Croatia, The Siege of Dubrovnik

“And as long as human beings can sit and watch with hands folded while their fellow-men are tortured and butchered so long will civilisation be a hollow mockery, a wordy phantom suspended like a mirage above a swelling sea of murdered carcasses.” – Henry Miller

There was an excellent breakfast on the sunny terrace with local specialties, fresh bread and home made marmalade and jam and Doris sold us tickets for the water taxi to Dubrovnik, which I think was probably another part of the family business.

We had about an hour to wait between breakfast and the boat and we spent this in Mlini wandering about the back streets, through overgrown gardens, down mysterious passageways where self-seeded flowers tumbled from the cracks in the walls and along the seashore, it was a lovely place and we had made an excellent choice of holiday location.

The taxi left from the little harbour in the village and we waited in the already hot sunshine until it arrived at ten o’clock and then selected seats on the upper deck and sat and sweltered while we waited for it to leave.  Eventually the crew cast off and followed the coast towards the city and then we saw something unexpected and nothing like we had seen before on previous visits to Croatia, a string of war damaged bombed out hotels at regular intervals all the way to Dubrovnik.  This we learned later was the legacy of an invasion by Montenegro during the secessionist wars of the 1990s.

Montenegro played a disastrous part in the break-up of the former Yugoslavia because in 1991 its army, urged on by Slobodan Milosevic, advanced across the border into neighbouring Croatia, destroying villages, looting and stealing on the way and then shelling the ancient city of Dubrovnik.

The city was attacked by the Serbian-Montenegrin army and besieged for six months during which time about two thousand shells rained down on the walled city, damaging seventy percent of its buildings and two-thirds of its famous red roofs. Dubrovnik’s ancient heritage was threatened with destruction and a plaque within the city now shows all of the major strikes on public buildings and churches, cobbled streets made of Dalmatian stone and irreplaceable statues and monuments and it doesn’t hold back on saying who was responsible!

Early in 1991 the political leaders of Montenegro and the Yugoslav Peoples’ Army, the, JNA, justified the attack and siege of Dubrovnik as a necessary move towards protecting the territorial integrity of Montenegro and Yugoslavia and preventing a potential conflict along ethnic lines, as well as stopping the so-called unconstitutional secession of Croatia.

The Montenegrin Prime Minister rallied the country with the rabble rousing statement that the ‘Croatian authorities wanted to have a war and they will have it.’  He continued by saying that ‘if Croatia wants to secede then the internal borders must be revised,’ while interpreting the war in Croatia as an inevitable outcome of the policies of Zagreb: ‘One million Serbs in Croatia are deprived of their rights and are forced to respond with arms.’  He assured the people of Montenegro that the time had come to ‘draw the demarcation lines vis-à-vis the Croats once and for all,’ and that ‘the new borders with Croatia would be more logical and just than those drawn by the old and poorly educated Bolshevik cartographers’

In the early hours of 1st October JNA soldiers and reservists began military operations in the southern Croatian region of Konavle.  Just after five o’clock the people living in the village of Vitaljina and throughout the region of Konavle were woken up by heavy artillery fire coming from the JNA positions and also from the JNA’s naval vessels anchored off the Croatian coast.  The artillery fire was then followed by an infantry thrust into Croatian territory.

The invaders evicted people from their houses and engaged in massive looting, pillaging, and the destruction of private and historical property, actions which had no justification or any strategic military objective.  The airport was attacked and equipment stolen and heavy looting occurred in Kupari, where the hotel complex Vrtovi Sunca was virtually cleaned out of all its furniture and equipment, pieces of which were later either sold on the black market in Montenegro or given as ‘gifts’ to various state-run institutions and organizations in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro.

After the looting of the hotels they were then destroyed by heavy shelling, an action designed to destroy the tourist economy of the region and to prevent them being used for refugees and people bombed out and displaced from their homes.

