It’s early morning and Dubrovnik’s old town looks deserted. The gray clouds that brought a downpour last night still linger over the city walls, making them look dark and gloomy. No tourists taking photos in Piazza della Loggia. No music coming from the nearby cafés. In the restaurants, the chairs are still stacked upside down on the tables. Just the sound of our hurried steps rushing towards the cable car that will take us to Mt.Srd . The somber atmosphere seems to be in tone with our purpose our visit: seeing Dubrovnik’s Fort Imperial, the symbol of defense of the City of Dubrovnik against Serbian and Montenegrin armies, in 1991.
The cable car that ascends to the fort is right outside the city walls. “Let’s take the quicker way to it,” my husband suggests, and before I could say anything he is already a few steps ahead of me. The quicker way is actually a long (and really steep!) flight of stairs from Old Town’s main street. My cranky knees hurt just at the site of it but he doesn’t give me time to react, so I follow along.
There are only a few people in line as we arrive at the ticket booth. Behind the glass window the cashier is chatting on her phone while selling tickets. “Two round-trip tickets please,” I ask when our turn comes. If the weather was better we could walk the trail back down the mountain, but today it may rain.
Visiting Fort Imperial
The cable car starts ascending, leaving behind the red rooftops of the old town. The ride up is quite short, just 3-4 minutes. At the top of the hill a wide viewing platform opens up to the right of the station. Everybody from the cable heads directly there, drawn by the panoramic views of Dubrovnik and the Adriatic Sea. Ahhhh! It’s indeed magnificent, even though it’s cloudy. I wish I could stay here longer to admire the view, but the chilly wind that sweeps up the terrace, chases me away after a few minutes. Brrr, it’s cold!
Next to the viewing platform stands a 20-meter high limestone cross with an altar, a gift from the Archdiocese of Brač – a small island located in between Split and Hvar. It looks quite dramatic against the gloomy sky. Two young lovers snug into each other trying to photograph themselves next to the cross. The wind keeps blowing her long hair into his face, making him look like he has a beard. Since we can’t linger around the terrace to enjoy the views, we head toward the military stronghold of Fort Imperial, which is at the left of the cable car.
The fort was completed in 1812 by Napoleon’s occupying soldiers. After Napoleon’s fall, the Austro-Hungarian authorities took possession of Dubrovnik, enlarging and reinforcing the fort. By the end of the century, as the Austro-Hungarian empire annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, the fort lost importance as a defense fortress. Fort Imperial was used again as a military base in the 90s, during the Homeland War against the Serbian and Montenegrin armies.
From a distance, Fort Imperial doesn’t seem like much of an attraction. Some crumbling walls dominated by a TV tower spearing towards the sky, like a rocket ready to be launched. The masses of visitors coming up to Mt. Srđ every year are more interested in the sweeping views from atop the mountain, than the partially abandoned fortress. Very few of them actually take the time to visit the fort premises and the museum dedicated to the defense of Dubrovnik during the Homeland War, housed in one of the fort wings.
The museum is small but has plenty of powerful images and exhibits that will give you an insight into Croatia’s War of Independence. There are documents, photographs, weapons and explosive devices, war maps, and objects from the every-day life that belonged to the defenders of Dubrovnik.
In one of the rooms there is video recording playing. We sit down to watch.
October, 1991, Yugoslav National Army and its allies captures the resort of Slano north of Dubrovnik, cutting the city off from the rest of Croatia. Over 50,000 civilians and refugees are trapped inside the city. All roads to Dubrovnik are blocked. Defenders fall back on Fort Imperial, the Napoleonic-era strongpoint at the summit of Mt Srd. “They cut our electricity, water and telephone lines,” a young man in the video is telling the TV reporter. ” The basic supplies have to be brought in by boat while Dubrovnik’s port is swarming with Yugoslav gunboats and the federal army artillery units are pounding the city … Ordinary people in Dubrovnik have been given an opportunity to evacuate their home, but they refused. Now they are waiting to see how the federal army will respond to their defiance…. The Adriatic sunsets are spectacular, but they bring terror to the citizens of Dubrovnik. Federal forces appear to wait the day’s end to begin the real bombardment. The attack appears to be indiscriminate. On Saturday night a popular hotel just outside the city took several direct hits. Mortar was dropping through the roof into the rooms. The hotel had been used as a shelter by hundreds of families with children who ironically had fled to Dubrovnik trying to hide from the bombardment…” excerpts from the daily news reported by foreign journalists during the siege.
