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Siege of Vukovar

Siege of Vukovar

It is without a doubt that the battle of Vukovar was one of the most monumental battles of the Yugoslav wars, a staggering siege characterised by immense material and structural damage, as well as civilian casualties.


Following abolishment of the one-party system in Yugoslavia, various nationalist organisations, movements and parties rose to prominence. Being an ethnically diverse region, Eastern Slavonia, together with the city of Vukovar saw many nationalist armed formations band together with the goal of securing their communities and settlements from their opponent’s control. Like dominoes, towns and villages all over Croatia aligned themselves with the government in Belgrade, receiving arms and equipment for the upcomning clashes.


The first clashes occurred in the villages around the city, road barricades were erected and shots were fired. The series of village skirmishes ended after an intervention of the Yugoslav people’s army but the fighting eventually culminated into a full blown battle for the city following Croatia’s declaration of independence.

The strategy of the Yugoslav people’s army gave Vukovar immense strategic importance, which is why a sizable force was deployed and tasked with taking the city. Having a more than favourable numerical advantage in men, artillery and air support the Yugoslav people’s army odds were high, though their struggle was made Pyrrhic by the dedicated Croatian defenders.


The defenders were around 1,800 men strong, their ranks made up of various guard units, paramilitaries and volunteers. The defenders were bolstered by several hundred police officers and over a thousand beleaguered citizens. The defenders were organised in a single unit manning six different frontline sectors, commanded by Mile Dedaković. The Croatian defenders were extremely underequipped and lacked the heavier guns and weapons to match those of the attackers.


On the other hand, Yugoslav-Serbian forces numbered more than 30,000 regular Yugoslav soldiers, joined by the paramilitaries of the Serbian government. The Yugoslav army had an overwhelming advantage in artillery, further supported by armoured, air and naval support from the navy’s river vessels.


In the opening stages of the battle the Yugoslav forces managed to surround the city from 3 sides while heavily shelling the Croatian positions in and around the city. As the city gained strategic and political importance, Yugoslav army command made it imperative to finally capture the city and relieve the defenders of the city’s JNA barracks before commencing further offensive operations elsewhere in Croatia.


The advance of the Yugoslav forces into the city was slow and costly, continuously hindered by the hit and run tactics of the defenders. The unconventional urban warfare proved to be a challenge to the units of the Yugoslav army, who were mostly trained for open country style mass assaults with armour and artillery support. Paired with mass desertion, this outlined the outdated and decaying state of the army in the years preceding the breakup of the country. Yugoslav tank units suffered greatly due to well positioned and utilised anti-tank defences of the defenders. The attackers were being continuously demoralised by their own losses, which prompted entire units to split up and desert en masse. This was solved by the Yugoslav forces’ new commander in the region. Lieutenant Colonel Panić, who was well aware of the low morale plaguing his men. Panić deployed a number of paramilitaries to help consolidate the units which suffered from desertion the most. The paramilitary volunteers were well-motivated and proved to be an effective asset for the attackers, especially at storming defensive positions and pushing back the defenders. Many paramilitary units on both sides, like the Arkan’s “Tigers” or Šešelj’s “White Eagles” made a name for themselves during the fighting.


There were attempts made by the Croatian forces to relieve the city, though they ultimately failed due to JNA’s organised defensive positions. The Yugoslav forces finally managed to cut the defenders’ positions in half and took the city on 18th November following Croatian surrender.


The consequences of the battle remain atrocious. The once flourishing multicultural town was reduced to rubble and ash, with many of its pre-war population expelled or scattered. The paramilitaries, fueled by nationalistic, political or material incentive, which weren’t accountable to JNA officers commmitted gruesome acts of murder and plunder. Hundreds of civilians and combatants were executed or imprisoned. Thousands of houses and flats were destroyed and millions of dollars of damage were caused. The remaining population of Vukovar kept living in miserable conditions and found it very hard to rebuild the city without proper funding and support.


Following Vukovar’s reintegration into Croatia, more serious reconstruction projects started. Today, the population is heavily divided as a consequence of the wartime events.