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Special Report

Dubrovnik after war: Recovery and remembrance

Dubrovnik, Croatia

From the airport, the Adriatic coastal road that winds around the mountains to Dubrovnik offers spectacular views of bare, stony mountains dropping down to crystalline blue sea. When Dubrovnik appears in the distance, the sight is one more beautiful vista. Below, perched on the edge of the sea, the medieval city is enclosed by centuries-old city walls often considered the finest in Europe.

Dubrovnik up close is as stunning as from afar. The city dazzles when on a sunny day the marble pavement on the main street, the Placa, gleams underfoot. Despite its age, the city built of light-colored stone seems luminous, almost pristine, a place mellowed by time but not marred. Looking at the churches and palaces on the square adjoining the Placa, it’s hard to believe that 10 years ago this fall Dubrovnik was engulfed in war, one of the first casualties of the Balkans wars that broke out in Croatia, then spread to Bosnia and Kosovo and now threatens Macedonia. The break-up of Yugoslavia following the collapse of the Soviet Union took the lives of many thousands of Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims and ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo.

“If you came here 10 years ago, you would only see grenades, shells, fire, wounded people. But now it’s nine years past when the last grenade came. It’s all been rebuilt,” said Kresimir Bilic, who takes tickets at the museum in the Dominican monastery.

Twenty-six grenades fell on the Dominican monastery during the war. The 13th-century monastery was one of hundreds of buildings damaged by the siege of Dubrovnik. During the siege, the Yugoslav Army bombarded Dubrovnik by air, land and sea. Two thousand shells fell on the city. Seventy percent of Dubrovnik’s buildings suffered direct hits, and many of Dubrovnik’s most precious monuments and churches were bombed despite -- or, some say, because of -- UNESCO flags marking them. Little in Dubrovnik was left untouched by the war, neither the city walls, nor the city’s fortresses, streets, churches, public buildings or homes. “In every house you’ll find traces of the shrapnel on the walls,” said Dubravka Zvrko, director of publicity for the Institute for the Restoration of Dubrovnik.

Today, few signs of the destruction wrought by the siege are visible. “You walk around the inner city, and there’s nothing that reminds you of the war,” marveled Bert Tiemes, a Dutch NATO official visiting Dubrovnik for the first time.

But engage people in conversation, and the wounds left by the war begin to show.

“There is a lot of mistrust. That is the biggest problem,” said Marta Mihanovic, a doctor in Zagreb, who was in Dubrovnik during the siege. “It was terrible during the war,” Mihanovic said, recalling children who walked to school dodging bullets.

“Forgive but not forget. For me, it is an important phrase,” Mihanovic said. Minutes later, Mihanovic said that she works with Serbs in Zagreb but would not be friends with a Serb. “I do not trust them,” she said.

“Serbs done to us big, big trouble,” said Bilic. “All factories destroyed; tourism destroyed. Many, many years will pass before we get back to where we were.”

Dubrovnik seems on its way, though. At dusk tourists throng the cafes on the Placa. The languages heard on the street are Italian, German, English, French, even Japanese.

“Obviously, we’re back in business,” said Antonijeta Nives Milos, the director of tourism in Dubrovnik.

Tourism is the mainstay of Dubrovnik, a city of about 55,000. The recovery of the tourist industry began in 1998, dipped in 1999 because of the crisis in Kosovo, and has since rebounded despite the continuing shortage of hotel beds due to the war, when half of Dubrovnik’s hotel stock was destroyed.

The revival of tourism is linked to the reconstruction of the city, which began its repair efforts even as it was being bombed. Since 1991, the Croatian government has spent $2 million annually on restoring Dubrovnik, a sum augmented by contributions from the international community.

Most of the damage caused by the siege of Dubrovnik was to rooftops. If you climb to the top of Dubrovnik’s high city wall, you can see where Dubrovnik’s traditional red tile roofs were damaged and then repaired. For the most part, however, the effects of the war are no longer lodged in the stones of Dubrovnik, but inscribed in people’s psyches. They surface in stories of the six-month siege of the city. During the siege, water, telephones and electricity were cut off for almost three months. Two wells, one of them at the Dominican monastery, provided townspeople with drinking water. Fr. Kristijan D. Raic, prior of the Dominican monastery, estimated the monastery’s 14th-century well provided water to 50 percent of the population. Several hours every morning were spent drawing water.

