Saturday, February 26, 2011

the same dough: reflections on visiting Vukovar

We just returned from a two day (one night) excursion to Vukovar--a city formerly known for it's beauty, prosperity and well integrated Croat and Serb communities. During (and after) the war, Vukovar gained a different, less joyful reputation: as a besieged (and later totally destroyed) city, and now a strongly divided community.
Visiting Vukovar was our first time, as a group, experiencing physical remnants of war. The plaster of buildings driving into Vukovar was chipped off in bullet sized chunks, some buildings had been completely refurbished, some were in the process, and for some the process hadn't yet begun. Many buildings had trees growing in them--homes where the family hadn't returned, or didn't have the resources to begin reconstructing. Even on the main street buildings were fenced off, billboarded over, or just left. Some buildings, such as the one next to the hotel where we stayed, still had scorch marks on the bricks from the fires that must have raged there. Belgrade, while experiencing violence during the 1999 bombing by NATO, doesn't have the feel of a place totally consumed by war. Vukovar, on the other hand, feels very much that way.

We visited the cemetery erected for those who fought in the "defense" (for some they were defending Vukovar, for others they were rebels) of Vukovar in the 3 months it was under siege from the JNA and paramilitary groups. We visited in the middle of an extensive snow falling--giving the cemetery a graveness, silence and solemness. The cemetery consists rows and rows of graves--each giving the name of the individual, a religious symbol or picture, if they desired, the date they died and the words "Defender of Croatia." This collective identity of the dead is really interesting to me, especially as we've spent a lot of time talking about essentalized narratives, and the narrowing of the gap of identities available to individuals during the war (and post-war). Even in death somehow these identities are still narrow. At the center of the graveyard was a huge teal cross/cross made out of negative space (there's a picture of it somewhere), a cross of absence in a way. Below the teal cross that is not a cross, is a white cross representing each of the dead. There's a power to these physical representations of numbers.

Photos of Vukovar (and other adventures here) found here:

On day two, we went out to Ovčara--site of a mass grave of individuals killed after Vukovar became under JNA/paramilitary (Serb) control. I'm having a lot of difficulty writing about historical events because events are so politically/socially charged--even the words we use proclaim sympathy with one side or the other.

The floor of the memorial/agricultural shed where the prisoners were held before being executed was poured concrete with bullet shells scattered on top. It was the first thing I noticed walking in. It left me feeling really unsettled. The memorial consisted of pictures of the dead and then artifacts, either found at the site (or things that were left behind before they were killed) or things donated by their families in their remembrance. One guy (most of the people killed were male) had a knitted square--it looked like part of a sock--something someone had knitted for him. More than the portraits on the walls, that made the victims human.

Thankfully visiting Vukovar wasn't only about looking back--at past atrocities and examining past grievances--but meeting with individuals who are looking forward.
On the first day, we met with a young guy--probably in his late twenties, early thirties, who had returned to Vukovar after the war (he had grown up there but left during the war) and did ethnographic research on how the war was memorialized/remembered. Vukovar at that time (and still now) is considered a divided city--Serbs go to Serb cafes, Croats go to Croat cafes. The other minorities who used to live in Vukovar have, for the most part, not returned. His article was fascinating (for anyone interested [Mom--this most likely means you]: Remember Vukovar: Memory, Sense of Place and the National Tradition in Croatia), and he shared a lot of stories with us of his time doing research--exciting and intimidating for us as we begin to think of our own research beginning in a few short months, and the role of official narratives/how those narratives are memorialized.  I'm really curious about what that means for the future development of a city/town/region/county/person if their primary identity becomes something rooted in the past--how does one look forward?
The following day we met with another Vukovarian who works in an NGO which is trying to dismantle the divided school system (one school for Serb students, another for Croat) and create one unified school. He didn't really answer my question about how this new school would treat the sensitive issues of history/cultural education, but it's an issue I'm intrigued by and would like to understand deeper. One of the things which he said which struck me most was that "we're not raising human beings, we're raising Croats and Serbs." when really we're all made from the same dough (thanks Nino!)
[Nino was a woman Mom befriended in Tbilisi who, one night lamenting problems with men, said "oh men, they're all made from the same dough!"].
Our final visit was with the Mayor of Vukovar--his party is a non-ethnically affiliated party (the two other main parties are ethnic parties, who, it seems, gain a lot of their political power through exploiting the past and memories of the past). He made a point of meeting with Croat constituents in a Serb cafe, and Serbs in Croat cafes--trying piece by piece, person by person, to break down some of the barriers erected through the war/reintegration (not reconciliation) process.

This was another fascinating aspect of Vukovar: the peace agreement signed mandated reintegration of the two communities (Vukovar had been under Serb control and control was being transferred to Croat--with that entailed the return of Croat citizens who had fled/been kicked out after Serbs took control of the town). Reconciliation wasn't part of the ticket. From talking to the Mayor (and his staff) on the one hand that seems like a good thing--perhaps people don't want to reconcile, but I guess I'm still having a hard time piecing together in my mind how reintegration can be conceptualized without a reconciliation component: or if structured reconciliation is necessary in a structured reintegration process.

I need to get on with my day, thankfully the snow has stopped--but Dejana mentioned over breakfast that there was supposed to be snow until April--so I need to make use of it while I can.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Claire, Its Julie from the Sedenka group. Thanks for this window on your semester. Please take of yourself and be sure to sing. Learning about the history of the Balkans and its sorrows and joys must be a profound experience. Sometimes the human spirit needs to be refreshed after taking in so much.