Today Sherrylee and I walked along the beautiful Danube River in a small town in Croatia you have never heard of called Vukovar. We ate at a local pizzeria, then because it was an unusually sunny, warm day, we decided to walk over to the war memorial cross, thinking this was probably another WWII memorial. Not true!
In 1991, the beautiful little town of Vukovar was demolished by shelling, leveled by bombing, and finally massacred as the first victim of the breakup of Yugoslavia after the death of Tito. Located just within the borders of Croatia, Vukovar had been home to a minority of Croatian Serbians. The Serbian minority was fearful of what their ancient enemies the Croats might do to them if Croatia became an independent state, so they called on Serbia to “liberate” them. Serbia saw this as an opportunity to gain new territory and to weaken, if not completely overrun, the new Croatian state.
And so the Serbs invaded Croatia, layed siege to Vukovar, and in August 1991, launched as many as 12,000 shells per day into the city. By November, the obliterated city surrendered, but even this did not bring an end to the horror. Croatian prisoners of war as well as approximately 300 hospital patients were taken out to a farm and shot, then buried in a mass grave. Then 31,000 Croatians were expelled from their homes, one more horrible case of ethnic cleansing—and not the last.
Not until 1998 did Vukovar regain its independence, and in 1999, Croatian refugees began coming back to their homes under the watch of UN peacekeepers. Today, the city is only about half the size it was in 1991, much less prosperous, and once again Croatians and Serbs are living in the same city—but not together!
The Croats and Serbs are segregated both legally and socially. Separate schools, separate neighborhoods, separate alphabets, even separate churches. The war memorials are all for Croatian victims, the parades and the holidays are Croatian, so the Croatian Serbs are at best marginalized and at worst hated.
Does this sound similar to the Russian/Ukranian conflict now? What about the plight of Israeli Palestinians? And then, of course, we know what happened in Rwanda– and the ongoing crisis in Sudan, and . . . does the story never end? Even the rising racial tension in the U.S. contains hateful elements of this story.
About six years ago, a couple of Croatian Christians moved by themselves to Vukovar to bring the Peace of Christ. They were not really trained church planters; rather, they just loved people both Croats and Serbs! They have not been successful in starting a church, but they have been very successful in creating a movement called Dolina Blagoslova, or The Valley of Blessings. They host special events, they host radio programs—even local cable-TV programs—promoting what is good, pure, wholesome, peaceful—yes, peaceful for both Croats and Serbs. Their goal is to win the hearts and minds of good people in Vukovar by doing what is good and thereby prepare the way for the Prince of Peace. The Valley of Blessing program is known by Croats and Serbs throughout the city as a peace movement and has built up a strong reputation.
In the last few months, the churches of Christ in Croatia have come along side this work and have agreed to provide new funds for a meeting place as well as the impetus and vision for expansion. We were invited there to bring the Let’s Start Talking program as a small part of this new impetus.
I was watching a documentary on the Ukrainian crisis the other night and amidst all the bullets and bombs, one young woman cries out, “After all these centuries, have we not learned a better way of settling our differences than killing each other?”
Our politicians want either to build walls or to show strength, neither of which sounds very Christ-like to me. I’m convinced that when the angels announced Peace on earth that the One they were announcing is the only way to peace. And in the very face of scourging, abuse, and executions, His words were of forgiveness, not of retaliation.
The hope for reconciliation in Vukovar is the same as the hope for peace in Ukraine or Sudan or Israel or Syria or . . . . Our sole hope is that the Prince of Peace is victorious.
And He is!
That is our only message.