When we arrived in Osijek, Croatia, we went to the central square of the city. There we ran into a group of cyclists in red outfits — about 20 guys and one girl. We circled around the square, checking each other out before we stopped to chat. They said they had cycled from Zagreb and were going to Vukovar which is another 30 km away. They asked us to take a photo with them and then gave us one of their custom flags so we could find them on Facebook.
We soon found that all the hotels in the city were booked up and why they were going to Vukovar. Twenty three years ago to the day, the city of Vukovar fell after being under siege for three months, and every year tens of thousands of Croats from all over Croatia come to take part in a procession and had thusly filled all the hotels in Vukovar and neighbouring cities. We went to three hotels and each one said there won’t be anything in the city. Our best bet was to find a small village and stay in a private room. We did this.
I did a little bit of reading on the Battle of Vukovar, and it consisted of 2000 Croats defending their city against the much larger and much better equipped Yugoslav army. The city was a strategic position to hold for the Yugoslav army in the Croatian war for independence. Croatia wanted to leave Yugoslavia but Serbia wanted to stay unified and particularly keep the areas of Croatia with ethnic Serb majorities in Yugoslavia. After the city fell, there were massacres, torture and executions.
The next day we stubbornly made it to Belgrade. It was 120 km with strong headwinds; about 8 hours on our bikes including James and I losing each other for about an hour after getting separated on the highway.
Our adorably quirky gracious host at the hostel recommended us a traditional restaurant nearby. It wasn’t particularly noteworthy except that when our waiter asked us where we had been and we mentioned Vukovar, and while James took the diplomatic approach of saying the history was compicated, our waiter said it wasn’t complicated at all and that he was there during the war. He then went on to describe to us the motivations of the ethnic Serbs in Croatia and why they wanted to remain in Yugoslavia.
The waiter told us that during the time of the Second World War hundreds of thousands of Serbs were killed by the Croats and this was the reason they didn’t feel safe with the possibility of an independent Croatia and leaving Yugoslavia. I looked up what he said and it’s true. Croatia had their equivalent of the Nazi party during WWII and had a plan to ethnically cleanse Croatia of Serbs by expulsion, murder, and religious conversion. Hundreds of thousands of Serbs were killed — men, women, and children — often with a knife, or sent to concentration camps.
I don’t know even really know the difference between a Serb and a Croat except the religious difference of Eastern Orthodox versus Roman Catholic. I’m sure the history goes back a lot farther than the 1940s but this is what I was able to glean from a few hours reading Wikipedia.
Since the Croatian war of independence happened while I was quite young I don’t recall it but I do recall the war in Bosnia since it occurred during my later years in high school. For me, it was a problem that was occurring in a far away country so I didn’t relate to it so well. While I haven’t been to Bosnia yet, I’m glad I’ve been in Serbia and met some people here. If there is more conflict here, I will be able to relate to it better and have a more personal connection to it.
It feels strange to be in a city that my country, Canada, has bombed during my lifetime.