“There was no running water so we went to the beach in October, November and December and bathed in the cold sea,” said a Dubrovnik resident. A maritime engineer, Boris (not his real name) had been a soldier in the Croatian Army during the war and was eager to share his experiences, though not his name.

Zelimir Puljic, the Catholic bishop of Dubrovnik, remembers both the upsurge of religious feeling among residents of the city and the fear caused by the siege.

“The food reserves got with every new day scarcer and scarcer. You can only imagine how it looked like every evening going to bed with fear that it might be the last,” said Puljic. “It is no wonder that this kind of psychological torture has left deep scars on the psyche of our people.”

Croatia is a Catholic country. About 76 percent of the people are Catholics. During the war, approximately 800 churches were destroyed -- deliberately targeted for destruction, say some. The Wounded Church in Croatia: The Destruction of the Sacral Heritage of Croatia, a book published by the Croatian Conference of Bishops, the Croatian Heritage Foundation, The Republican Bureau for the Preservation of the Cultural and Natural Heritage of Croatia, and CIC-Croatian War Documentation Center, reports 31 percent of the sacred objects in the Dubrovnik diocese were either destroyed or considerably damaged during the war.

Some people believe the destruction of the churches was, like the destruction of Dubrovnik’s public monuments, not an inadvertent effect of the war but a deliberate act. Vinicije Lupis, who works in the historical archives in Dubrovnik, described the destruction of Croatian churches as one project of ethnic cleansing.

“If you destroy the church, you destroy the main monument of a culture,” Lupis said. “Churches were the symbols of the Croatian people.”

Lupis’ view of the intent of the action carried out by the Yugoslav Army is shared by many, though certainly not all.

“They aimed at everything, and of course it included churches, cathedrals. They aimed at all human beings. They tried to destroy all non-Serb monuments,” said Boris.

The first rumblings of war began in June 1991 following the vote of Yugoslavia’s two most prosperous republics, Slovenia and Croatia, to leave the Yugoslav Federation. When Slovenia immediately changed the signs at its borders to reflect its new independence, the government of Yugloslavia posted troops to Slovenia, but after nine days withdrew them. Croatia was a different matter. Unlike Slovenia, Croatia had a substantial Serb population that already felt threatened by the nationalist policies of Croatia’s new president, Franjo Tudjman, even before Croatia declared its independence. Vukovar, a city in the east of Croatia close to the Serbian-Croatia border, came under attack by the Yugoslav Army in August.

At 6 a.m. on Oct. 1, 1991, the first bombs fell on Dubrovnik.

“That was the first time in my life I heard the explosion of a bomb. My girlfriend called me and said, what was that? I said, maybe someone’s tire,” Boris recalled.

The bombing of Dubrovnik shocked the world. The city sometimes called “The Pearl of the Adriatic” was hundreds of miles from the front line of war and held no military or logistic importance.

“Nobody could have imagined that the Yugoslav Army would shell with bombs a city which is under UNESCO protection, one of the most beautiful cities in Croatia, and with its history, culture and historic monuments, obviously one of the best preserved and most beautiful cities in the world,” said Puljic.

In its heyday, Dubrovnik was an independent, thriving maritime republic. The Republic of Dubrovnik lasted from the 13th century to the Napoleonic invasion in 1808, but Dubrovnik dates back even further, to the 7th century when it was founded by Roman settlers from the ancient diocese of Epidaurum. Today, every stone in the town is considered protected property, for the city is registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List not for any specific monument but as an entirety.

Initially, the attack on Dubrovnik caused a flurry of diplomatic activity, but as the siege wore on people in Dubrovnik felt increasingly abandoned.

“People felt left alone by the world, that nobody cared because nobody did care,” said Ivana Jvulic, a hostess at a local Dubrovnik restaurant who during the school year teaches psychology at the university in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia.

“We were pretty disappointed with the European Community and the United Nations because they didn’t want to move a little finger to help us,” said Boris.

If Oct. 1 was the first day of the war in Dubrovnik, many remember St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6 as the hardest. Dec. 6 was a day of intense bombing during which the Old City came under direct attack. Fourteen people were killed that day. Dozens of churches and monuments were damaged or destroyed within the old town walls, and a dramatic plea was made on Dubrovnik’s behalf by UNICEF’s representative there. During the incessant bombing by the Yugoslav Army, landmark buildings in the small, compact Old City were hit, including the Sponza Palace, the Church of St. Blaise, the Cathedral, the Franciscan Monastery and the Dominican Monastery.

