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Visiting Vukovar – The city of heroes

Visiting Vukovar – The city of heroes

Vukovar is a small city which lies on the Danube river in eastern Croatia. This city went through turbulent times during the Croatian War of Independence in 1991. I visited Vukovar during my Balkan trip to see how the city changed from the war and to bring you the dreadful story to remember. This is the first article from my series about Yugoslav wars.    

It was hot summer day in the middle of July in Croatia. The temperature was climbing to 36 degree Celsius. I was waiting at the train station in Zupanja, for the train to my destination – the city of Vukovar. The main building of the train station looked like that it still remembers Austrian-Hungarian Empire. The facade of the building peeled off in most of the places showing red grubby bricks. Windows were very dark and dirty giving the feeling that this station was not used at least for 20 years. However, I was sitting inside of the musty train dispatcher office escaping unbearable heat outside.

“Vukovar, that’s the city of heroes” stated proudly dispatcher Martin. “Serbs had a hard time there, many of them came back home in the coffin”. Martin was pointing out on the heroic effort of local people, who were able to successfully defend the city of Vukovar for 87 days, largely outnumbered by a superior war machine – Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), during the Croatian war of independence.

Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milošević (right) and Croatian president Franjo Tudjman (left) two national leaders who led Yugoslavia to the war in 1991.

In 1991, JNA was mainly in the hands of the pro-Serbian Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milošević. Milošević had his own vision, how to form the new Yugoslavia. In his version of Yugoslavia, Serbs should play a major role. The Croatian party, leaded by nationalist, strongly opposed the raise of Serbian power in the Yugoslavia federation. In 1991, Croatia one-sidedly declared an independence from Yugoslavia leaving 300 000 Croatian Serbs stranded in the newly formed state. Croatian Serbs started a rebellion, forming the new autonomous territory Serb Krajina and asked the Yugoslavian government for protection. The tension broke out to the full-scale military conflict. (This is the big simplification of all events which led Yugoslavia to the war in 1991).

Vukovar was the first major city on the way of JNA offensive in western Croatia in 1991. Croatian forces with help of local people quickly organized the defense to make their stand against the superior opponent. The Croatian army, at the beginning of the war, consisted only from police, local militias and volunteers equipped by light weapons which were taken from seized JNA barracks or smuggled over the Hungarian border. They had severe lack of armor and heavy weapons. In a quick response to the JNA offensive, defenders were able to gather only 1800 of men (including 100 local Serb).

JNA army dedicated an extensive force to take the city, counting 36 000 military personals equipped with heavy artillery, hundreds of tanks and APC, including the air support.

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On the paper, it looked that defenders, outnumbered by 1:20, could not stand a chance against such excessive military power. The JNA high command expected that the city should fall in two days. However, first attempts to take over the city turned to disaster for JNA forces. The heavy armour battalions, designed for the open-field battle, got stranded in the narrow streets of Vukovar. Brave defender used a smart tactic, they surprised the opponent, managing successfully destroyed many tanks from the close range. Huge casualties undermined already very low morale of JNA soldiers.

Vladimir Živković’s tank parked in-front of the parliament in Belgrade.

The desertion rate among JNA soldiers during or even before the battle was high. Many young boys in JNA were not sure for what cause they fighting for, why they need to put their lives on the line against former countrymen from Croatia (The western media sometimes forget to mention that the majority of people in Yugoslavia was against the war, including Serbian people). Many soldiers refused to follow the orders, abandoning their positions, throwing away their weapons, walking back home on foot singing Give Peace a Chance by John Lennon. The famous case of desertion was committed by the tank driver Vladimir Živković. He drove his tank all the way from Vukovar to Beograd and parked it directly in front of the parliament as a big “fuck off” to politicians who drove the country to the war.

Serbian volunteers firing on Vukovar.
A disabled JNA tank stranded in streets of Vukovar.

After first failures to take the city, JNA command changed the tactics. They decided to decimate besieged defenders by using an excessive heavy artillery power. Thousands of shells started landing on city of Vukovar every day, leaving 12 000 civilians trapped in the cellars. Still, the moral among defenders stayed high. They were able to hold their positions with heroic effort, even through the heavy shelling and with shrinking supplies, for many upcoming days. However, JNA, strengthened with infamous paramilitaries Arcan and White Eaglies, were able to slowly progress, house by house, street by street. 17 November 1991, After 86 days of the siege and the fierce battle, defenders found themselves exhausted without almost any ammunition, with all supply lines cut. The city felt next day.