We watch in disbelief. These are authentic recordings that reveal horrifying stories from the Siege of Dubrovnik. Stories of ethnic cleansing, mass murder, rape, and genocidal acts. Stories of horrendous sufferings endured by the Dubrovnik’s residents who ended up in Morinj (near Kotor, Montenegro) concentration camp. Stories that took place not in some distant and uncivilized country, a long time ago. But right in the heart of Europe, just a little over twenty years ago. The last image I see before leaving the room is that of a middle aged woman weeping over her son’s grave:
“How could Europe … and that Milosevic …. watch all these people die?“
The siege of Dubrovnik lasted nine months and had devastating consequences on the entire region. Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands of buildings destroyed. The Old Town Dubrovnik looked like a war zone. On St. Nicholas Day, this beautiful UNESCO heritage site was reduced to a pile of rubble.
Understanding Croatia’s War
To understand Croatia’s war in the 1990s, it is important to understand the historical background of this country before the war. Yugoslavia was created at the end of World War I when Slovenian, Croat and Bosnian territories that belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire united with the Serbian Kingdom. During World War II, under the Nazi occupation, Yugoslavia broke up with the creation of a Nazi-allied independent Croat state, but was reunified at the end of the war when the communist Josip Broz Tito liberated the country.
After the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, Yugoslavia broke into six independent states. But the sizable ethnic Serb minority in Croatia openly rejected the authority of the newly proclaimed democratic Croatian state. Croatia was, and still is, the hottest piece of geographic real estate in Europe, so it is to no surprise that Serbia wanted its territory. Serbia’s leadership declared the rights of the Serbs to remain within Yugoslavia, despite the fact that Croatia had been internationally recognized as a sovereign state. In 1991, the Croatian rebel Serbs aided by Serbian-led Yugoslav People’s Army, declared Croatia’s territory an independent Serb state and began an ethnic cleansing campaign, expelling all Croats from its territory.
The Serb aggression against Croatia began in 1991 with the horrific conflict of ethnic cleansing, mass murder, rape, concentration camps the rebel Serbs aided by Serbian-led Yugoslav People’s Army and Montenegro. The heavy fighting began in December, 1991, with the siege of Dubrovnik and the destruction of Vukovar by Serb forces. The siege was accompanied by a Yugoslav Navy blockade and the bombardment of Dubrovnik, including the Old Town, which was a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Fort Imperial had a very important role in the defense of Dubrovnik, as it was the only place in the hands of the Croatian Army that was surrounded by the Serbian and Montenegrin army. The largest attack on the fortress and Dubrovnik was launched on December 6, 1991. The fighting lasted all day and the fortress suffered extensive damage, but the few defenders in the fort managed to withstand the attack. The bombardment provoked international condemnation, and became a public relations disaster for Serbia and Montenegro, contributing to their diplomatic and economic isolation. Croatia’s War of Independence lasted till 1995 and ended with Croatia’s victory. The country’s economy was ruined, with an estimated US$37 billion in damaged infrastructure, lost production, and refugee-related costs. A total of 20,000 people were killed in the war.
The bloody desintegration of Yugoslavia is considered Europe’s worst holocaust since World War Two. The wars lasted for much of the 1990s. It resulted in more than 130,000 deaths, millions of refugees, routine rapes and ethnic cleansing.
Despite all the atrocities committed by the Serbs in the early 1990s, a U.N. Court dismissed Croatia’s case that its citizens had been victims of genocide. In 2015, the International Court of Justice ruled that Serbian forces committed indeed “egregious violent acts” against ethnic Croatians, but they don’t equate to genocide. As such, modern-day Serbia will not have to pay restitution to Croatia for what happened in 1991 in Dubrovnik.
From afar, the red rooftops of the old town back-dropped against the blue waters of the Adriatic look so peaceful and surreal. Like a field of red poppies gleaming in the morning sun. Some 20 years after the end of the Yugoslav War, Dubrovnik seems to emerge from the fighting more beautiful than ever. Very few signs of the destruction brought by the siege are visible today. But if you engage people in a conversation, the deep wounds left by the war begin to show.
“We try to forgive but we can’t forget. Not all the way. Maybe just enough so that we could go on.”