because they had nowhere else to go, because of all the shelling. You could feel blood everywhere.… There were people who were dying, they could not be buried because no one could go out because of the shelling.”

When the city fell, Serbian forces removed a large number of people from the hospital on 20 November 1991. They were taken to the farm in Ovcara. There they were tortured. Then, in groups of ten or twenty they were taken to a ravine in the direction of the village of Grabovo. There, they were murdered. Their bodies were then buried by bulldozer. At least 264 people were killed there. There may be more buried in the vicinity and a number of people are unaccounted for. One of those slain was Martin Došen, the husband of the aforementioned Ljubica Došen.

The village of Škabrnja, in the hinterland of Zadar, is also commemorated at this time. On the 18 November, Serb paramilitaries and Yugoslav army forces entered Škabrnja. Moving from house to house they tortured and killed 38 people. Until February 1992, at least 26 further people who had not been able to flee were also murdered.

The village of Vocin in Western Slavonia was also attacked in that terrible November. Serb forces murdered at least 32 mostly elderly people, some burnt to death. The late Croatian American Dr Jerry Blaskovic – whom I had the privilege of knowing – examined autopsy reports at the time. In his book, entitled Anatomy of Deceit, he said of the photographs of victims:

“I didn’t know what I was looking at in the first photos handed to me. I stared at them for several minutes until it dawned on me that the amorphous mass, with a pair of legs protruding from it, were the charred remains of what was once a human being. The legs were festooned with heavy linked chain that tied around to what appeared to be a finely carved table or chair leg”

These acts were part of a policy, a Joint Criminal Enterprise as found by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. This is what the judges said when passing judgment upon Milan Martic, who was a leader of the so – called Republic of Serbian Krajina which occupied large parts of Croatia, they said of attacks on villages such as Škabrnja that:

“The displacement of the non-Serb population which followed these attacks was not merely the consequence of military action, but the primary objective of it. This conclusion is supported by the evidence of a generally similar pattern to the attacks. The area or village in question would be shelled, after which ground units would enter. After the fighting had subsided, acts of killing and violence would be committed by the forces against the civilian non-Serb population who had not managed to flee during the attack. Houses, churches and property would be destroyed in order to prevent their return and widespread looting would be carried out.”

Croatians will often talk of Serbian aggression; Serbian sympathizers and various ideological characters will often talk of equal guilt and so on. It is worth mentioning that the rulings in cases at the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia have effectively supported the Croatian case. A case accusing Zagreb of a Joint Criminal Enterprise against Serbs in Croatia was dismissed by judges; whereas a Joint Criminal Enterprise by Belgrade against Croatia has been established by the court. The Tribunal’s conviction rate for Belgrade’s crimes has been poor; but it has at least upheld the Croatian viewpoint.

What I have described today are terrible and awful events – moreso as there is so much else in places such as Dubrovnik and Zadar. However, such horrors should not be forgotten and is the reason why Croatia puts so much emphasis on 18 November and why we are here today.

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