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When I arrived to my hostel, it was already evening. The reception guy Oleksander was quite nice and gave me a private room even I booked just a dorm room. The main reason…, I was only guest in the hostel that night. That gave me a feeling that I really went “off beaten trail”. 101 Dalmatinec hostel looks very new and modern. Design of interior of reception is very stylish. And the stuff is always friendly and helpful. Plus, it is sparky clean which is not so common for a budged hostel. I really recommend this place, if you plan to visit Vukovar.

The next day I headed to the centre of the city. I had a collection of war photos showing tremendous destruction of the Vukovar. After 87 days of heavy shelling, the city had been laid in ruins. It is estimated that 700 000 shells had been fired on Vukovar, at rate up to 12 000 a day. The journalist Blaine Harden, who entered the city after it surrendered, wrote:

“Not one roof, door or wall in all of Vukovar seems to have escaped jagged gouges or gaping holes left by shrapnel, bullets, bombs or artillery shells – all delivered as part of a three-month effort by Serb insurgents and the Serb-led Yugoslav army to wrest the city from its Croatian defenders. Not one building appears habitable, or even repairable. Nearly every tree has been chopped to bits by firepower.”

The air footage of devastated Vukovar after the battle.

Europe hasn’t seen such level of destruction since World War II. No surprise, that many draw a comparison with the destruction of Stalingrad. My goal was to find same spots from war photos and take the same picture now, 26 years after the battle. The really difficult task.

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Nowadays, Vukovar is a quite city with the chill Balkan atmosphere. Vukovar seems to be untouched by massive tourism in Croatia. During my stay I met hardly any foreigner. Local people are very friendly, always giving you warm smile when you stop by, not hesitating to open a conversation with a stranger. The centre of the city, span mainly along the main street, has a few nice cafes and restaurants. The Danube river is stretching around the north-east part of the city, creating the natural border with Serbia. The riverbank of Danube offers romantic walks and nice chill spots to refresh during hot days in summer.

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Vukovar was completely rebuilt after the war. Oleksander told me that cities across Croatia collected money to fund a reconstruction of the city, to show gratitude to people who lost everything for an independence of Croatia. However, walking through the streets of Vukovar, I was still able to find many signs of the battle. Many houses still have the patches of bullet fire on their facade.

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In the main street, there was one house which immediately caught my attention. The old house, which before use to be beautiful mansion, had no windows, no roof, the facade was violently ripped off by gun fire. It contrasted with the new  Vukovar. The local people left the building untouched, to remind people, who pass by every day, the suffering of the city during the siege. My eyes stumbled up on the second floor where, windows were set with beautiful flowers, as the symbol of peace and hope that dark days are over.

The destroyed building decorated by flowers in the center of Vukovar.

After I finished my tour around the city, I headed to the military base which is now serving mainly at purpose of the war museum. After entering through the gate to the backyard, I was welcome by collection of heavy artillery. The canons were precisely aligned along the road.  All the canons looked very new, giving the feeling that they are prepared to be deployed to the battle, if necessary. The exposition consisted from canons of different range and power. The canons claimed to be seized from JNA army during the war between 1991-1995. The heavy artillery exposition was a great depiction of massive fire power which JNA army possessed during the conflict. This massive fire power was deployed in Vukovar and almost levered the city with their people to the ground.

The canons carefully aligned along the sidewalk.

Entering more inside of the base, I discovered that whole outside exposition is very large, containing dozens of different military vehicles, tanks and airplanes. The fan of military could spend hours and hours just exploring the backyard of the museum.

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However, I did not come here to see only the military exposition. I primarily wanted to speak with someone who could tell me more about the siege of the city and the battle itself. I was lucky, after speaking with few people, I was introduced to Peter, a professor of history, which currently work on his research in the museum.

The professor of history Peter.

I told Peter about my intention to write about my journey through the war-divided Yugoslovia and he was excited to give me a 2 hours guide about the siege of Vukovar and war in Croatia. He took me to the inside exhibition of museum which was dedicated not only to the siege of Vukovar but also to the war in Croatia in general. The room was decorated with pictures depicting a destruction of Croatia by JNA forces. In the room, Peter shown me different weapons including anti-tank rockets which were used by defenders of Vukovar during the siege.