Europe and the World watched most of the dreadful events of the Yugoslavian wars on television screens but took no action but for the west at least, the destruction of Dubrovnik overstepped the mark and brought pressure on the warring factions to stop.  It was almost as though the World was prepared to turn a blind eye ethnic cleansing, death and destruction in cities with unfamiliar names that meant little to them but when a UNESCO World Heritage Site was attacked and a city that was seen to belong to the World and not a single place, collectively they said ‘enough is enough’.

The ‘War for Peace’ turned out to be one of the most disagreeable episodes in recent Montenegrin history because the country disgraced itself by putting itself in the service of the Yugoslav army and Slobodan Milosevic.  After the war Montenegro became a virtual pariah state, and the later bombing of nearby Kosovo reinforced this isolation.

After the end of the war in 1995 Montenegro remained closely allied to Serbia but declared independence in June 2006.  In  the following year the Montenegrin President apologized for involvement in attacks on Dubrovnik, which caused several hundred civilian deaths and destroyed countless homes, and agreed to pay damages. Some estimates place the value of the damage at around €35 million.  So far, Montenegro has paid up only €375,000 as compensation for looting cattle.  Reparation is going to take a long time and in the mean time the bombed out hotels which disfigure the coastline remain as a dreadful reminder of the war.

Really, I should have found out about this before the holiday and I suddenly began to feel a bit uneasy about visiting Montenegro the next day for fear of offending our Croatian hosts.

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20 responses to “Croatia, The Siege of Dubrovnik

  1. Dubrovniklady

    Excellent post, your facts are all correct.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your post. I went to all these places in the days when Tito was alive so saw them in their original beauty. One place I went to was an Island called Rab and stayed in a hotel set in a beautiful garden. It was 1961 and I recall it was considered quite daring to us to go to what was considered an iron curtain country. The hotel manager welcomed us with open arms saying we were the first english package tour that had stayed there and how appreciative they were for England’s help during the second world war.

    We went back and stayed at different places after that visiting most of the places mentioned by you. We never felt any of the underlying tensions and I was shocked and saddened when all the troubles erupted and particularly at the ethnic cleansing that took place.

    I have never been back since but your post tempts me to return. Thank you.

  3. Good recount of the siege. I didn’t know the details of this terribly sad event. ~James

  4. Do not feel uneasy about visiting Montenegro, Andrew – it is a beautiful country, which also has a good chunk of what used to be Croatian – around Boka Kotorska and many Croats from there are a pride to humanity. As to labeling the 1990’s leadership in Zagreb as totalitarian regime of early 1990’s that’s been done by those who disrespect the internationally recognised borders of Croatia (or any other state of former Yugoslavia) and if self-determination and fighting for freedom from oppression and for democracy is totalitarianism so be it, I’ll be in it any day 😀

  5. Reblogged this on Croatia, the War, and the Future and commented:
    And this beauty still shines!

  6. Excellent post Andrew. Our trip to Croatia last fall left me dumbfounded at how much I didn’t know about this recent period of history.

    • Very complex and although the fighting has stopped the bitterness and recriminations continue. The concept of Yugoslavia was a bad one in the first place and a hundred years later Europe still suffers from that diplomatic decision.

  7. Interesting history of man and his wars. geez. Will it ever end?

  8. I read somewhere that one of the bombed out hotels (The Belvedere) has been bought by the makers of Game of Thrones and made into a set for the show. Not sure if this is true or not, but I’ll find out when Season 4 starts on Sky Atlantic in April!

  9. Great piece!

  10. Reblogged this on dr. costamagna.

  11. Thank you for the interesting perspective. Very timely considering what is going on in the Ukraine right now. The reasoning of the Montenegrin Prime Minister at the time sounds a lot like Putin does now.

  12. Went there on holiday in September and fell in love with the place, knew nothing of the war damaged hotels until I saw them on a boat trip, felt nothing but ignorance and shame, this happened on our doorstep in the not so distant past.

  13. Thanks for this info. We are currently staying in Mlini, and I am trying to find information on these hotels, with very little success. Such a senseless war….

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