Ivana Feric, of the MYPLACE team at Ivo Pilar Institute of Social Sciences, Croatia, on Vukovar Memorial Day.
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History, memory, political legacy and national pride – for many of Croatian citizens, especially this time of year these words amount to only one: Vukovar.
Vukovar is a town in Slavonia, eastern Croatia, which suffered greatly during the Croatian War for Independence1991-1995. Vukovar was held under siege from the Serb paramilitary forces backed by the Yugoslav Army for 87 days, from August 25th until November 18th 1991, after which it fell under the occupation by Serb forces. During the siege, the town was defended by some 1.800 members of the National Guard Corps, police, and volunteers organised as the 204th Vukovar Brigade.
According to figures provided by theVukovar GeneralHospital, 1.624 people had been killed and over 2.500 wounded before the fall of the town. About 7.000 prisoners of war and civilians were taken to Serb-run concentration camps, and some 22.000 Croats and non-Serbs were expelled from the town; 306 residents of Vukovar are still listed as missing.
The damage to Vukovar during the siege has been called the worst in Europe since World War II, drawing comparisons with the World War II–era Stalingrad.
In 1999, the Croatian Parliament adopted a decision proclaiming November 18th the Vukovar Memorial Day.
This year, the Day of Remembrance for the victims of Vukovar 1991, and commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Vukovar sacrifice was held under the motto “Brave people”. Central part of the commemoration began at the Vukovar hospital by gathering of Vukovar citizens, veterans, families of killed and many thousands of people coming from all over Croatia, after which the Convoy of Memories had been formed that went for a 5.5 kilometre memorial walk through the streets of Vukovar to Memorial Cemetery of Homeland War Victims located outside the town.
An estimated 50.000 people walked in this procession to light candles and lay wreaths in tribute to those killed or gone missing during the war. The procession was headed by members of the 204th Brigade which defended the town in 1991, and for the first time the flags of 144 wartime units were displayed.
Also attending were President Ivo Josipovic, Parliament Speaker Luka Bebic, Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, government ministers, members of Parliament, church dignitaries, war veterans, representatives of political parties, and foreign diplomats accredited in Croatia. “Every year we meet here to remember the suffering of Vukovar. Vukovar is a symbol that motivates us to work harder and strive for the good of all our citizens”, Josipovic said during the procession.
Apart from the organized commemoration ceremony, people in cities throughout Croatia every year spontaneously honour the memory of Vukovar by lighting candles on the eve of November 18th. Candles are usually lit and placed along the streets that bear the name of Vukovar, or on town squares by forming the word “Vukovar” together with a symbol of the cross.
Of a particular interest is the fact that this tradition is upheld by many of young people in Croatiawho haven’t even been born at the time of the War for Independence. Memories that these young people have and honour are not their own memories; instead these are memories of their parents and grandparents, memories of a nation on a remarkably traumatic event in national history. Among the young, especially persevering in honouring the victims and suffering of Vukovar are the Croatian football supporters, who every year traditionally, for the football matches held prior to the November 18th, stage choreographies with the slogans in the memory of Vukovar.
Many of the young people in Croatia say that Vukovar for them has a special meaning; for them it is a symbol of hardship and suffering, but also a symbol of glory, of national pride and unity. A young man from Vukovar said: “Young people need to experience and feel the sadness of what happened, but not the hatreds, not the aggression”.
How these memories and meanings are constructed, preserved and transmitted is a part of what we plan to investigate through the MYPLACE project in Croatia.