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My guide taught me that Vukovar, before the war, was very multi-ethnical city, consisted of 60% Croats, 30% Serbs and 10% of other ethnicities like Hungarian, Ukrainian etc. When the war started some Serbs left the city (or they were forced), Peter claimed some of them had seen themselves oppressed by Croatia majority and even helped to lead artillery attacks against defenders and local people. On the other hand some Serbs joined defenders to defend their hometown. It shows that whole situation was quite messy. It is hard to blame local people for what happened. The war, especially the civil war, divides whole families, friends and destroys communities which were living together in the peace for centuries.

Peter had shown me a map of Vukovar and pointed on the main street. This was a street which JNA used to enter the city. At the beginning JNA used very foolish tactic where the whole tank unit enter the city in one column. In the narrow street, the tanks were difficult to manoeuvre, ended up an easy target for anti-tank rockets like Russian RPG-7. Defenders usually disabled first and last vehicle of the column leaving others trapped between houses and unable to retreat. Some JNA soldiers just left the stranded vehicles and fled, others were waiting for orders. According Peter, JNA command was repeatedly using this tactic for many days, to take the city without any progress. The lesson to learn for JNA army was a tough one. Until end of the battle, they lost between 400 to 500 armored vehicles with thousands of men. Such catastrophic losses had led to overall failure of JNA offensive in 1991. In January 1992, the ceasefire, known as Sarajevo treaty, was signed which resulted to the deployment of UN forces and withdrawing of main JNA forces. The Vukovar, even lost, played an important role in forming independent Croatia.

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I was looking on the wall full of pictures showing destruction of Vukovar, when my eyes stuck upon a print photo showing the horrible scene – A mass grave, a tragic testimony of horrible war crime. The grave was a pit hole approximately one meter deep, full of bodies aligned side by side.  Peter looked at the photo, his face glowered, with lowered voice, he started telling me about sad events which followed after the city surrendered.

After the city felt, some defenders refused to surrender. They decided to run through the enemy lines via corn fields, filled with land mines, against machine gun fire. Some of them made it, some of them get shot or step on the mine, but get rescued by their comrades, however some of them, who were not so lucky, died there, in the corn fields.

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Some locals rather decided to stay with their families, and surrender to JNA forces. Many defenders, who could not escape from the sieged city, lied injured in the hospital. At the morning of 20 of November, wounded were taken out of the hospital. They were loaded to the buses with other captives and transported to Ovčara farm close to the village Grabovce. The people taken were mostly men. However some say, the group included two women, one of whom was 5 months pregnant.

Ovčara farm

When captives arrived on the spot, there were stripped from all their personal belongings. Over the course of the day, they were beaten several times by Croatian Serbs and Serbian paramilitaries. Perpetrators were using sticks, baseball bats and chains to torture the prisoners, causing unbearable pain in many already wounded prisoners. Until the evening, few prisoners were beaten to the death. JNA officers overlooked what was happening there. At the evening, JNA units withdraw from farm, leaving the prisoner’s fate in hands of Serbian paramilitaries. Later that evening prisoners were divided to the groups. Each group was loaded onto the truck and transported to prepared execution site where there were shot and buried by bulldozers to shallow graves. Totally 261 people were murdered that day.

The mass grave filled with bodies of Vukovar defenders.

After Peter finished with all horrible details of the aftermath of the siege of city Vukovar, I found myself immersed deeply in my thoughts. So this is it, the 1991, the beginning of hell which lasted another 5 years. 46 years after end of the WW II and we learned nothing. We needed to repeat a history once again. I was born in 1990 in Slovakia, most of my friends in 1991 and just few hundreds kilometres, Europe were on the brink of another bloodshed.

After I said goodbye to Peter and left the museum, there were only one place I needed to visit – The iconic water tower, the symbol of suffering and resistance of Vukovar people.

The majestic Vukovar water tower, A symbol of resistance of Vukovar people (photo Wikipedia)

The tower is located a bit outside of the centre close to the Danube River. The majestic tower is dominating a city landscape. I could see the massive top of the tower, with Croatian flag flying above, far from behind. The rounded top is full of rounded holes, a remain of massive shelling. In one part, the wall is completely missing, uncovering an interior of the tower. When I came closer I could see that top of the tower sits on concrete “legs”, 6 massive pillars merged together, creating unique X shape. The concrete bottom was also not sparred from JNA firepower. Nevertheless, the massive construction of the tower, even it received 600 direct hits, survived the siege. The tower was never rebuilt to the previous state. Nowadays, the tower serves as a reminder of horrific events which started the bloodiest chapter of European modern history. The city of Vukovar became a first European city which was completely destroyed in the battle since the Second World War.

