Vukovar is a city in eastern Croatia on the Danube River across from Serbia, in a county (or županija) called Vukovar-Srijem. It was the site of one of the fiercest battles during the 1991 war in Croatia and was more completely destroyed than was any other city during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. Vukovar was also the scene of the first major war crime during the wars in the Balkans and it became a potent national symbol of Croatian determination and resistance to aggression.
Vukovar had been a prosperous and handsome town in the rich agricultural region in eastern Slavonia. Because of its Habsburg legacy the town had many examples of baroque architecture. The 1991 census recorded that the population of Vukovar County was 84,024, of which 37.4 percent was Serb, 43.7 percent Croat, 7.4 percent "Yugoslav" and 11.6 percent "others." The region also had significant Ruthene, Ukrainian, Slovak, and Hungarian communities. Vukovar's industrial economy was dominated by Borovo, a large rubber-processing firm, which produced tires and shoes and employed more than twenty thousand workers throughout Yugoslavia. The firm was located in Vukovar's industrial suburb of Borovo Selo, which was populated mainly by Serb migrants who had arrived from Bosnia in the 1950s and 1960s. Borovo Selo was adjacent to Borovo Naselje, which was populated mainly by Croats. Borovo Selo became a center of radical Serb activity in 1990–1991.
The murder of fifteen police officers in Borovo Selo on 2 May 1991 provided one of the significant preludes to war in the highly charged and increasingly violent run-up to the Croatian government's declaration of independence. Twelve police officers had come from the nearby city of Osijek to rescue two others who had been killed while on patrol a day earlier. This incident gave the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) an opportunity to deploy on the pretext of keeping the peace, as it had done in several other places throughout Croatia. By late August the JNA had surrounded Vukovar to lay siege to it. The JNA and Serb paramilitary forces made an artillery assault on the town for eighty-six days and it fell on 18 November 1991. Almost every section of the city appeared to be reduced to rubble.
Vukovar remained under the control of the Serbs throughout the deployment of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in Croatia, which began on 21 February 1992. The signing of the Erdut Agreement on 12 November 1995, a sidebar to the Dayton Agreement that ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, provided a road map for the administrative reintegration of the town and surrounding areas into Croatia once again. This reintegration was completed with the conclusion of the mission of the UN Transitional Administration in Eastern Slavonia on 15 January 1998.
Vukovar was the site of the first major war crime in the wars fought in the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia. At the moment of the Croatian surrender in Vukovar several hundred people sought refuge at the hospital there in the belief that they would be evacuated in accordance with an agreement between the JNA and the Croatian government. On 19 November JNA units took control of the hospital and loaded approximately three hundred men who had been patients, staff, political activists and soldiers defending the city into trucks. These prisoners were taken to a nearby farm called Ovčara and beaten. They were then divided into smaller groups and taken to another site on the farm, where at least two hundred people, including two women, were killed. With the deployment of the UN Transitional Authority in Eastern Slavonia, Baranja, and Western Sirium (UNTAES) in Vukovar in 1996, a team of forensic pathologists for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), exhumed the Ovčara grave as evidence for the tribunal. Three of the four men who were indicted for this crime remained free and at large for more than a decade before their arrests. The fourth, former Vukovar mayor Slavko Dokmanović (1950–1998), had been arrested in 1997 and later committed suicide in jail.
The defense of Vukovar served as a central symbol of Croatian resistance to the mighty JNA. But this did not stop a series of mutual recriminations within Croatia over who lost Vukovar. These disputes included accusations in the media that Vukovar was sacrificed for the goal of Croatian independence, claims from poorly equipped defenders that they had received insufficient government assistance for the defense of the town, and the arrest of the commander of Vukovar's defense. Disagreements over these issues signaled significant cleavages within the Croatian government. However, the most significant memories from those difficult days of the war were the daily radio reports from the frontlines. These reports created the impression that Vukovar had become the "Croatian Stalingrad." Vukovar served as the inspiration for an enormous amount of poster art and other pop cultural expressions intended to strengthen resistance against all external aggression and to provide a symbol of Croatian unity.
Tanner, Marcus. Croatia: A Nation Forged in War. New Haven, Conn., 1997.
Thompson, Mark. Forging War: The Media in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina. London, 1994.