On the tenth anniversary of the fall of Vukovar Zvezdana Polovina, saying with a smile that despite everything she is a normal woman, for the first time publicly talks about the events that charted her fate, as well as the fates of other residents of Vukovar. Today Zvezdana Polovina lives in Zagreb and works for the marketing agency "Lowe Lintas Digital".
SLOBODNA DALMACIJA: When did you notice that something serious was brewing in Vukovar?
POLOVINA: I experienced first indications of a general change in the atmosphere in the city a few months before the incident in Borovo Selo. Namely, the listeners started calling and cursing us and demanding that we play nationalist songs, which hadn't happened before. After the murder of Croat policemen in Borovo Selo, people stopped going to well known excursion spots near Vukovar. Fear took hold of the city.
A few days after those events, local buses stopped running, and when the local public transportation again started running, there were very few buses. Scared by stories that new groups of Croatian policemen were arriving, women and children from Borovo Selo escaped to Vojvodina. However, they returned after several days, but the residents of Borovo Selo stopped coming to Vukovar.
My acquaintances were horrified by those murders. Rumors spreading through the city helped spread panic. A day later Ante Markovic, the federal Prime Minister at the time, came to Vukovar. Branko went to film that visit and told me that Markovic failed to mediate between Croat and Serb leaders, who fought in front of him as if he weren't there. At that point many realized that no one could prevent forthcoming events, and a mortar attack on Borovo Naselje started only two months later. Only when I arrived in Zagreb I found out that that attack was preceded by a provocation, mortar fire from Osijek at Borovo Selo.
What was your average work day like after the point when you had to move to a shelter? How did you get food, drink, go to bathroom?
Starting with August 25, the date of the first aircraft attack on Vukovar, all the time until the beginning of September, we could still visit our houses from time to time, on foot or by car, have a bath, pick up clean clothes and so on. We first set up shelter on the second floor of the building at 16 Marshal Tito street, where the offices and broadcast studio of the Croatian Radio Vukovar were located.
After our building received a direct hit, we became aware of the destructive force of the grenades and moved under the staircase, where we put together an improvised studio, one by two meters in size. We slept on mattresses, and there was still food at that time. The city residents had already organized and for example, supplies from NAMA were moved and stored at a safe spot and distributed in the shelters.
We welcomed our friends Ivan and Marija Smit with glee. They would sometimes bring freshly prepared food, and entertain us with their stories. At that time the bombardment did not go on all the time, especially not at night, so that we played cards and sang in the evening. We somehow took care of personal hygiene, washed ourselves with water from plastic bottles, or with wet paper towels. Sinisa kept our morale high; he sometimes made up stories to improve our mood.
At that time we tried to deal with our difficult situation through black humor, so that one of the topics of discussion was what to do if Chetniks caught us. We made up appropriate conspiratorial names. Sinisa was Simo, and we already called Branko Brane. We practiced songs for that occasion, so that Partisan songs from WWII could be heard frequently under the staircase. Toilet was a problem. We had the choice between a safe, but stinky spot inside the building, or outside, where grenades were falling, so that Josip Esterajher joked that he did not want to have "died taking a dump" written on his grave.
At first mostly men went outside, while women obtained information using the phone. Later we, women, also had to go to the hospital or to the headquarters where we would get the most important information. At the headquarters we communicated with the commander, at first with Mile Dedakovic, and then with Branko Borkovic. They did not have to point out which news were not for publication, because we were aware of that already. Sinisa was really talented and was a mentor to all of us.
He demanded from us to keep writing and rewriting our reports, until he was totally satisfied. Besides reporting the facts, the reports had to appeal to the emotions of the listeners and prompt a reaction by the political leadership. He had a habit of saying: "If our report is not the first one in the block of local news, we've failed." Until October 15 we broadcast for most of the day, we had live feeds whenever we had something to report, and when we could not talk about the situation in the city, for the sake of protection of the local residents, we talked about the attacks, the number of fired grenades, rockets, and we reserved generic formulas for the description of the situation.
At that time we still received visits by journalists from abroad. I remember that a colleague from the Italian newspaper "Corriere della sera" was at first disappointed by the scene in Vukovar; I guess he expected to see Warsaw [in WWII]. However, after spending a night in the city and experiencing the bombardment personally, he changed his opinion.
Soldiers who wanted to hear what was happening elsewhere in the city regularly came to our improvised studio. We also learned a lot from them, for example, that hand-to-hand combat was taking place in Sajmiste. At that point we realized that we had to move to a safer place. Of course, safer in the Vukovar sense of the word.
Where was your new shelter?