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Željava Airbase – An expedition to the top secret Yugoslav underground military facility (part 2)

Željava Airbase – An expedition to the top secret Yugoslav underground military facility (part 2)

Read about the second part (part 1) of my adventure in Željava airbase. I spent 5 hours in the underground of the airbase. I explored almost every meter of the base, making a few fascinating discoveries.

I entered Željava underground at 11 30 leaving the beautiful sunny day behind. I slowly moved through the tunnel. The size of the tunnel was enormous. My torch was far from being able to light up the whole space between the walls. Dark walls were swallowing my light that I was hardly able to see verges of the tunnel. This made me walk close to one of the walls, to avoid feeling of walking in the empty space. The beginning of the tunnel was very clean. Apparently the tunnel was cleaned from the rubble from the destruction by bulldozers, leaving a few big piles of rubber here and there.

After few minutes, I came to the point where the tunnel turned left and last bits of the daylight disappeared, leaving me in a complete darkness. I discovered remains of the gigantic door which would be probably used to hermetically seal the base during the attack. The steel door was gone, but what left was a massive steel-concrete hat which used to hold the door. It was heavily damaged. The hundreds of thick twisted rebars stack out from the door.  It was reminder of the power of charges which was set to destroy the base. The huge pieces of concrete were hanging on the twisted rebars. I always felt chills when I moved beneath the hanging concrete, imagining it will fall on my head. Sometimes I hate my imagination.

The remain of the massive door in Zeljava Airbase.

In some parts, the floor was full of small holes, approximately half meter deep. It was probably remaining of electric installation or canalisation. Plus, there were a lot of steel waste lying around.  Its sharp corners could easily cut through the shoes, causing the injury. It was really important to watch my step, by falling to the hole I could easily broke my leg. Such an accident would be serious trouble. There was no one to help me, no one would hear my calling for help, and I could not call help by phone either. If you wish to follow my steps, it is better that you do it in the group.

I left the main tunnel to explore smaller rooms through the side tunnels. The rooms I entered were just full of rubble, some were blocked. I returned to the main tunnel and slowly moved forward, systematically exploring every side tunnel I discovered. The result was always the same, the side tunnel ending in the empty room full of steel and concrete rubble covered by black dust. It seems that unfortunately, all the equipment has been gone.

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The atmosphere of the base was haunting. The darkness was swallowing all the space around me. It was getting colder and colder with every meter I took deeper inside of the base. Air was really humid and full of the grey dust slowly flowing through the tunnels. The amount of dust in the air was just insane. By looking forward, I was able to see billions of small bright dust grains flying towards my headlight. The dust in the base is a remain of the fire. It contains carcinogenic PCB spiced up with radioactive Americium. This makes the Željava underground not really good environment for your lungs. I was hoping my respiration mask was not made in China.

An amount of the dust in Zeljava airbase is insane.

The humidity in the air make the water condenses on top of the tunnel. Sometimes when water drops down it creates mysterious sounds. Walking through the tunnels creates an echo which was following my steps. The mix of the echo of my steps and dropping water created haunting sounds which made me stop with a feeling I am not alone. After some time I realized that this place is just fooling my senses and I am there alone, completely abandoned in the never-ending darkness.

My plan was to continue through the tunnel until I would reach the Entrance number 2. With confidence I continued forward. I came to the big crossroad of the main tunnels. One tunnel was going more inside of the base, but I turned left to find an exit. After more than hour in darkness I could finally see the light. I took quick brunch and enjoyed fresh air. I already felt a bit dizzy from the bad air. I was slightly disappointed that I still did not find anything interesting inside. However, walking in the dark tunnels of the super-secret military facility was exciting experience itself.

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After brunch, I went back to explore another part of the base until the Entrance 3. On the big crossroad I first walked straight until end of the big tunnel. At the end of the tunnel I found remains of the toilets. Again everything badly destroyed with a lot of rubble inside. I returned back to the crossroad and took the way deeper to the base. In some moments, the cold became unbearable. High humidity made it even worse. Getting lost or staying here too long could lead to dead from hipotermia.

Walking through the main tunnel, I spotted something really unexpected. In the left wall of the tunnel, there was a small shrine with a lot of candles.  It seemed that some previous explorer lost his life in this dark place. And probably his friends come down from time to time to light up candles for him…it sounds awkward. But here it is: A shrine of the fallen explorer. I hoped to not follow his destiny.

A shrine of the fallen explorer set into the wall.

