It took a long 17 years before Leo returned to a city shattered by the war. Before the battle, he had escaped to Split, where he had a much more comfortable life. “I was born here,” Leo shrugs. “I thought it would be like it was before.” Then he turns back to the podium and goes on listening to the programme that the people of Vukovar have put together for the holiday celebrating Croatia’s entry into the European Union. As is true for most of the inhabitants of the city on the Serbian border, where not a lot happens, Leo is much more interested in the local music stars than in politics. Up on the stage, children are singing that friendship is the best thing in the world.

“I recognise people on the street, but they’ve changed. We’re strangers,” Leo says. He had hoped that after the war he would return to the streets where neighbours greeted each other warmly in the morning and traded a few words. Instead, he ran into a wall of silence and mistrust. During the Yugoslav war Vukovar lived through months of terrible siege, and that experience can still be seen in the streets today. Tensions still simmer between local Croats and Serbs, and according to Leo the changes are only cosmetic, and have not affected the relationships. Even if friendship really is the best thing in the world, imposing it from above does not quite work.

Only 21 years ago, the locals had hoped that the Europeans would help them out in hard times

When the European Union was enlarged by one new member state on July 1, the news emerged rather quietly into Vukovar. No one waved any flags in the streets, and the celebrations ended with the musical programme. That caution is symbolic and holds true for both sides: Europe and Vukovar had, however, run into each other once before. Only 21 years ago, the locals had hoped that the Europeans would help them out in hard times, but the emerging Union was too weak to do anything about the demons of the Balkans. With the return of the flag with the yellow stars to the scene, it was time for a second try.

Healing old wounds

Not that in the Vukovar of today there would be any demons to be seen. At first glance, it’s a completely ordinary small town of less than 30,000 inhabitants. Out on a stroll, reminders of the past leap up only now and then: for example, a shot-up house in the middle of a square, or the water tower ruined by shellfire left to stand among the new buildings as a memorial by the authorities.

It would seem that, after the war, the battered town would have had its fill of conflicts and struggles. Most of its people also thought that, as gradually and slowly they returned to broken homes, thinking that life would return to its old pathways. On the streets of Vukovar, however, the pre-war community did not come back together. Healing the wounds of the past, it turns out, is not so simple.

Almost a quarter of a million ethnic Serbs had to flee their homes in Croatia, and until 1998 many Croats could not return to Vukovar, which remained till then under Serb administration. Squabbles over whom the town actually belongs to continue to this day. The most recent in the spate of arguments is the dispute about the inscriptions in the two now separate languages, formerly known jointly as Serbo-Croat. Under Croatia’s law on minorities, the local Serbs, since they make up more than 30 percent of the city’s population, have the right to their own Cyrillic font on plaques.

“They still want our space; they’ve just toned down the way they’re fighting for it,” says indignant former defender of the town, Zdravko Komšić. The veteran’s argument against the dual-language signs is that the numbers of Serbs in the city have been falisified; his Serbian fellow citizens, he estimates, make up no more than 20 per cent of the population.

Another who believes that there are fewer Serbs in Vukovar than suggested by the official numbers is Mirjana Semenić-Rutek. A trim and apparently educated lady in middle age, she worked in the local hospital during the war and now runs a gynaecological surgery. Outside her daily work, she is also a member of the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). “When you lose someone in the war, it does not hurt you for just a couple of days. It’s a pain that becomes a part of your life. We weren’t the ones shooting and killing people there.” Reminded that Croats elsewhere also did some shooting, she admits: “In no war is there is a party that commits no crimes.” The difference lies in the fact that the Croats admitted to them. “And the Serbs must do that as well,” the doctor stresses emphatically.

“We are only asking for what we are legally entitled to,” says Dušan Latas, representative of the Serbs from the village of Borovo Selo bordering Vukovar, regarding the tempest around the inscriptions. The sharp response from the Croats, however, worries him. “I’m afraid of protest meetings where they wear uniforms and assemble military battalions,” he explains. “But those aren’t being organised by people from here. Our relations are good,” he tries to persuade us.

One example of good relations in Vukovar may be a local nursery school, which has two entrances from different streets. One lets in Serbian children and the other lets in the Croatian children. Inside the building, the children of both ethnic groups have separate classrooms; the only area they share is the courtyard. That fact that the courtyard is not divided by a fence, however, does not mean that they can cross the borderline. “Things on the children’s playground are split between the Serbian and the Croatian children. Teachers keep watch over them because they don’t like it when the children are mixed together,” we are told by Andreja Magoč, a psychologist at a local elementary school where the same situation prevails.

Generations remain devided

“It’s complicated,” says Latas, who is all for the preservation of separate classes, which according to him means safeguarding the culture, alphabet and identity of the Serbs. “Outside of the classroom, though, the children should be together,” he adds.

Regardless of all the politics and the history tied up with the heroic city of Vukovar, no one here wants to have a war on their plate all the time

Regardless of all the politics and the history tied up with the heroic city of Vukovar, no one here wants to have a war on their plate all the time. “We’re normal people, and we want to live as well as everywhere else,” says Dr. Semenić-Rutet. “However, we must not forget what happened, and our children must live in peace,” she quickly adds, as if she were making a political statement.

Part of that new beginning may be the step that Semenić-Rutek herself is asking for – that war criminals be put on trial. And the European Union can help with that. The pressure put on Croatia before it was allowed to enter the union forced the country to deal with its war crimes, and the same task now faces Serbia, which must wrap up the trial of Radovan Karadzic and Goran Hadžić. For Vukovar, even more important is the trial of Vojislav Šešelj, who during the war organised the paramilitary units that set about wiping out the city and killing its inhabitants.

“On both sides there is the need to reflect on history. What really happened is obscured by plenty of mythology,” explains a Czech expert on the Balkans, Filip Tesař. The courts, which would at least symbolically close one chapter of the past, could in his view help to open up a needed space here for mutual dialogue. Psychologist Charles David Tauber, who is researching post-war traumas in Vukovar, shares that opinion. According to him, the townspeople are creating their own stories about what happened based on how they saw it. “And then they tell others their own personal traumas and describe what has happened to them – within the family, within communities and within the generations,” says the expert, who talks about pictures of the war with the people hurt by it and tries to show them a different way of looking at it. According to Tauber, therefore, the inhabitants of the Balkans are entering the union bearing images of war, which the union will have to cope with – and not just in Vukovar, but everywhere else too. “By reconciling Croatia and Serbia, the project of European unification would bring to the Balkans the same symbolic achievement that the reconciliation of the French and Germans signified for western Europe,” concludes Tesař. “If it succeeds, it will be a strong signal to other countries in the region.”