On October 15 the building at 16 Tito street was gravely damaged. At that time Alenka Mirkovic, Esterajher, Seremet and I were in the building. People who were running away from Sajmiste told us that that location had been captured and that they were withdrawing towards the center of the city. We followed them on foot towards the center and realized that the building of the Workers hall was on fire. Our studio was located there at peace time.
We found a new shelter, actually a Vupik cellar, so that we were all set at least as far as wine and drinks were concerned. We had a very serious discussion about what to do next, because it was necessary to reorganize life and work. Namely, after a few days about eighty persons from a shelter in Sajmiste arrived to our cellar. They had an organized daily schedule in their old shelter, so that we had to introduce one in the cellar as well.
We agreed that Branko and I work for local needs and report into the program at 8am, 2pm and 8pm, to support and encourage people who would thereby know that Vukovar hadn't fallen. Others sent reports to other parts of the country and abroad. For a while food was brought in large factory pots, and it was prepared in "Borovo Komerc".
There was no hygiene in the new shelter. I think that I only once had a liter of water to "take a bath" in. We were dirty, but we got used to that. Out hair was literally glued together by the plaster that fell on us. A plastic bucket at the far end of the cellar served as a toilet, and drinking water was intermittently available from a reservoir in the yard. In the end we had to filter drinking water using gauze because tadpoles appeared in it.
I also recall that one night, when there was no bombardment, clusters of light rockets allowed us to see the skyline of the destroyed Vukovar, and the eerie silence was broken by loudspeakers directed towards the city, belting out Serb nationalist songs.
Systematic censorship started once we started criticizing political leadership, including the government, parliament and Tudman, blaming them for what could happen, and did finally happen. We criticized their failure to provide assistance, send military supplies. We were convinced that they had already written us off. Their excuse for censorship was that we were getting too emotional in our reports. The instructions from Zagreb demanded that comments be left out of our reports.
We could watch TV in the headquarters and that's how we learned whether the HTV did cut something out of our reports or not. The whole Vukovar, including the Crisis Headquarters and the local administration supported our style of reporting. We tried to convince the editors at the HTV that the situation in Vukovar was very complex, but we realized that they were prisoners of some "higher" goals, which affected their ethics, both professional and human. We had disagreements about what to do next, but in the end the conclusion was that we had to continue with reporting. Sinisa told us that we were there above all for the people hiding in cellars, not for Zagreb or for ourselves.
I was seriously shaken up when a grenade hit the nearby cellar and killed ten persons. A gravely injured man, who died on the way to the hospital, managed to somehow reach our shelter and collapsed literally in front of me. All of that happened only ten minutes before I was supposed to go on air, so that I simply could not and someone had to take my place.
In early November the command of the city defense introduced an information blockade. However, we soon afterwards started reporting but, in agreement with them, we selected the media. Thus, for a while we only reported to Radio 101. The last report, informing the public that Vukovar had fallen and that negotiations about the evacuation of the people were ongoing, was sent by Sinisa on November 18, from the hospital.
Did you feel betrayed by the political leadership, and when did you start thinking about that intensively?
That feeling is related to the failure of the authorities to supply weaponry to the defense units, even though the fate of the city depended on that. After the total blockade of Vukovar, starting with November 1, the situation was critical. A week later Dedakovic managed to slip through the Serb lines, and after that he was based in Vinkovci. From Vinkovci we got news that there was no weaponry, while in Zagreb they at the same time claimed that weapons had been sent. We suspected that it had been agreed that Vukovar be surrendered.
At that time we did not understand what political goal could be achieved by the fall of Vukovar, and whether the fall of Vukovar was the price that had to be paid for the recognition of the independence of Croatia, or something else. I believed that no one had the right to sacrifice even a single human life for some political purposes.
We became aware that it was all over after the occupiers entered different parts of the city. We thought about out fate. Some of us advocated that we try to break through, some said that they would carry a hand grenade and detonate it if necessary.
The night between November 17 and 18 was the hardest one for me. Sinisa came back from the headquarters and very seriously explained that the complete headquarters intended to leave the city that night. Everyone realized that Vukovar had fallen. He said: "the path to Vinkovci is long and dangerous. The group that will leave the city includes guys who know the way and the terrain. We can go with them. Each one of you should decide what to do. I am going with them."
I knew that his decision would affect the rest of my life. Namely, Branko and Sinisa were not only good friends and colleagues. They were very close, and left the impression of being almost totally compatible. Both of them were strong personalities, individualists. However, trusting Sinisa's infallible intuition and his knowledge, Branko (meaning also me) decided to join him.