I went to explore the complex of small rooms. And finally I found something which survived the apocalypse of this place. I found something which looked as electric generator. Exciting, I was in the electric engine room. This place was the heart of the base. If the base was under the attack, the generator would be able to supply whole base. Around the generator, there were huge rounded canisters for kerosene probably to fuel the generator. In another room, there were the big hook and the strange shaped door with three rounded windows.

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I went out from the engine room, took the way to Entrance 3. After some time I came to end of the tunnel. However, there was just a huge concrete wall with no other way to exit. Surprise! This way seemed to be closed or my map was wrong. Thus I needed to skip my planned break and go to explore last part of the base. I got a bit anxious about being able to find a way out.

I returned back to the crossroad and turned left to the last unexplored tunnel. The tunnel was really long. Many minutes passed and I still haven’t got to any point of my map. I was looking for the side tunnel which was supposed to lead to another complex of rooms. I was not able to find it. The long tunnel continued to never ending darkness with no sign of ending. I started to be afraid that my map is wrong and I got lost.

After some time, I spotted something interesting in the distance. Some object was reflecting my headlight. I came closer and I found out that it was a small truck in not very good conditions. The explosion had blown up whole engine area leaving the car heavily burned. Tires had melted because of the huge heat. Still it was astonishing urbex artefact reminding the difficult history of this place.

A small wreck of the truck in Zeljava airbase.

I passed by the wreck and continued curious where this tunnel will finish. After some time I spotted a light, the end of the tunnel. Finally! I was excited and confused in the same time because I was not sure which exit I found. The last part of the tunnel was heavily damaged. There were a lot of concrete on the floor with some dangerously hanging from the ceiling. I slowly crawl beneath hanging concrete heading to the exit.

I stopped at the end of the tunnel. I looked to the map and I realized something fascinating. I crossed the border to Bosnia! This was the last entrance which is from the Bosnia side. Technically I just crossed border between Bosnia and Croatia…illegally. I decided to not go further because I was sure that outside it can be polluted by the land mines. I planned to bring both my legs home. Plus if the border police stopped me I could be in serious trouble.

There was only one place I haven’t explored yet, the complex of rooms which on the map looks like a star. I went back through the tunnel, crawling near the left wall, to not miss any side tunnel leading somewhere. Luckily, after some time I found the entrance to the star complex.

I arrived to the middle of the star, when I looked up I immediately froze for few seconds. The whole sealing looked it can collapse in any moment and I haven’t felt particularly good about it. Everything seemed to be hold just by two really crumbled pillars. I breathed really slowly to make less impact on the air circulation.

A fragile sealing looks like it can collapse in any moment.

After I realized that this sealing is here in this condition for more than 20 years, I started feeling a bit better. I slowly moved to the first elongated room. The room was full of rubble with the broken furniture. In the second room I found the table and the chair. It seemed as a room for higher command. But the luxury was gone. I am sure that during the airbase military life, it was a nice cosy room.

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Returning to the place with broken sealing made me more anxious about the possibility of land shift which could end my life. At that moment I decided that last two unexplored rooms are not worth of the risk and I turned back to the way to exit.

I walked really fast to the Entrance 2 singing on the way to banish loneliness of this place. I was so happy when I spotted the sunshine. Outside it was still really beautiful day. I walked on the runway lined with the warnings about landmines. I checked the time, it was after 16 00. Unbelievable, I spent inside almost 5 hours. I decided that it is time to go home.

An abandoned runway in Zeljava airbase. What a beautiful day was waiting for me outside 🙂

After my adrenaline levels dropped, I realized that my legs are completely destroyed. The shoes, I was not wearing for a long time, created huge blisters on both of my feet. Every meter was hurting like hell. I felt like every centimetre of my feet is covered by blisters, some of them got punctured which made them even more painful. The way back to Licko Petrovo Selo was extremely painful. After I finally made it, I was not able to continue forward, so I rather decided to hitchhike.

After some time a van stopped to me and surprisingly it was another Serb! Plus he served in Zeljava base during his military service. What a coincidence! We had nice chat about the history of this area. He was super nice and dropped me close to the hostel. Both Serbian drivers, who I met this day, left an impression that Serbians are really nice people.

In the hostel, people were already expecting me. The receptionist Milica was really happy that I came alive, in one peace. She gifted me with the warm smile when we met on the stairs. I chatted with few guests at the terrace, excitingly speaking about my adventure in Željava. I went to bed early, super tired but with the huge feeling of accomplishment. I was wondering what adventures the next days will bring.