A fascinating and sobering story
All around the old walled city of Dubrovnik one sees reminders of the damage done to the city during the 1991-92 siege of the city and the terrible bombardment. The first time Rod and I were there we took photos of photos that were in a special display on one street wall, and of shell craters in walls, but we didn’t go up to the museum on Mt Srd (pronounced ‘surge’). This time with Nath and Sonya we decided to visit the museum.
But first, a bit of background:
This was a turbulent time in the history of Yugoslavia. In June 1991 Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia. Very soon, the nations were at war, mostly raging in the Croatian interior, and nobody expected the bloodshed to reach Dubrovnik right down in the south. Refugees from NE Croatia started arriving in Dubrovnik during the fall, and war planes from the Serb-dominated Yugoslav People’s Army started circling the city.
In the morning of October 1, 1991 the Serbs attacked Mt Srd above the city and destroyed a famous giant cross and a communications tower, plus the cable car that whisks visitors to the top of the mountain (all since repaired). Then Yugoslav land troops (mostly Serbs and Montenegrins) started to surround the city. A very newly-formed, unorganized Croatian army resisted by digging in at the old Napoleonic fortress on top of Mt Srd. A small group of only 25-30 soldiers prevented a Yugoslav takeover of this very strategic position throughout the siege, even though it was shelled and damaged. Though seriously outgunned and outnumbered, they held the fort. Locals brought supplies up by foot or by donkey, usually at night. Even after peace came, minefields and unexploded ordinance left the hilltop a very dangerous place. But, this was all cleared by 2010, the same year the cable car was rebuilt.
At first the Yugoslav forces targeted positions on the edge of the city, but then moved closer to residential areas, and then started shelling the actual old city of Dubrovnik. The city people sheltered in their cellars or in the old 15th century forts in the city walls.
The Yugoslav Army hoped that many residents would flee the town but that didn’t happen and the people of the city resisted the siege and bombardment way better than anyone predicted.
Bombing of the city continued for 8 months, despite the fact that Dubrovnik had been a
UNESCO site since 1979 and should therefore have been off-limits. The city was liberated by the Croatian army, but by the end of the siege the casualty numbers and the damage were tremendous: more than 100 civilians died and more than 200 Dubrovnik citizens who actively fought and were called “Dubrovnik Defenders.” In the greater Dubrovnik area many hundreds more were killed and in the Republic of Croatia an estimated 14,000 people were killed, 6,000 of them civilians. More then two-thirds of the buildings in Dubrovnik were damaged and more than 30,000 people had to flee their homes. Awful statistics at any time, but even more so when one considers that this was supposedly a “protected city”.
People have asked why the city was targeted. Many reasons are given: partly so Yugoslavia could gain a foothold right in the south of the Dalmatian coast; partly to fan pro-Serb passions in the nearby Serb-dominated areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro; and partly to hit Croatia where it hurt—its proud, historical, beautiful city of Dubrovnik.
On the surface, the city has recovered but the emotional toll is still very much there, and the museum on Mt Srd shows that. The Croatians in Dubrovnik were mostly innocent victims in the Yugoslav war and the brutal attack on their city, and the citizens cannot easily forget that. They feel very aggrieved and somewhat vulnerable that their special city was literally blown almost to bits in front of their eyes.
Back to the Museum: The Dubrovnik During the Homeland War (199-1992) Museum is housed in the Fort Imperial, built by Napoleon in 1806-1812 after he added Dubrovnik to his holdings in order to keep an eye on these new subjects. The fort is behind the cable car station, and is a huge grey stone structure.
Entrance to the museum is 100 kuna per person (about US$ 15) and is open the same hours as the cable car.
The museum is in part of the ground floor of the Fort, in a series of vaulted rooms off a long corridor. More than 500 original photos, documents and objects (such as rifles and mortar shells) are displayed, divided into different thematic units: the fort’s history; the preparations for defence; Serbian and Montenego aggression in 1991; the liberation of the Croatian south in 1992; suffering of the population; and damage to civil buildings and cultural monuments in the Dubrovnik area.
All the information boards and explanations are in Croatian and English, luckily. The descriptions are very dense and detailed, with way too much information to take in during one visit.
Here are just a few factoids: Under “Preparation” we see photos of famous structures boarded up where possible, such as the Big Onofrio Fountain and the monument to Ivan Gundulic.
Under “Suffering of the Historic Center and Cultural Monuments we learn that the first bombardment was on 23-24 October 1991. After that there were repeated bombardments, with the enemy army using guided missiles, mortar shells and artillery projectiles of all calibers. The detonation of these damaged the structural integrity of most buildings. Almost none of the important buildings in the protected heritage area were left unscathed. For example, Stradun had 45 direct hits, the Franciscan Convent 37 direct hits, the City walls 40 locations hit. Nine palaces were completely burned down.
The whole exhibition is rather disturbing, on many counts—it shows how awful the attacks on Dubrovnik were; and how war brings out the worst in some people, with total disregard for loss of life or loss of historical or cultural assets. It also shows us how any event can be interpreted in different ways, as this museum sees the war only from the Dubrovnik/Croatia point of view. What happened to them here was awful and atrocious and the people of Dubrovnik were largely innocent victims, but at the same time the Croatian army elsewhere was also bombarding other innocent people. Think of the Old Bridge in Mostar (Bosnia-Herzegovina), for example, which the Croats shelled in November 1993.
However, it is an important museum to visit and does spotlight a huge turning point in the history of this glorious city.