There was a kind of sadness about him—the sadness of one who has witnessed terrible things in life. His soft voice hinted of both a deep humility and a passion for the things of which he spoke.
“There are certain things that happen in war that you expect,” said Želiko, current mayor of Vukovar. “But then there are crimes committed that cannot be accepted and seem impossible to forgive.” In 1991, Vukovar had been under siege by the Serbian forces for months. Eventually, the city fell to the Serbian army, but it was after the surrender that over 1000 people disappeared or were killed. For an undetermined reason, soldiers took over 200 patients from the hospital in Vukovar to an outside location and shot all of them. Such past atrocities render the seemingly normal bustling of Serbs and Croats outside in the streets anything but ordinary.
The fact that Želiko was elected mayor of Vukovar in 2009 was an extraordinary occurrence in its own right. Not part of either the Serbian nationalist or the Croatian nationalist party, both parties consequently attempted to discredit him. Since he had obtained his degree at an evangelical seminary, neither parties recognized it as legitimate.* As for Želiko, he knew the odds were heavily against him. He purchased a small boat so that he and his wife could calmly sail away after the elections and let the political parties devour one another.
Strangely enough, he did win and was even voted last year as the most “honest mayor in Croatia.” In November 2010, he was instrumental in arranging a meeting between the Serbian President and the Croatian President in Vukovar, where the Serbian President offered a public apology for Vukovar for the first time. Afterwards, the political parties arranged a sudden election to try to oust Želiko, but he won by an even larger margin.
“I am deeply convinced that God exists and He has revealed himself to me,” Želiko’s eyes held my gaze, his quiet intensity compelling my rapt attention. ” I experienced a deep sense of the presence of God through all of this.” These words were far from empty platitudes, seeing that he had been captured after the city fell and tortured by Serbian soldiers. The Croats of the city went into forced exile for 8 years until U.N. negotiations made it possible for reintegration of the city.
“Serbs lived in Vukovar for the eight years while everyone else was in exile, having gone through hell. Well, now we have to live together. Would you not be afraid? Would you not be tempted for revenge if unable to forgive?” Here, a small smile crossed Želiko’s face. “Would you believe that in 13 years, there has been no crime or incident of revenge related to the war? Forgiveness can allow coexistence, but restoring trust and confidence and trust between neighbors will take much longer. That is our biggest challenge now.”
Vukovar has been called a hero city and “God’s miracle” because of its peaceful reintegration. In this day and age when conflicts rage across the globe, when bad news remains in our memories much longer than good news, Želiko wants the world to see and remember what can spring from destruction–that victory can come from victimhood and that redemption can be a strong foundation for the future. It is because of these hopes that Želiko’s little boat remains patiently waiting in the Vukovar harbor.
*This is because he did not get his theology degree either at a Croatian Catholic Seminary or a Serbian Orthodox Seminary.
Please check out my photos of my visit: Vukovar Photos
For more reading on the historic meeting: