The southern Yugoslav republic of Montenegro had claimed for some time that the Dubrovnik area should be a part of its territory despite the fact that the population was more than 80% Croatian. They saw the secession of Croatia from the Yugoslav Federation as the excuse to invade. In this they were supported by Serbia who had several brigades of the JNA (the Serbian dominated Yugoslav National Army) in their country.
On 1st October 1991 JNA forces from Montenegro invaded the area south of Dubrovnik as far as Cavtat which is only about six miles from the Old City. In doing so they over-ran the international airport at Cilipi and looted the navigational equipment. A Serbian frigate was patrolling the Kolocep Channel to the north and so Dubrovnik was effectively cut off from the outside world and the rest of Croatia.
In addition to the resident population of the city (approximately 50,000) there were a further 55,000 refugees from other parts of the country crowded into the city with no means of escape. To these could be added a small number ot tourists who had failed to leave before the attack got under way. All these people soon suffered further privations with the cutting off of the fresh food, water and electricity supplies by the invaders who now completely surrounded the landward side of the city.
By 5th October the JNA had occupied the high land around Dubrovnik. Instead of invading the city and engaging in direct combat with the pitifully small defence forces which manned the ancient walls, the army chose to start shelling the Old City. On the first day they succeeded in killing the local poet Milan Milosic.
Despite an international outcry, the attacks continued. The heaviest shelling took place on the 6th December – known as the St Nicholas Day Bombardment – which killed 13 civilians and injured more than 60. By the time the shelling ceased in early 1992 more than 500 buildings in the Old City had been damaged (about two thirds of the total number) and a dozen or so had been totally destroyed. Under the circumstances it was remarkable, and a tribute to the solidity of the ancient buildings, that the human toll of lives wasn’t very much higher.
Some relief was received in November when about 2000 refugees were rescued by sea and a partial ceasefire occurred at the end of December which relieved the city from the worst of the shelling. Croatian forces were able to enter the area in April and the outbreak of the much more serious war in neighbouring Bosnia Herzegovina removed the pressure on Dubrovnik. In July the warring forces agreed to withdraw and allow a United Nations supervisory commission to take over the area. But despite generous donations from around the world it took ten years and cost more than ten million dollars to restore the damage of those few months.
Next week I will tell you about the beautiful nearby Island of Mljet which features in Dancing with Spies.