“They started early in the morning, a quarter past five to five in the afternoon. Nonstop shooting. That was one of the worst days of my life,” Boris said.

“All surrounding cliffs were occupied by enemies. They put loudspeakers up to bombard us with propaganda. How could we surrender? We didn’t attack anyone. It made no sense.”

“You cannot imagine,” Boris said. “You had to be here. It was also a big surprise to me at that the end of the 20th century such things could take place.”

Today, plaques before all of the main gates to the Old City tell the story of what is no longer immediately obvious to the eye. Written in five languages, the plaque reads: “City Map of Damages caused by the aggression on Dubrovnik by the Yugoslav Army, Serbs and Montenegrians, 1991-1992.” The map uses black and red symbols to show the locations of burnt buildings in Dubrovnik, roofs damaged by direct impacts, roofs damaged by shrapnel and other damage. More than 200 people died during the siege, and 632 people were injured.

Other vestiges of the war are prominently displayed in bookstores and tourist shops. A video called “Dubrovnik in War” shows film footage from the siege. A collection of essays about the war bears the same title. One essay by Igor Zidic speaks of the war in Croatia as a religious war Serbs waged on the non-Orthodox, a charge that is fraught with as much ambiguity as the claim that the United States is currently involved in a war of religion with the Muslim world. The war pitted Croats and Serbs against each other, not Catholics and the Orthodox, said Raic. But as a national church, the Serbian Orthodox church is also deeply entwined with the Serbian nation, with all Serbs, regardless of whether they are baptized and viewed as members of the Orthodox church.

Fathoming what went wrong

For outsiders, it can be difficult to fathom just what went wrong in the Balkans. People in Dubrovnik talk about Serbs’ desire to dominate the other nationalities within Yugoslavia, the disproportion between the money Croats sent to Belgrade and the money Croats received back from the Yugoslav capital. They mention Belgrade’s unwillingness to see such a valuable asset as Croatia, which possessed rich agricultural land along with a beautiful coastline, leave Yugoslavia when Croatia, along with Slovenia, voted to secede from the Yugoslavia federation. They speak as well of the inherent artificiality of the Yugoslav state crafted by the Allies following World War I.

With the collapse of communism, nationalism rose, instigated initially by intellectuals and academics whose claims on behalf of the cause of ethnic identity paved the way for the eventual acquisition of territory. Jasminka Udovicki, a professor of sociology at the Massachusetts College of Art and co-editor of the book Burn This House: The Making and Unmaking of Yugoslavia, described the phenomenon of “ political ethno-kitsch” where the different ethnic groups within Yugoslavia came to believe themselves victims of the others.

Raic, prior of the Dominican monastery, said it’s difficult for Americans to understand the war in the Balkans. “We understand nationality differently than you do in the United States. The Turks in Germany are not Germans but Turks. Maybe they have German passports, but everyone sees them as Turks. The Croats in Croatia are Croatians. So are the Croatians in Bosnia.”

The Western powers’ hasty recognition of the new nations seceding from Yugoslavia without due regard for the ethnic makeup of those nations and the safeguarding of minority rights within them was a serious error, said NATO’s Tiemes, who pointed out that the largest migration of people during the entire history of the 10-year ongoing crisis in the Balkans was the emigration of the Serb population in the Krajina area of Croatia. There Croatia and the Yugoslav Army fought for control of an area where a predominantly Serb population had lived for 400 years. By the end of the war between Yugoslavia and Croatia, approximately 200,000 Croatian Serbs had fled or been forced out of the Krajina.

The Vatican early on lobbied for the rapid recognition of Slovenia and Croatia, two predominantly Roman Catholic nations. Germany and Austria also pressed for early recognition, and were eventually joined by other Western nations blind to the destabilizing effects of the breakup of the Yugoslav Federation and the forces of nationalism they were abetting.

For the Catholic church in Dubrovnik, Croatian independence, along with the end of communism, has brought new freedom and new opportunities. Previously, under the relatively benign form of socialism practiced in Tito’s Yugoslavia, religious believers were not persecuted so much as excluded from leadership roles.

