AIM: start

SUN, 24 FEB 2002 20:34:22 GMT

Vukovar: Ethnic Divisions Begin in Kindergarten

AIM Zagreb, February 18, 2002

Since the reconstructed Vukovar kindergarten called Centar opened in the end of January, its 150 youngsters pass through the entrance door every morning and after just a few steps, they separate into two groups which then go each in its own direction. Little Croats go to the left wing of the building, and little Serbs to the right. Their teachers and their headmistresses are separated in a similar way. In the kindergarten the only thing they have in common is the entrance and the roof, everything else is strictly divided, just as everything in the city is strictly divided. In Vukovar people know exactly which cafe is Serb and which is Croat, which general store is held by a Croat, and which belongs to a Serb; everybody knows who listens to Radio Danube and who to Croat Radio Vukovar, everybody knows that classes in elementary schools are separated to Serb and Croat ones, who salutes others with "ciao" and who greets others by saying "God".

Centar kindergarten has joined in the deep division of Vukovar, so if the children's department of Vukovar hospital is not going to be shut down as often mentioned in the past few days in connection with the reform of the health services, the only thing that remains to be done is to divide the maternity unit in order to prevent the Croats and the Serbs from meeting in the same premises at the moment of birth.

However, not even the fact that in Vukovar small children of Croat and Serb ethnic origin go to the kindergarten under the same roof although strictly separated and without any possibility of contact and communication cannot pass without problems. A part of the parents of Croat children have signed a petition and announced protests in front of the kindergarten if their demands are not met. With a chaotic content and controversial demands, the petition requires that the same curriculum be applied in the whole kindergarten and that Croatian language be spoken in it, and a part of the parents do not wish their children to go to the same kindergarten little Serbs attend whatever the cost. Vukovar is, therefore, facing the reality of Northern Ireland where religious animosity is tragically coming down on the children like a ton of bricks.

The president of the local Croat Party of Right took his child out of the kindergarten in demonstration, and as a sign of protest because the authorities tolerate such a state of affairs, he resigned to the post of the member of the city council. A group of parents announced similar moves, but for the time being they are just not bringing their children to the kindergarten, but still have not taken them out altogether.

"There is no such thing as a 'Serb curriculum' in the kindergarten. There is only one curriculum, the Croatian curriculum, and the only difference is that we speak Serbian. But it is also compulsory for the children to speak Croatian language for two hours every day. The Ministry of Education has given its approval for that and we have it enclosed with our registration. For us it is the law", says the headmistress of the Serb part of the kindergarten, Slavka Loncar.

Hilda Marija Devcic, headmistress of the Croat part of the kindergarten, claims the same, noting, as if wishing to apologize in advance, that the children are completely separated and have no possibility of contact: "Both kindergartens work according to the Croatian curriculum, the only thing that distinguishes them is the language. We apply the Croatian curriculum in Croatian language, and in the other part of the kindergarten attended by the children of Serb ethnic origin, Croatian curriculum is carried out in Serbian language, the language of the Serb ethnic minority".

That is how in Vukovar, four years after the completion of the peaceful reintegration of this region into the Constitutional and legal system of the Republic of Croatia (the reintegration was completed on January 15, 1998, after the two-year period of transitional administration under the control of the United Nations) nothing has changed in the establishment of inter-ethnic confidence. The Croats and the Serbs, nowadays almost equal in numbers, live side-by-side, building two parallel, completely separate worlds.

The Vukovar Srijem district is the only one in which the Croat Democratic Union (HDZ) won in the elections in the beginning of 2000. The same mayor, Vladimir Stengl, remained at the head of the city, who is known for his not really tolerant declarations about the coexistence of the Croats and the Serbs. When on November 18 last year, with a grand march from Vukovar Hospital to the Memorial Cemetery in the suburb where Croat victims of the defence of Vukovar were buried, the tenth anniversary of the fall of this city was commemorated, mayor Stengl called the local Serbs to remain at home and let the Croats honour that day on their own.

Stengl seems to have wished to prevent and it seemed that it would not suit him at all if in the march in memory of 200 Croat wounded defenders from Vukovar Hospital executed at the nearby Ovcara farm where they were shot by the members of Serb paramilitary units, a single Serb appeared who shared in the grief with the families of the victims of this terrible crime.

"There is still no place for the Serbs in the march to honour Vukovar victims, even if they do come", repeated mayor Stengl a few days ago in an interview to Rijeka seated Novi list. As if he feared the repetition of the gesture made by Rade Leskovac, Vukovar Serb, president of the small Party of the Danube-Region Serbs, when with several of his party colleagues, he laid a wreath on the grave of the Croat defenders on the anniversary of the fall of Vukovar.

The manner in which Stengl reflects is also illustrated by his stand uttered concerning the demand of the Serb minority for special classes for the Serb students in the recently reconstructed Vukovar high school. "Among the Croats a firm stand prevails that certain things cannot be tolerated; among other in the high school that was demolished by the Serbs there can be no Serb classes. They have the right to the teaching in their language, but this would be too much". Stengl, therefore, not only acts as the mayor of only the citizens of Vukovar of Croat ethnic origin, but also does not wish individualization of the guilt for the destruction of Vukovar and believes that all Serbs should equally suffer for that crime, including the students of high school who were just pre-school children at the time the war raged.

Vukovar is paying dearly for the policy of ethnic narrow-mindedness, intolerance, even stirring up hostility. The international community is very restrained in offering aid for the reconstruction of the city, aware that there is no political will there to build the future of Vukovar and the region around it on the principles of multiethnicity, mutual tolerance and the policy of forgiveness. The kindergarten mentioned in the beginning of this story and the high school from its end were both reconstructed with the money the two Croatian districts scraped together with great effort after late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman triumphantly arrived in Vukovar by the Train of Peace in June 1997 during the process of peaceful reintegration. In festive atmosphere and surrounded by unprecedented pomp that accompanied similar Tudjman's visits to the once occupied regions, it was agreed over champagne that each Croatian district reconstruct one significant building the work of which could normalize life in Vukovar, stimulate return and speed up the process of reconstruction. Although the reconstruction of these buildings should have been completed in the shortest possible time, it dragged on because of the lack of money, so the mentioned kindergarten and high school were completed just a few weeks and months ago, respectively. But a big part of the reconstruction agreed at the time has not been completed to this day.

Vukovar is still in the vicious circle of its divisions in which reconstruction is practically at a standstill, in which the unemployment rate, frightening as it is in the other parts of Croatia, is double, in which there are no serious projects of reconstruction of the economy and in which only two things are making progress: deepening of interethnic division and general hopelessness that normal life will ever be possible.

Drago Hedl