In May of 1991, the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) had reached eastern Croatia and the small village of Vukovar was in their sights. The JNA, with a power composed of 35,000 – 40,000 men, was ready to attack the village. However, the Croatians, who did not have an actual military at the time, did not flee. The Croatian side had 400 national guardsmen, 300 police officers from Vukovar, and 1,100 inhabitants of the small village and surrounding areas. Only half of the Croatians had hunting rifles and a few hundred anti-tank rocket launchers to defend themselves with.1 Taking the amount of manpower and weapons into perspective, the JNA had a clear advantage over the Croatian defenders. How did it ever get to this point of absolute chaos? Did it have a detrimental affect on the Serbians in the long run? Why didn’t the citizens of Vukovar run when they could?
The tension between Croatia and Serbia started in 1986 when the Serbian intellectuals of the Academy of Arts and Scientists developed the Serbian Memorandum, which responded to the humiliation by the communists after World War II after the communists had not given Serbia its own state. The Serbian government reacted to this “humiliation” by enforcing the Serbian Memorandum and claiming that wherever Serbians lived was rightfully Serbian land, which disrespected state borders.2Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president, took this memorandum and fed it to the Serbian people in order to gain power and support from the country’s citizens.3Slobodan Milosevic promoted this openly to his people and birthed nationalists ready to fight whoever was in the way of their land that they wanted so badly. While this was happening, Croatia wanted independence from Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav People’s Army was ready to head to battle and claim land on August 1998, starting with Vukovar. The JNA set siege into the city fighting not only its military, but its police and civilians too.4
To Croatia’s surprise, the JNA forces surrounded the city with mortars and tanks and fired upon it, resulting in many civilian casualties. After days of fire, the Serbian forces sent small amounts of troops to kill the defenders and civilians. The two sides waged war constantly for days without rest. After a stalemate, the Croatian government sent more troops to attack the Serbian garrisons near Vukovar. The attack failed. The offensive battle was in the hands of Serbia, and defense was Croatia’s only leg to stand on. The Serbian forces, angered by this aggression from Croatia, decided to send large amounts of troops into southwestern Vukovar, pushing over two thousand civilians out of their homes. However, due to a group of defenders, the Serbian forces could not march into central Vukovar. The Serbian forces could never make it into central Vukovar due to their fighting spirit and constant assurance from government supplies.5
One man played a vital role in the defense of Vukovar. Blago Zadro, a commander of the 3rd battalion of the Croatian Army Brigade, fought with his two sons at Vukovar. As the main defender of Vukovar, Zadro’s role was to protect Trpinjska Road, which led directly into the city. Defending of the road was difficult considering the lack of arms he and his men had. His group alone destroyed 60 tanks and APCs (Armored Personnel Carriers). Zadro was killed by the Serbian Forces on September 16th 1991, though his body was not found until 1998 in a mass grave created by the JNA.6
After Zadro’s death, Marko Babić took command and fought against the aggression. Babić was considered the fiercest soldier to fight under Zadro. Babić defended the northern section of Trpinjska Road where one battalion of about 30 tanks, and 30 APCs were coming in. These fell into an ambush, and were almost wiped out. As a result, an area where the fighting occurred was nicknamed the “tank graveyard”. Babić, himself, was accredited with destroying 14 tanks, more than anyone else alone. Blago Zadro and Marko Babić are both remembered fondly today by many Croatians.7
In Autumn 1991, after months went by, no matter how hard the Croatians fought, the Serbian forces with their troops, mortars, and tanks just had too much fire power and pummeled not only the Croatian people, but its town’s structure too.8 Months of JNA troops outnumbering the Croatians had finally come to an end. The Croatians had to flee from Vukovar. The buildings were so desolate and unrecognizable that it looked as if the town had gone through an apocalypse. The JNA had taken 500-600 lives of the defenders and sent the rest towards a Serb concentration camp. Unfortunately, many of the Croatian prisoners were killed by the Serbians.9
However, the Croatians put up such a good fight that a Serbian veteran said, “They fight like lions. The Croatians’ bravery can not be denied.” Even though the JNA won the battle, the JNA mentality was severely damaged. The small number of Croatian defenders held control of Vukovar for months. Within these months, the country allowed itself to build a stronger army ready to fight the Serbian forces at its next destination. Serbia was weakened militarily, psychologically, and politically. Željko Ražnatovic, a convicted war criminal of the war who fought for the Serbians, had been angry at his men for teasing the Croatian captives and stated: “Look carefully, you fools. A handful of those people killed 15,000 of you. If I could have these people I would be sitting in Ljubljana already.”10With the amount of displeasure in the mind of the JNA, they knew it was no easy task to defeat Croatia.
The Defenders struck a chime in Croatia and Serbia stating that the Croatians were a forced to be reckoned with, which played a crucial role into the mindset of Croatia. Croatia still remembers the defenders of Vukovar to this day.