Thirty years ago, the town of Vukovar in Croatia lay under siege, signalling the start of the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia and the horrors to come. Foreign Editor David Pratt covered the battle and today returns to find a place still haunted by the past but inspired by the future

On the walls of his home workshop dangling from ribbons hang Ivan Dumendzic’s medals. It was not, however, for prowess in battle that he was given these awards, far from it.

These honours instead represent a labour of love. The medals are for his prize-winning bee keeping and the rich, golden-coloured honey which sits in large plastic tubs and glass jars stacked in his cellar workspace.

Talk to Dumendzic about his bees and his eyes light up as they do when he talks also of the near-magical qualities of honey.

Talk to him about his past as a soldier in the defence of his hometown of Vukovar and subsequent spell in three Serbian military-run detention camps during which he was brutally tortured, and the narrowing of his eyes reveals the pain he and countless others in Vukovar underwent during the 87-day siege and its aftermath back in in 1991.

Many people reading this will doubtless have heard of those other infamous towns and cities under siege and ravaged by bloodletting and massacres during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

Places like Sarajevo, Srebrenica and Mostar. Few, however, will have heard of Vukovar, the town of some 30-40,000 people that as a young journalist 30 years ago I managed to gain access as the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) as it was then, supported by notorious Serb paramilitaries, surrounded this backwater on the banks of the Danube river.

Up until that moment, Vukovar had been a prosperous Baroque town and mixed community of Croats, Serbs and other ethnic groups. But it’s been said of that time the entire region was “drunk on slivovitz and nationalism”, a reference to a powerful and intoxicating local fruit brandy and the political, ethnic and nationalist fervour that gripped communities during that period.

With divisions fanned by Serbia’s president Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia’s president Franjo Tudjman, an armed insurrection was started by Serb militias in Croatia, supported by the Serbian government and paramilitary groups that seized control of Serb-populated areas of Croatia.

Onslaught

AS the JNA began to intervene in favour of the rebellion, clashes and conflict brewed before breaking out wholesale in some areas including Vukovar – and the onslaught on the town began.

In Vukovar’s defence stood some 1,800 armed policemen and soldiers of the Croatian National Guard (ZNG) as well as civilian volunteers who were up against 36,000 JNA soldiers and Serb paramilitaries armed with tanks, heavy artillery, aircraft and gunboats operating along the Danube the length of Vukovar.

Little did I know it back then, after myself and a colleague slipped through the lines into besieged Vukovar, that it would become the equivalent of a Croatian Stalingrad with the determination of it defenders reaching near-legendary status and subsequently the subject of folklore, poems and songs.

At its height, the battle for the town saw some of the fiercest and most protracted fighting since 1945 with up to 12,000 shells a day fired by Serb forces exploding into a community whose citizens were forced to lead a near-subterranean existence hunkered down in cellars and basements.

As the siege deepened in what remained of the town, the still unfallen walls stood up like reefs beneath the surface of a lagoon, while for weeks on end those trapped in the town lay under a web of arching shells in a suspense of uncertainty.

During the town’s physical evisceration –for that’s what became of it – what the world witnessed was the opening salvoes of the wars that marked the break-up of Yugoslavia and set in motion the mass murder, ethnic cleansing, deportation, mass rape and crimes again humanity that became the grisly trademarks of this terrible series of wars.

It has been said that in civil war the firing line is invisible and instead passes through the hearts of those men and women caught up in its bitter throes. As one of those engulfed in the battle, Ivan Dumendzic agreed to meet me and talk at a café adjacent to the Hotel Dunav about our mutual experiences of those terrible times.

Today the hotel sits derelict but it was in the “Dunav” that I found myself based during the siege alongside those Croatian defenders billeted there and the hotel’s remaining staff of cooks, cleaners, waiters and waitresses. As the siege tightened these staff members could not even journey the few miles to their homes such was the ferocity of the shelling, rocket and sniper fire from the attacking Serb forces.

Surreal scenes

LIKE so much of that time, the scene was often surreal. I recall, for example, sheltering one day in the hotel basement when heavily-armed Croatian soldiers started dancing with waitresses to the song Shiny Happy People by the band REM. The music came from an MTV video on a television set run from a generator as the electricity in the town was by that time intermittent.

As the soldiers and waitresses danced, the lyrics of the song struck an ironic tone:

Shiny happy people laughing

Meet me in the crowd, people, people

Throw your love around, love me, love me

Take it into town, happy, happy …

Every so often all of us, dancers included, would wince as the picture crackled and plasterwork fell from the roof with the arrival of another shell. “Get down here,” shouted Marian, the hotel’s receptionist one afternoon, pulling me into a corridor as narrow as a baby’s coffin. There was another shattering explosion and I chased Marian across the lobby, crunching through the glass and broken masonry where the entrance had been blown in seconds before. Waiting for an explosion is the longest passage of time I know.

At night we would lie in the hotel’s corridors shivering like wet dogs, waiting for the next shell, the floors soaked from blasted water tanks and littered with dead seagulls and pigeons blown into the building from the nearby Danube by the impact of tank and mortar rounds.

