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Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

  • Daniel Schearf

As thousands of migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experience with war and refugees.

Tens of thousands died in the country’s early 1990s war of independence from Yugoslavia, and hundreds of thousands turned into refugees.

The town of Vukovar, not far from the migrant trail, suffered a particularly nasty siege, and its scars are still visible today.

At Vukovar's war cemetery, a memorial prayer honors some of the many who were killed.

Even the Church of Saints Philip and James suffered desecration and shelling, while priests and nuns were taken away and executed.

"They were promised to be returned in an hour, but nobody ever returned to the monastery or church," said Ivica Jagodic, a Franciscan friar at the Catholic church.

Patients and staff were moved from the town's besieged hospital, now a museum, to a nearby village. They, too, were executed and buried in a mass grave.

The scars of Vukovar's past evoke sympathy for the thousands passing through Croatia as they flee today's wars in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

"The refugees should be helped," said Manda Mercep, a retiree living in the town. "We also used to be exiled people. We had to leave from Vukovar."

Jagodic, the friar, said his townspeople "know what it means and we fully understand the Syrian refugees, especially those families with children."

While the town continues to rebuild, tourists and schoolchildren arrive from across Croatia to learn about the suffering and human cost of war.

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