Oaks, Poplars, Silence


I remember Vukovar under siege. I was studying in Zagreb at the time. I had not felt war on my own skin yet, even though Zagreb had been hit by artillery fire from the JNA barracks, and aerial bombs. I was once passing by Lisinski when I got caught in the line of sniper fire. Later, in Bosnia, I would come to readily recognise the sound of a sniper bullet. We watched the tragedy of Vukovar on our TV screens, heard about it daily on the streets of Zagreb. Stories about the heroism of its defenders and the betrayal of the highest Croatian authorities. Then our war came and memories of Vukovar were covered in dust, except when we decided to call one of the main streets on “our” side of the river and the town of Bosanska Krupa:  Vukovar. It had been razed to the ground. Thus, Vukovar became synonymous with large-scale destruction during the war.

Twenty-three years later, I visited Vukovar with people from the Centre for Nonviolent Action. I was shocked by the information on the number of killed Croatian soldiers, killed prisoners of war, executed civilians.

At the New Cemetery near Vukovar where the Homeland War Memorial Cemetery is located, a mass grave containing the remains of 938 people was exhumed. Civilians, the wounded, soldiers. The monument there is called the Air Cross. And the site of the mass grave is now a large depression with 938 marble crosses.

What is particularly astonishing is the fact that this baroque town is not that big. This makes its siege all the more tragic. On the one side was the Danube and Serbia, and on the other were state-of-the-art weapons of the JNA and numerous Serbian paramilitaries. The city was completely destroyed. Thousands of soldiers were killed on both sides. Just from the Vukovar hospital, 260 wounded patients (mostly soldiers), but also civilians who had taken shelter there and medical staff, were taken away and killed at Ovčara. There is a modest monument at the site and a museum where the hangar used to be. Where they first tortured the prisoners and the wounded, before killing them in the field less than a hundred meters away.

The other prisoners; thousands of civilians and soldiers were transferred to the camps in Stajićevo, Begejci, Sremska Mitrovica, and to remand prisons. The museum collection of the Homeland War Memorial in Vukovar contains maps made by camp prisoners, drawings, and a dishcloth with names and signatures of camp prisoners from a military remand prison in Belgrade, items more valuable than descriptions of battles and photos of destroyed tanks.

Vukovar has since been reconstructed, but the whole city is a museum where people are still trying to live normal lives. After visiting Vukovar, it was easy to conclude that it had been just a “trial balloon” for what would happen in BiH. When you grasp the atrocities that happened in Vukovar, then Prijedor, Foča, Višegrad, Srebrenica appear as the logical continuation of unprecedented cruelty and crime.

It was all clear, Milošević wanted Vukovar at any price, that much is understandable, but why so many killings of civilians, soldiers and the wounded. Why was it necessary to kill people as if on a conveyor belt. Why so much blood that now stands as a barrier to reconciliation between people and nations.

The next day we visited the former concentration camp of Jasenovac, part of which, Donja Gradina, is now located in BiH, given that the centuries-old boundary had been erased when NDH annexed BiH. During NDH, camp prisoners were ferried across the Sava river from Jasenovac and killed in Donja Gradina. Its forests and fields contain 120 – 150 grave pits. About a hundred have been discovered to date. Since at the time, after the Second World War, DNA identification methods had not yet been invented, the bones remained in the mass graves. The Ustashas destroyed the camp when they were retreating, and the nearby villagers snapped up the bricks to put into their new homes.

Today, the site is an endless field a kilometre or two long, with a large concrete flower designed by the Belgrade architect Bogdan Bogdanović.

In the Jasenovac Museum, I saw a photograph of Emerik Blum, who was imprisoned there for a time, as well as Danijel Ozmo from Sarajevo, and photographs and personal items of numerous Sarajevo and Zagreb Jews, such as the ring made in secret by Gabrijel Jug with the following words engraved along its inside surface:  “This too shall pass.”

And it did pass, but its horrors will echo through eternity. The final number of victims will probably never be determined. To date, 85,000 names of victims of the Ustasha terror have been recorded. Most of them were Serbs, Jews, Roma, Croats, Bosniaks, Slovenes, and many others.

It is shameful that schools from Bosnia and Herzegovina do not visit Jasenovac the way we used to do in the former Yugoslavia. There are no visits from Serbia either, and Serbian nationalists remember Jasenovac only when they need it to justify the genocide in Srebrenica or the destruction of Vukovar. It is also shameful for the RS government officials (and the BiH level leadership that sends no one) who come only on the anniversary of the camp’s establishment to hold election campaign speeches, politicising the number of Serbs killed. So you have 500,000 killed Serbs and 127,000 killed antifascists. As if those two groups were mutually exclusive.

The Memorial in Donja Gradina, apart from a decent curator, a toilet that resembles an armoured train, and a few billboards that scream out exaggerated numbers of victims, does not offer much. There are walking paths that might give you the impression that you are visiting a nature reserve meant for walking through deep and quiet forests, and not a vast execution ground.

Thus, the grave pits / mass graves, with their characteristic depressions created by the settling of the soil, were named after the trees that grow in the area or the atmosphere that surrounds them. Oaks, Poplars, Silence, are the names of some of the grave pits. Silence is what makes these forests otherworldly. As if you were in Tolkien’s forest, and not the site of the largest WW2 execution ground in Yugoslavia.

Faruk Šehić

Published in the Bosnian-Herzegovinian weekly Dani on 4 December 2015