The fall of Vukovar: oral history of the destruction of a Croatian town
After being driven from their neighborhood by the fighting, the family of 10-year-old Jelena Zera decided to move to Vukovar hospital, near the city center, while her father drove an ambulance there. They lived in a hospital clinic, alongside other women and children, until the city fell in November.
“The wounded entered the hospital until the last day, people were dying, we saw everything walking around the hospital. It’s almost funny to say [the hospital] was our playground. You’re ten years old, and what are you supposed to do? We went among the wounded, talked with them. We visited the injured children to see if the injuries were hurting them, ”Zera recalls.
The hospital was quickly attacked by the JNA.
“Bombs were falling all the time in the hospital; it was heavily damaged by constant attacks. It was covered with shell holes, some parts burned a few times. Some rooms were completely unusable and people had to stay in the hallways, ”Zera said.
As an instrument nurse at Vukovar hospital, Agneza Aksentijevic participated in numerous operations on civilians injured during the siege and did not leave the scene from September to November.
“Wherever war wounds had to be operated on, I was there. Out of about 1,000 people who worked there before 1991, we were only about 350 and 120 nurses. We worked 24 hours a day during the siege… without medical or other equipment, without electricity, under candles and battery-powered lamps. Everything was done in temporary operating rooms in the basement, ”Aksentijevic recalls.
Surrounded on all sides, the city’s defense collapsed from the end of October, with exhausted military reserves and heavy human losses. Although many commanders knew the defense was doomed without major outside help, they hid it from their soldiers to maintain morale.
“Even when the city’s defense collapsed, a lot of people didn’t know what was going on. I used to visit the injured and they would ask me what the situation was. I would say, “We will kill them all; they don’t stand a chance, ”Rehak said.
“It was obvious from the start that Vukovar wouldn’t be able to defend himself. However, we have placed our faith in the peace negotiations negotiated by Zagreb. That’s why we as lower level commanders almost lied to our soldiers telling them that we had to hold the line one more day and then one more day after that, ”Ackar said.
“Vukovar couldn’t defend himself. We were too close to enemy lines to carry out serious offensives. We were positioned on one side of a house while they were on the other side. They were knocking down the walls one by one to reach us. It wasn’t even an ordinary war, where you know where your enemy is. here [in Vukovar], our lines overlapped, ”he added.
The JNA, aided by the Serbian-led Territorial Defense Force and Serbian paramilitaries, slowly cut off the town’s defense lines, closing in on Croatian forces. Soon some parts of the city were cut off from others and came under Serbian control. As they lived near a JNA barracks, Patko, her husband and her mother-in-law were already captured on November 8.
“The reservists who captured us wanted to shoot us next to a nearby school. A reservist, who said he was from Valjevo [in Serbia], said he wanted to shoot us… My husband and I were looking each other in the eyes as this man had his finger on the trigger, ”Patko said.
“Then at the last moment we were saved by a man who said he was a JNA officer, who suddenly arrived there and ordered the reservists to transfer us to Velepromet [temporary prisoner camp in Vukovar], “she added.
“My husband was taken for a short interrogation [at Velepromet]. After his return, he said they would take him to the JNA barracks for questioning. I never saw him again after he was taken for questioning this second time. To this day, I haven’t even found his remains.
As Croatian units began to lose territory and retreat, they hoped that a relief force would arrive.
“Until the end of October, the beginning of November, when we started to retreat, we believed [in victory]. Even then, we still believed that reinforcements would pass through the perimeter of the siege. People said help was coming any minute. The relief force that would break through the enemy lines was organized, but the whole operation was stopped; nobody knows why, ”Krajnovic recalls.
“It wasn’t until the very end that we realized that was the end. Before that, there was always hope. But when people started to organize groups to break through the besieging forces, and when our commander left, then we realized that was the end, ”he said.
Krajnovic’s unit retreated, deep into the Borovo Naselje neighborhood, which had been surrounded by enemy forces. They were now fighting for their survival.
“I remember when we were moving through buildings and there was a hole in a wall that we were moving through, a guy was shot in the chest by a sniper. To see this was extremely shocking and difficult because we were neighbors. I tried to bandage him and put nylon on his lungs so that his lungs wouldn’t collapse. However, he died quickly, in my arms, ”Krajnovic said.
The city center fell on November 18 and defender units in Borovo Naselje surrendered on November 20. Ackar and Krajnovic were captured and saw how Territorial Defense fighters took prisoners to other villages or prisons. Three days later, Rehak was also captured in Borovo Naselje, where he saw the looting organized in the neighborhood, with trucks of stolen goods leaving for Serbia.