Travel with kids - Croatia: Vukovar, where my kids learn about war

We are sitting at an outdoor table of a restaurant on the banks of the Danube River; it is sunny and warm and very pretty here.

Appetites have been worked up - for the past couple of hours this morning we have been walking around and we are all hungry. The kids’ moods lift as food arrives and before long we are all well fed and cheery. Only moments before the kids and I were quite sombre following time spent at local war memorials.

We are in Vukovar, a Croatian town on the confluence of the Vuka and Danube rivers. The boys and I are here with my brother, my cousin and his wife. I point across the river and tell the kids that over on the other bank, that’s a whole other country just over there called Serbia. Remember how long it took to get here from Australia? See how close that is? Now that they have some concept of distance, they're intrigued.

In very recent history, just 23 years ago, this area was a war zone, in the midst of the Croatian War of Independence.

In a lovely little corner of our lovely peaceful lives, the word “war” is something that seems like a word thrown around by politicians and headlines but it's not really real, not to us and our daily cooking and shopping and craft and dog walking and computer games and work and school.

How do I tell Mr 8 and Mr 5 the reasons that the Vukovar water tower is heavily damaged? There was a war here, I say. But what do they (and I for that matter) really understand about it? Mr 8 can rattle off phrases like ANZAC Day and Lest We Forget. I know what I see on the news and read in papers and history books. I offer full gratitude to those who fought and those who continue to protect our freedom. But our experience of war ends there, and I hope with all my heart that that will always be the case.

While the town is still rebuilding, the Vukovar water tower will remain in its damaged state to serve as a memorial. There are other reminders - buildings which have not yet been repaired, and other memorials.

My cousin takes us to the OvĨara Memorial Centre, a few kilometres out of town. It was originally a pig farm where during the war around 260 men, women and children seeking refuge in a local hospital were shot and buried in a mass grave. A simple plaque reads “Oprostiti, nikad zaboraviti” – Forgive, never forget.

Heading into the memorial centre, the concrete floor has been laid with original bullet casings found on-site. It is here that my boys go quiet. I sense solemnity in the kids and I let them be.

Inside the centre is simple – kept dark as it was on that day, with images of the victims on the walls which are illuminated alternately, the few possessions they had with them displayed in cases set in the floor along the walls.

Further down the road we come to the Vukovar Memorial Cemetary. We read the dates on the headstones 1991, 1991, 1991.

There are some reminders which can only be felt. Both Croats and Serbs died here, and today both still live here. And still today Vukovar is divided - cafes, residential areas, businesses - Croatians and Serbians keep themselves separate. I can't help but feel - I don’t know - I'm not sad, as such, but there is something of it still remaining in the air. The war is recent history. There are still ruins, people missing a limb or eye, friends and family (including my own) missing loved ones. Scars still remain - on buildings, on people's skin, in their hearts.

We’ve finished lunch and as we head out of Vukovar we stop to photograph sunflowers (not poppies) on the side of the road.

Julia xo

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