My own days, like most in Vukovar, were spent running the gauntlet of snipers. That moment of fear waiting to make the dash across the street – it was always as if all my senses rushed to the back of my neck. Like a child going of the high board at the swimming baths for the first time. “Will I, or won’t I?” Then suddenly you are out there, committed, exposed.

At such times I would often imagine the sniper squinting through the crosshairs. What was going through his mind at the moment he took aim? Bullets travel faster than sounds, so I’ll never hear the one that gets me, I reassured myself.

Sometimes the surrealism of such instances was almost other-worldly. I recall one young soldier I encountered in the shattered streets. Glassy-eyed, his face daubed with camouflage paint and topped with Rambo-style headscarf, who clearly didn’t give a damn any more.

“Who killed Laura Palmer?” He asked, before flicking his cigarette into the rubble of the street and sprinting towards the next point of cover a few yards away.

Without any apparent reason his question was a bizarrely-timed reference to a character in the then-popular US mystery-horror TV series Twin Peaks made by the acclaimed producer director David Lynch.

I’ve never understood what he meant by the question, but have since realised people often say the oddest things at moments of high stress or trauma.

‘Terrible days’

SITTING last week at the café opposite the Hotel Dunav, Dumendzic told me of his own experiences during those months of the battle for Vukovar. “Those were terrible days, times I will never forget and which I, like so many others, never expected to survive,” he told me. As a soldier, Dumendzic was active on Vukovar’s frontlines, also losing members of his own family to the relentless bombardment and watching his friends and comrades suffer.

On my laptop I showed him some photographs I’d taken of those dark days, flicking from one image to another and asking if he knew anyone depicted in them.

It was only when one picture taken outside the Hotel Dunav after a particularly heavy barrage of shelling had subsided and showing a lone young soldier dressed in fatigues, a headband, and carrying a Kalashnikov rifle next to a damaged jeep popped up on screen, did Dumendzic let out a sudden cry of recognition: “Damir Kovacic!”

HeraldScotland: Ivan Dumendzic and his wife Slavica.

Kovacic has been one of his best friends and they had gone to high school together and lived in the same neighbourhood Dumendzic, told me. Did Kovacic survive the war I asked?

“No, he was wounded and taken to Vukovar hospital but then was killed with the others at Ovcara,” Dumendzic explained in a new twist to both the men’s stories.

The mass slaughter at Ovcara farm to which Dumendzic referred followed immediately in the wake of Vukovar’s fall when on the morning of November 19, organised resistance finally collapsed in the town.

At the main hospital crammed with wounded, some 260 patients and staff, mainly Croats and some others, were taken forcibly taken to the nearby Ovcara pig farm.

The age of these prisoners ranged from 16 to 72, and at the farm they were beaten and tortured while Serb paramilitary forces prepared a mass grave into which the victims were dumped after being shot dead in batches of 10 and 20 over a four-hour period. It was here that Ivan Dumendzic’s friend and comrade, Damir Kovacic, met his grisly end, though to this day his remains, like those of 59 others, have never been found.

Experts say the mass grave was so full and shallow that the Serb killers were forced to move the corpses elsewhere, but no-one yet knows exactly where the location lies.

Wanting to see for myself the place where Damir Kovacic was brutally slain along with 259 others from Vukovar hospital, I went to the Ovcara farm memorial site a few days ago.

Ghostly images

THERE, amid a bleak windswept field, sits the memorial centre in which there is a darkened warehouse on the walls of which are ghostly projected images of the hundreds of victims.

It was in this pitch-black interior that the face of Damir Kovacic looked out at me, just as he had that day 30 years ago in 1991 when I took his photograph outside the Hotel Dunav during a lull in the shelling.

Never could I have imagined that all these years later our paths would cross again, albeit

under very different and sad circumstances.

“He was a smart guy at school and both of us were only 21 years old when we fought to defend Vukovar,” his friend Dumendzic told me at we sat at the café outside the Hotel Dunav, joined towards the end of our converasation by Ivan’s wife, Slavica.

They were the among the lucky ones able to escape the aftermath of the siege but not before Ivan went through many months more of hell in three detentions camps where he suffered terrible torture including being beaten by Serb guards wielding clubs and shovels.

After a short time elsewhere in Croatia, the couple returned to their home in Vukovar which was destroyed but which they have now rebuilt along with their three

children.

At their house, which stands a short distance from the giant water tower that dominates the Vukovar skyline and which the defenders used as a sniper’s nest during the war before it was turned into a museum, they proudly show me their stack of honey from the bee keeping to which Ivan is now so devoted. Outside in the garden, the trees are laden with apples from which they make jam and Ivan tells of their plans to extend an outhouse to make a bigger workshop for his beloved bee keeping.

When the siege of Vukovar ended, over 3,000 people had lost their lives – the oldest victim in their 90s while

the youngest was just a few months old.

The scale of the town’s destruction shocked many who had not left their shelters in weeks. It also shocked a world that had looked on and continued to look on as further horrors and war crimes engulfed former Yugoslavia.

Returning to Vukovar has been an emotional experience for me and I will never forget what I saw there 30 years ago. That there are still ghosts and its people are haunted by the past, I have no doubt.

But towns and cities, like the people who inhabit them, never truly die and rise from the ashes. Ivan Dumendzic and his wife Slavica, with their beehives, honey and apple trees, are wonderful testimony to that power of rebirth