Antonio Bronic / Reuters

War-scarred eastern Croatia lends refugees a hand

Still vivid memories of the Croatian war of independence inspire locals to help victims of Middle East conflicts

VUKOVAR, Croatia — Robert Martinkovic, a burly former soldier from eastern Croatia, knows enough about war to never wish it upon anyone else. During the Croatian war of independence, which lasted from 1991 to 1995 and saw Croat forces fight Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, he was wounded three times leading a reconnaissance unit that lost eight of its men in some the conflict's toughest battles.

Twenty years later, he sees tens of thousands of refugees passing through a still battle-scarred eastern Croatia, where vivid memories of their own war are inspiring local people to help these victims of distant conflicts.

“Yesterday, locals came down here with 20 cars full of food and water,” Martinkovic said as he helped fellow volunteers clear a makeshift transit camp near the Croatia-Serbia border for refugees, predominantly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “We understand completely what this means for this people, what it means to be a refugee.”

The Croatian war killed about 20,000 people, most of them Croats, and displaced more than 200,000 people from Croat and Serb communities. Eastern Croatia suffered the worst atrocities, and the biggest massacre occurred at Vukovar, formerly a prosperous, multiethnic riverside town facing Serbia across the Danube.

For three months in 1991, a couple of thousand lightly armed Croats defended Vukovar from more than 35,000 Yugoslav troops, as Serb commanders pounded the city with tanks, heavy artillery and bomber aircraft. Barely a building was left undamaged.

Twenty-two thousand people fled Vukovar, and about 1,700 Croats were killed before Serb-led military groups overran the city on Nov. 19, 1991. When they did, hundreds of people sought shelter in Vukovar’s hospital, from which they hoped to be evacuated.

Instead the Serbs transported about 250 fighters and civilians to a nearby pig farm at Ovcara, where they were tortured and shot dead. Their bodies were later found in a mass grave not far from the city.

Just a few miles from a memorial center that now stands at Ovcara, on Sunday Croatia opened a state-run transit camp at Opatovac for refugees to end chaotic scenes witnessed over recent days at the nearby Tovarnik train station.

The area is on the main thoroughfare for refugees traveling from the Middle East to Western and Northern Europe, since Hungary last week completed construction of a 13-foot-high fence along its border with Serbia, blocking the previous favored route.

Dozens of buses run daily from the south of Serbia and its capital, Belgrade, to the border crossing between the Serb town of Sid and Tovarnik.

Croatia is busing refugees from the border to the Opatovac camp, where they are registered and given food, water and medical care. Then they are taken back to Tovarnik and put on trains to Hungary or Slovenia, advancing them on their journeys to Western and Northern Europe.

During a visit to the camp on Monday, Croatian Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic briefly boarded each of several buses waiting outside the gates and assured refugees that they would be kept there only “for a short time.”

“Then you will be on your way to the European Union,” he said, despite the fact that they were already in it. Croatia has been a member of the bloc since 2013. “More than 20,000 people have gone through Croatia in the last few days on their way to the EU. Please pass on this message to people who are coming here.”

Croatia’s decision to transport refugees to Hungary has infuriated allies of populist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has spent millions of euros building the border fence and paying thousands of police and soldiers to patrol it.

Ostojic, however, was unrepentant.

‘Locals here remember the war and remember how it was to be a refugee. Lots of them have relatives still living in Austria and Germany.’

Sasa Bjelanovic

Youth Peace Group Danube

“This region and the whole of Croatia is making lots of good steps for these people,” he said, as he stepped off the last bus at Opatovac. “This is the human face of our country, because we did not forget what happened to us during our war. Some Croatians might want to put guns on the border — they are like Orban — but the majority are ready to help these people and send them on their way to the European Union.”

The Opatovac camp, which can accommodate several thousand people in rows of large military-style tents, will be partly operated by the Red Cross and other organizations, taking pressure off local volunteer groups.

“In our region, people have been working hard to help,” said Sasa Bjelanovic of the Vukovar-based organization Youth Peace Group Danube. “Locals here remember the war and remember how it was to be a refugee. Lots of them have relatives still living in Austria and Germany.”

Bjelanovic and other members of the group are volunteering with the Croatian Red Cross, which is transferring workers and supplies from the Tovarnik station to Opatovac, where tens of thousands of people are expected to arrive in the coming weeks.

Martinkovic, the former soldier, praised the response of ordinary Croatians but was skeptical about the state’s intervention, suspecting the well-stocked Opatovac camp is a belated government public relations effort and a potential source of corruption.

“The conditions there for the refugees look all right, but they are still being kept behind wire,” he said. “They see men in uniform, police, a military-style response, and they are enclosed by a fence. For people fleeing war, that’s not good.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter