Chequered rooftops symbolise Dubrovnic's post-war renewal

A fire-blackened cow strays into a hotel lobby; a teenager bombs the city where his family seeks refuge - two bizarre events that epitomised the senseless bombing of Dubrovnic which began nineteen years ago today. By Malachy Browne
Video and image gallery 

On this week in 1991 the London Independent ran the emotive story of 19-year-old Pero Tomusic, a Croatian conscript to the Federal Army of Yugoslavia. Tomusic had begun compulsory duty with the (mostly Serbian and Montenegran) army in March 1991. Croatia was on a wave of nationalist fervour having toppled the Communist Party in the first ever multi-party elections a year earlier. The new Croatian government declared independence from Yugoslavia in June 1991. With independence sought elsewhere in the Balkans and with 600,000 Serbs living in Croatia where tensions ran along ethno-religious lines, the Yugoslav Federation fiercely resisted Croatia's bid.

Tomusic's unit was stationed on the mountains above Dubrovnic just inside the border with Bosnia-Hercegovina. A cease-fire was in place, and he desperately hoped it would last. Tomusic's mother, father, brothers and sisters were forced from their village of Vitaljina when it was occupied by the army some weeks earlier. They now took refuge in the city below.

Although deployed with a unit of mostly Serb and Montenegran comrades, Tomusic was charged with manning the artillery fire and held the keys to the ammunition. A Catholic, he told the Independent: "I haven't had time to pray much recently but I'm praying I don't have to open fire on a city where my whole family is sheltered."

His prayers went unanswered. From 1 October, Dubrovnic was shelled indiscriminately from the mountains and sea. Water and electricity were cut off. The old town – a UNESCO World Heritage site – was badly damaged. Seventy per cent of the buildings within the city walls were struck. The arterial barrage would continue intermittently for months (see video below).

The attacks were condemned worldwide. Situated on a narrow strip of coastal land beneath the mountainous border with Bosia-Hercegovina, Dubrovnic and its surrounds were isolated and poorly defended. The Yugoslav army had erected land blockades during the summer of 1991, this preventing access to Croatian reinforcements. The Federal navy patrolled the Dalmatian coast and airspace was controlled. Meagre forces were left to to defend Dubrovnic, and many local men were drafted to fight.

One man in the picturesque fishing village of Cavtat, 12km south of Dubrovnic, described how locals used unconventional means to counter attack Yugoslav forces. Motorised fishing and sailing boats were mounted with mortar launchers, taken by night into the bay and propelled landward. This gave the added momentum to lob mortars into the Yugoslav troops camped above the village.

Tomusic's family were among thousands of refugees who fled the countryside to Dubrovnic. The Guardian newspaper reported from one hotel where doctors treated 1,200 refugees. Scarce water forced them to clean their hands in alcohol, wounds could not be stitched and instruments went unsterilized.

The airport to the south was ransacked by the Federal army, and the picturesque village of Cavtat was looted and burned. One refugee who passed through Cavtat while fleeing reported (in the Guardian):

"There were about 1,000 people in the Hotel Croatia. They were without food, water or medicine. I saw a fire-blackened cow walk into the hotel lobby. The army knew where the refugees were: they were shooting at the hotels. They did it on purpose. I saw them flying in a white helicopter like (the one used by) the European monitors. People came out to see and then planes followed and they started shooting. This is not a war: it's just destruction and robbery."

Dubrovnic-born Veronika Duda was thirteen when her city was shelled. Now in her early thirties, she is the public relations manager at Hotel Croatia where people forced from the nearby villages sheltered. She recalls those months inside the city enthusiastically.

"For us as children we were very well protected by our parents," she says. "But I remember the necessities we didn't have during that period. Electricity and water were cut off so we were living like the Middle Ages."

"When it was possible, we had to go and fetch the water from the tank organised by the town. I had long hair even then; my mother said: 'If you want to wash your hair, you have to carry your own water'. It took at least five litres to wash my hair!

"We were bathing in the sea all the time; even in December I remember bathing in the sea. When there was silence, when there was no bombing; quickly to the car while we still had some oil, to the sea, mother would wash dishes and us children would be bathing. You couldn't imagine that in the 20th Century!"

It was an exciting time she says, but the theft of humanitarian food that was resold at extortionate prices meant her family often went hungry.

"The people who were selling humanitarian aid really [made] a bundle during the war. They were selling potatoes and ordinary stuff like that at ridiculous prices."

"When we left our agricultural way of living – it was abandoned years and years ago in this region – the people began to grow small quantities of food for themselves. We left the land and we didn't have any food to live on during that scarce period."

"When the electricity went out we had to eat very quickly whatever we had in our freezers because it was going to be spoiled in a couple of days. So you can imagine [what it was like] after that," she says with a hearty chuckle.

By April of 1992 after negotiations with the Federal Army, electricity and water were restored for two hours a day.

"When everything was lit up again we were terrified by how our houses looked," Veronika says. "Everything was completely black because we were using candles – we never used candles before. And stoves for food. And burning anything in the houses to keep warm. So you can imagine it was black and dirty and we were horrified."

"It looked terrible," she laughs. "And we looked terrible too."

Tourists and diplomats were evacuated from Croatia in late summer 1991 as the Yugoslav forces began to erect blockades and violence broke out in parts. It would be a decade before foreigners returned in such numbers. Hotel Croatia in the village of Cavtat, 12km south of Dubrovnic was one of many hotels where refugees were housed after their homes were destroyed; it reopened in 1997 as tourist numbers began to climb.

By 2001 the industry was booming again with almost 8 million visitors. In 2009 almost 11 million came. 

And yet the industry has still not reached its pre-war capacity. The Croatian Fund for Privatisation responsible for redeveloping state-owned facilities has been dogged with inefficiencies, poor investment decisions orders and wrangling over land ownership. Land speculation by western investors, ownership battles between the Balkan states, and unresolved landholdings of the former Yugoslav army have meant that many sites remain idle. Western companies bought land cheaply after the war, and sold it on undeveloped at a profit. Only 60% of the hotels that stood in 1991 Croatia have been restored.

"It's a pity," Veronika says, "because there are no visitors coming to these areas. This is holding us back, you know?"

But with an estimated 10% increase in tourists for 2010, Dubrovnic is doing alright. The 480-room Hotel Croatia in Cavtat was fully occupied this August. Seeing the city this year, it is difficult to believe such destruction was wrought so recently [see video below]. Some 70% of the buildings in Old Town Dubrovnic were bombed in 1991; more would have been obliterated were it not for the 5m thick city walls that have guarded the fortress-like town for the last millennium.

Walking the 2km perimeter atop these walls is a worthwhile experience – and not simply to escape the summertime heat and hoards of visitors who  pack the narrow streets and alleys. Rising at points to 25m, a patchwork of yellow and red rooftops sprrawls out below. This chequerboard of clay is a permanent reminder of the bombardment. Yellow-ochre tiles kilned at a nearby river were once used to build Old Dubrovnic and villages like Cavtat. But by the 1990s these were no longer produced and red terracotta tiles replaced the destroyed roofs.

In the houses and the streets below is a city bustling with family and commercial life. Against the duel backdrops of the mountains and azure Adriatic, it's a unique place. UNESCO chose well.

Photo Gallery: Photos from War Museum in Dubrovnic and taken by author

Video of the bombardment from 1991