Sinisa went to the headquarters to check when we were supposed to leave. In the meantime, we prepared for the journey, filling our pockets with biscuits and tinned food. We were prepared for a journey to new life, or perhaps death. Sinisa returned after perhaps an hour and said: "The commanders left the headquarters, they haven't gotten further than 'Vienna castle' (best known café in Vukovar, author's remark).
"If you want, you can go with them. I've changed my mind. I'll stay." The whole night we discussed what to do and in the end most of us decided to stay, while Alenka Mirkovic and Josip Esterajher joined the break out attempt, because they thought that we were going to join them as well. Early evening on November 18 we went to the hospital, hoping that we would be safer there, and that we would leave the city in the convoy, which was the object of negotiations by Martin Vidic Bili, Dr. Vesna Bosanac, Andrija Hebrang, and General Andrija Raseta on the other side.
What was that day in the hospital like, and when did the occupiers break in? When were the men, most of whom were later killed in Ovcara, separated from the women? When did you see your husband for the last time?
In the hospital, I saw soldiers in uniforms with different insignia, some with Yugoslav People's Army, others with the Krajina Police signs. The latter mostly included local population. They started taking people away as early as on November 18, in the evening. We were informed about the negotiations and the agreement was that on November 20 at eight o'clock all of us had to leave the hospital.
Sinisa left the room at about 7:45 to see what was going on and when we were supposed to leave. That's the last time I saw him. Branko and I left at 8 o'clock through the back door of the hospital. We were greeted by Veselin Sljivicanin who shouted that nothing would happen to anyone, that he was an honorable YPA officer.
However, he started separating women from men. He said that the men would be questioned at the barracks, after which they would follow us to Zagreb. We stood in the courtyard of the hospital for a few hours and during that time we saw a group of men go around the corner of the hospital and later we heard that they were being taken to the barracks. Women and children were taken along the longest possible route through the city. I think they wanted us to see corpses lying in the streets.
They stopped near the entrance to the barracks where we waited for a while. After that we continued towards Serbia. Near Vukovar we passed through Serb villages and were very surprised to realize they still had street lighting, because we were convinced that the villages were as destroyed as the city. The bus did not have seats, so that we slept on the floor that night.
We first arrived in Novi Sad, and then were taken through Bosnia to Zagreb. We arrived in front of the "Intercontinental" Hotel, dirty, on November 22, in the morning. I think that "Intercontinental" was definitely not an appropriate destination for us.
On November 20, Cyrus Vance was in Vukovar, but Sljivicanin prevented him from approaching the hospital courtyard until the men were taken towards the barracks, along the street that went parallel with the one in which Vance was. I think that international organizations did nothing to prevent crimes that took place literally in front of their eyes.
After the arrival in Zagreb, you did not know anything about your husband's fate. Did you believe that he was alive?
I know that this is going to sound strange, but I was convinced that he was alive all the time, to the extent that I bought clothes for him for a long time afterwards. I bought clothes in different sizes, because I did not know what he would look like once he arrived. We had been married for only four months, and I probably could not accept such an end.
I first tried to find him through all sorts of institutions, both local and international, I wrote letters to ministers of foreign affairs of European countries. After getting no response, I switched to private channels, while in the end I even went to see soothsayers. I tried to check information from the newspapers about Sinisa, because I always tied his fate with that of Branko. In the end, they were found together in Ovcara. Thus, on one occasion in 1992, I even went to Belgrade looking for them.
Many were very surprised to hear me talking about why Branko and other prisoners had to be alive. My refusal to face the possibility that my husband was dead was so strong that I forbade my mother-in-law to give blood for DNA identification of found remains.
Waiting for identification results (results arrived on February 28, 1997) was the worst time, worse even than the burial. I tried to get ready, talking to women who had already been through that. I was also bothered by the degree of accuracy of the DNA identification procedure. But the evidence was conclusive.
I am glad to have a chance to visit some friends and go for a walk along the Danube, but I am bothered by some chance encounters in the streets, because I try to detect in the faces of passers by whether they were linked, and in what way, with the executions in Ovcara. I would feel better if someone was prosecuted for those crimes.
If you could return to 1991, what would you do?
Again marry Branko and leave on a very, very long honeymoon with him...
I'd hardly started working as a journalist when the war started. I was an announcer on the radio, which also included the job of a music editor and DJ. When the war started, many people from the station left the city, so that I had to take their role and start reporting news. I thought that it was better for Branko if I kept quiet. I was afraid of endangering his life.
On the other hand, other victims had many contacts with the media and it turned out that some of them were trying to make money from their tragedies. Seeking missing family members, some "found" apartments, were promoted to higher military ranks, and got higher salaries. I did not want to be one of them.