After reading about it in Frommer’s Croatia, I had originally wanted to go to Ilok, one of the most well-known wine-making microclimates (Fruška Gora) in Croatia, which is also the easternmost town in Croatia, right on the border with Serbia. There’s a 13th-century fortress there, an 18th-century monastery on the site where the warrior-monk St. Ivan Kapestran (San Juan Capistrano, for those of you in California) defended against the invading Turks, as well as Europe’s second-old winery, Iločki Podrumi. The town had been heavily damaged during the war but apparently was mostly rebuilt with a lot of new investment into the wine-making region.
We had been drinking wine from Ilok at Nada and Milan’s place on a few evenings in the past week — very good stuff, even if we were pouring it from 4l plastic bottles, much like how you would buy juice at Costco — and Milan insisted that I didn’t need to go to Ilok now, but offered to take us out to the site of their cabin near the Danube as well as for a drive to the border.
Milan and Dario picked us up at 9am, and we headed east in the cold, bright morning sunshine. Just on the eastern edge of Osijek, we started seeing many fields that were obviously formerly cultivated, but were now totally overgrown with scrub, although this is prime farmland. Then I saw the signs: uncleared minefields. On my first visit to Osijek in 2004, Damir and I went for a walk on the opposite side of the river from his parents’ house, and when I tried to wander off the path to take some pictures, he abruptly grabbed my arm (very uncharacteristic) and reminded me that people still die every year in Croatia from mines, and that that area had literally been the front line during part of the war and had been mined at some point. It seemed a bit unrealistic at that point, but seeing the uncleared minefields now, interspersed with some small number where clearing operations were going on — 12 years after the war ended! — made it very real.
We stopped on the hill overlooking Aljmaš, with spectacular views over the Danube (which forms the border with Serbia), very near where the Drava flows into the Danube. Much of this area was not returned to Croatia until 1998, hence has had less time for rebuilding, but the town looked idyllic from the viewpoint. The hill is home to a very Spartan stations of the cross and a statue of the Virgin; a pilgrimage site since the early 1700’s, it was later taken over by the army, undoubtedly for its great vantage point, and only recently returned to its original pilgrimage purpose.
Down in the town itself stands a very modern church, shaped like a wave rising out of the Danube. In the square in front of the church is a tiny bit of an old brick wall, the only bit of the original church left after Serbian shelling in 1991. A small model of the facade of the original church is affixed to the wall, along with the dates 1991-1998: the years of Serbian occupation of this area.
We drove on a few kilometres to Milan and Nada’s cabin, or what was left of it. Milan and Dario are both avid fishermen, and the cabin overlooking the Danube was a bit of a getaway with easy access to great fishing. In 1991, however, ethnic Serbs in the nearby villages burned it down, presumably along with any other place owned by a Croat. Milan, ever cheerful, talked about how he wants to rebuild now that he’s retired. Nada refuses to visit, not wanting to drive by the villages whose people destroyed it.
The last stop of our trip was Vukovar, one of the most heavily damaged towns in Croatia, most of that damage inflicted during an 87-day siege during 1991. Much of the damage is still visible; some say that the government is slow to repair it so that Vukovar can serve as a living war memorial of sorts. The shelled-out water tower stands as a mute reminder.
After several days in Osijek, still showing a significant amount of war damage (although less than my last visit in 2004), I’m no longer shocked by every building pockmarked with bullet holes and shrapnel, or by roughly filled-in shell craters in the sidewalks. But Vukovar is much worse than that: many buildings damaged beyond usability but still partially standing, and many areas of new, cheap housing built in place of what was bombed out of existence.
We continued through town and stopped at the cemetery. Outside the gate were three little shops, really just temporary-looking stands, selling elaborate floral arrangements and votive candles. I’d seen a small hand-cart selling flowers and candles outside Mirogoj in Zagreb, and I wondered briefly how three shops — each two or three times bigger than the hand-cart in Zagreb — could sustain sufficient business.
It started as a usual European cemetery, beautiful headstones and and stone covers over the graves, like vaults built into the ground. We wandered back through it, seeing the history of the area engraved on the stones. Then we reached the war memorial: a huge, somewhat abstract cross-shaped sculpture in oxidized green metal, on a platform surrounded by hundreds of small white crosses, representing the 1,200 unidentified and missing war dead — just from Vukovar — from the 1991 siege. Too close together to be actual graves, I think, just rows of them with no names, no numbers, no markings of any sort. But Vukovar had suffered many more casualties: over 3,000 in total during the siege, less than 1/3 of those soldiers.
We continued on beyond the memorial into what looked like just another part of the cemetery, until I realized that all of the graves were lavishly decorated with multiple floral arrangements and candles (making sense of the three shops outside the gate). Since this was two days after Christmas, it made sense that it was a time for family to visit, but this seemed really elaborate. Then, as I walked the rows, I realized that every singe grave had a death date of 1991. These were also Vukovar’s war dead, but these were the identified ones. A cold hand gripped my lungs and squeezed, making it hard to breathe as I walked along row after endless row.
A thick frost was still settled over most of the ground, in spite of the sun, and I stopped at one grave with a white stone cover and a beautiful arrangement of calla lilies. The stone and lilies were dusted with frost, and my photographer’s mind thought about the incredible composition and what a great shot it would make. I started to take my camera out of my pocket, and somehow couldn’t. I’ve shot pictures in cathedrals, homes, cemeteries and pretty much everywhere else, but somehow this felt disrespectful.
We returned to the car and headed back to Osijek, subdued. As we left Vukovar, icy fog rose from the fields to obscure the sun, then closed in densely around us.