“The church was put into the sacristy,” explained Fr. Frano Markic, a Catholic priest in Dubrovnik. “It was forbidden to publicly express its own teaching. Somehow the church was imprisoned. The army, the police, the school, all these essential organs in the state, Catholics were not allowed to be members there.”

In a region where religion serves as a marker of ethnic identity and where Catholic Croats, Bosnian Muslims, and Orthodox Serbs come from a common ethnic stock yet seeing themselves as distinct nationalities, Markic sees ecumenism as the special challenge confronting the Catholic church today. The war has sharpened the divisions among people, strengthening their sense of national identity. In the process, Catholics have come to feel more Catholic, the Orthodox more Orthodox and the Muslims more Muslim.

Call it patriotism or nationalism, national sentiment runs strong in Dubrovnik, as in other parts of Croatia. Few in Dubrovnik seem to mourn the dismemberment of a multi-ethnic Yugoslavia or question the value and cost of Croatian independence. But with the passage of time, more questions have been raised about the conduct of the war. One Dubrovnik resident mentioned rumors that Croatia’s President Tudjman may have incited the Yugoslav Army to attack Dubrovnik to gain international sympathy for Croatia. In an essay written by Ejub Stitkovac in Burn This House, the author provides some support for this theory and cites similar claims made by refugees from Vukovar that Tudjman withheld military support for Vukovar’s defense in order to dramatize the cause of Croatian independence.

Scars of war

In Dubrovnik, the war has left scars that most people say will linger for years.

“People thought why? They didn’t do anything. Some kind of inner revenge came on the people,” said Markic.

Anne, a soft-spoken 22-year-old student at the university in Dubrovnik who didn’t wish to give her last name, seemed surprised when asked if people in Dubrovnik were bitter because of what had happened during the war. “A little,” she conceded, “because there had been a lot of damage.” A few minutes later, Anne mentioned she would never visit nearby Serbia.

“I wouldn’t travel there because I don’t like these people. After what they have done here and in Vukovar, I think they are not human,” she said.

The 14th-century Franciscan monastery in Dubrovnik stands on the marble-paved Placa, just inside the main gate to the city and close to the city walls. It’s one of the few buildings in the Old City with scaffolding still visible. Fifty shells fell on the monastery during the war, including two on the library housing a collection of 70,000 volumes. In the course of reconstruction, eight Gothic windows were discovered that the Institute for the Restoration of Dubrovnik now wants to restore to their original condition. A cheerful Padre Mario showed a visitor around the area of the reconstruction. In the large refectory where the library was moved to after the bombing on Dec. 6, 1991, and where it remained for eight years, Padre Mio spoke humorously about the upsurge of piety during the war. “So many people were saying the rosary, even in their cars,” he rolled his eyes.

When it came to discussing the effects of the war, he turned somber. “To forget is impossible,” he said matter-of-factly.

Padre Mario spoke of the paradox posed by a God who is both merciful and just. If we go to God and say we are sorry, he will forgive us, said Padre Mario. But if we are not sorry? The priest poses the question and leaves it hanging in air.

“It’s very difficult to forgive, especially if somebody is killed or their house is burnt,” Padre Mario said. “It’s difficult to get rid of hatred. Today Montenegro is ready to say it is sorry. Serbia is not.”

Unemployment is high in Croatia, around 22 percent. People say there are problems with soldiers experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. Still, residents in Dubrovnik are optimistic that better times are ahead. The tourists are returning, lured by the sea -- described here as the cleanest in the world -- and the climate, the tropical vegetation and the charm of the old buildings in town. For tourists, the recent war adds if anything an extra fillip of interest to their visits to the churches and Renaissance palaces. For Dubrovnik inhabitants, the siege of 10 years ago is something to put behind them as best they can.

“We had a very, very difficult period in our lives. We have to go forward,” said Maro Konjevod, a Dubrovnik shopkeeper.

But like millions of people throughout the former Yugoslavia, the inhabitants of Dubrovnik go forward into a different future because of the war, the events of the past 10 years having marked them in ways both large and small.

“We are not the same people as we were 10 years ago,” said Konjevod. “The syndrome of war is lying deep in our bodies.”

Margot Patterson is NCR’s senior writer. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@natcath.org

Related Web sites
Croatian Conference of Bishops

Croatian Heritage Foundation

Institute for the Restoration of Dubrovnik


National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2001