You have to be crazy to enter a war zone. I was. But I brought my Nikon 8008.
In 1992, I believed that I had been guided by the Holy Spirit to leave my wife for three months and help the peace groups that were struggling against the nationalists in former Yugoslavia. With her permission, I boarded a plane for Paris and took the train to Zagreb, Croatia by way of Vienna. The war had not touched Zagreb. But a couple of days into my stay, I got the opportunity to visit Osijek, a university town on the inland, eastern horn of the country.
The first thing I saw coming out of the train station was a house with a gaping hole in it. Next to it, the police station had lost only a few windows. A sign called upon Europe to help. In the email letter I sent to my Quaker meeting back in the United States, I wrote:
“Piles of broken clay shingles and plaster stand on the edges of the street. The medieval houses and socialist-era apartment buildings bear the huge abrasions and gashes made by bullets, bombs and heavy artillery shells. The guns have shattered the treetops. Most shops remain boarded up. What has happened here is so obvious and what cannot be told by simply witnessing the damage is readily told to you by the people you meet.”
At a cemetery, I met a Belgian Jesuit praying at the grave of a young woman who had died on the night that she became sick of the shelling and slept in her own bed. My host told me about a bomb piercing the walls of a condo, but leaving two sleeping children unharmed. A doctor showed me the remains of the apartment where her neighbor had lived, which the Serbs had randomly emptied with a shell. I saw these kinds of things again and again.
But they did not prepare me for Vukovar.
Vukovar and Osijek were towns that epitomized the Yugoslav ideal, where Croats lived next to Serbs, where everyone got along. Some say the nationalists in Beograd and Zagreb simply could not allow such places to exist. But it was the Jugoslav National Army (JNA) directed by the Serbian president Slobodan Miloševic that wreaked most of the damage.
There was not a single building in Vukovar that had not been touched. "The train station, the factories, the houses, the shops, the apartment buildings, the kiosks — EVERYTHING has been scarred or demolished by the heavy fighting. Ten months after the JNA overran this city, there is no avoiding the evidence of the destruction of Vukovar…
“Serbs live in Vukovar today. You cannot help but look around and wonder what they find to do. Vukovar has lost all of its industry, its riverport, its businesses. The only place to spend money that we found were two cafes: one in the center of town and one on the riverfront, facing Vojvodina. Here and there is a house which the current residents were able to fix, an apartment building whose holes could be patched.”
Silence ruled the day. My sleep, however, would be haunted by deep red artillery blasts. I could not forget these towns even if I wanted to. The bipolar disorder which had driven me to Croatia and Serbia would remain undiagnosed for another thirteen years. But I and maybe others can be grateful that my brilliant madness led me to bring a camera along, to record the terrible power of our “conventional” weapons, and maybe make us think the next time we come to a juncture when war seems to be the only answer.
Twenty years later, I still hear the guns.