yugoslav civil wars

BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA. Sarajevo. December 14, 2016. A Bosnian woman holds a banner during a solidarity rally. Up to a thousand people gathered in Sarajevo, a city that became synonymous with civilian suffering during the Balkan wars of 1990′s, to express solidarity with the civilian victims of Aleppo.

Photograph: Amel Emric/AP

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August 25, 1991 - The Battle of Vukovar begins.

During the Yugoslav period, the city of Vukovar was prosperous and ethnically mixed - it lies on the Croatian side of the border between what were then the Socialist Republics of Croatia and Serbia. As Yugoslavia began to disintegrate, both Croatian and Serbian villages in the region formed local militias and set up roadblocks to keep out members of the other ethnic group. Sporadic violence broke out in Vukovar and the surrounding villages.

On May 19, 1991, voters in Croatia passed a referendum to declare independence from Yugoslavia. The level of violence increased. Both Serbian and Croatian villages in the Vukovar area were ethnically cleansed by paramilitary groups. By July, two armed forces had assembled to fight over the city - a collection of Croatians and their allies on one side, and the vastly more numerous Yugoslav National Army (JNA) and Serb paramilitaries on the other.

The battle was long and ugly. Morale was low - the JNA was formed of conscripts from all over Yugoslavia (including Croatia) and many had no desire to fight other Yugoslavs. For 87 days, the JNA surrounded the city and rained bombs around the city. Most residents had fled before the fighting began in earnest, but the several thousand that remained behind hid in shelters for weeks at a time.

On November 18, the Croatians and their allies surrendered, and people hiding in basements emerged to find their city almost completely destroyed. Approximately 90% of homes were ruined, and soldiers were systematically looting the city. Hundreds of civilian survivors were massacred in a vicious war crime.

Although Yugoslavia won the battle, many people consider the battle to be a turning point in the Croatian War of Independence. A ceasefire was called only a few weeks later.

Today, Vukovar (which was returned to Croatia in 1998) remains scarred by the battle. Between 1991 and 2001 it lost nearly 40% of its population, and although it remains a multiethnic city, those communities are deeply segregated, with separate schools and other institutions for Croats and Serbs.