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Author Eva Glyn talks to a Dubrovnik Defender

15th February 2024

Author Eva Glyn talks to a Dubrovnik Defender

On 1st October 1991, Serbian and Montenegrin forces took the high ground above Dubrovnik and laid siege to the city, isolating it and over the ensuing months pouring down a barrage of fire and destruction. No help came from any outside quarter, and those who rose to protect it were called the Dubrovnik Defenders. In July 2022 I met one of these remarkable men.

We stand next to the Amerling Fountain and look up. All around us people swirl, a polyglot of tourists and guides, sunscreen and sweat, the bubble and brouhaha of holidays. Already the day is unseasonably hot, and we shade our eyes against the morning sunshine.

To the casual observer, we are looking in the wrong direction. Away from the sea, away from St Lawrence Fort. That’s what the heaving mass of humanity wants to see; not even for its own proud history. The clicks of the cameras and mobile phones are directed at King’s Landing’s Red Keep. And most will learn nothing of the real battle that took place a hundred and eighty degrees away and thirty-odd years ago.

Author Eva Glyn talks to a Dubrovnik Defender

Dubrovnik from Mount Srd

I remember the Balkan war in the ‘90s. The horror of it all; of Sarajevo and Srebenica, of genocide and ethnic cleansing. I remember the Siege of Dubrovnik too, almost the place where the fighting began, but I didn’t understand why. I still don’t, to this day. Not really.

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So we stand there, Mato and me, and we look up, up, up at Mount Srd, beyond the belching buses and their fumes, above the terracotta tiles of the Pucic family’s elegant summer residence,  beyond the modern houses stacked behind, and on to the mountain itself, sentinel as ever above the city.

Author Eva Glyn talks to a Dubrovnik Defender

Ruined Bunker – Mount Sad

My eyes follow his pointing finger. Above the luxuriant leaves of cypress and pine, above the scrubland strewn with rocks, steep and ever steeper, up four hundred metres to the grey bulk of Fort Imperial perched on top. The fort that saved the city.

The Serbs and Montenegrins attacked from the south, sweeping a wave of refugees before them. The attack on the mountain began on 30th September 1991 and a day later the communications centre was captured and the power cut off. No electricity, no water, would reach the city below for months.

Pockets of resistance remained. Mato’s own family home high on the plateau was fought over bitterly, changing hands several times as desperate local defenders staved off an army. But by the middle of November the invaders had taken all of Mount Srd. Everything, that is, except the fort. After the war, Mato rebuilt the house as he tried to rebuild his life, and outside he planted roses. Every morning, he tells me, as he drinks his coffee on the terrace, guns and roses is what he thinks.

On this stifling July morning, an island in the tide of tourists, he shares so much of himself. He tells me that as a hotel clerk in 1989 the most exciting thing he had seen was a computer. That the world seemed so full of possibilities. That two years later he was taking a gun from a dead man to protect the hospital they’d brought the soldier to. How on 9thNovember he was bathing in the warm autumn sea, and two days later was fighting for his life.

And then he tells me of the greatest act of heroism of all. How thirty-eight men saved the city. And it happened in front of us, at the top of Mount Srd. They call it the miracle of 6th December.

And I try to remember what I might have been doing then, on a Friday morning coming up to Christmas. In the office that day, I guess, in a quiet market town in Hampshire, the square festooned with lights, a slightly wonky tree outside the library. Safety, light, warmth and water all taken for granted while shells rained down less than 1,500 miles away.

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Thirty-two men manned Fort Imperial. Exhausted men, hungry and thirsty, the enemy surrounding them on almost every side. An enemy with tanks and weapons that hadn’t been made in a converted broom factory. And ammunition. The men in the fort had nothing left at all, so under cover of darkness they started to creep down the mountainside.

Meanwhile, in perfect safety, the politicians were negotiating. The Serbs and Montenegrins had one demand. Give up the fort and we’ll stop shelling. Somehow, somehow, the message got through to a detachment of men climbing Mount Srd with ammo. They met the shattered defenders coming down. Told them the enemy thought they were still holding out. So they turned around and crept back.

Thirty-eight men now, with basic guns and not enough bullets. Thirty-eight men against an army. But what choice did they have? They went onto the roof and they used them. As Mato explained, a man defending his home will fight like a tiger. An army of conscripted attackers is not so brave.

The fighting became hand to hand, the defenders desperate men, believing themselves as good as dead. But

Fort Imperial from Amerling

eventually they had to retreat inside. All felt lost, so they kept up their spirits by singing.

Most say it was a miracle, but Mato told me the fort’s unusual acoustics helped. Their voices filled the barrel vaults, swelling from shattered windows and walls. They sounded like a thousand men. Men the invading army were not prepared to fight.

Back in the present, Mato and I walk through the cool shade of the Pile Gate, under the statue of Saint Blaise who protects the city. Passing the rebuilt Onofrio fountain, where enemy snipers shot civilians queuing for water, we blink in the sunlight of the main street, Stradun. In the walls of the buildings, on the glossy paving stones, the bullet holes are everywhere, once you know how to spot them. On the morning of 6th December alone almost 700 missiles landed in the old walled city; some from ships out to sea, the rest from Mount Srd.

Like the men in the Fort it buckled, but it did not break. The world watched as smoke blackened the skies and buildings crumbled; a bombardment so heavy that finally, finally, the clamour of condemnation became so loud it helped to turn the tide of the war.

Author Eva Glyn talks to a Dubrovnik Defender

Map of damage

Out of sight of the mountain, in a square near the harbour, Mato and I drink coffee. He lost half a lung and for a while, most of his mind. He lost his innocence and his dreams. No doubt he learned to kill, but he does not speak of it. He still finds shrapnel when he plants his potatoes. The war in Ukraine brings back his insomnia and nightmares. He survives through meditation, his rescue dogs, and trying not to be too much alone.

He was a Dubrovnik Defender; now he is a tour guide. We do not visit the Memorial Room to his fallen friends. I’ve already been there, and sometimes it affects him too much. And so we sit in the shade, sipping our coffee, surrounded by day trippers and cruise ship passengers, most of whom will never see the side of the city I’ve witnessed through his eyes. So I too will bear witness. Honour the dead. Write them into my stories. The world should know, and never forget.

Eva Glyn

Eva Glyn writes relationship driven fiction set in Croatia for One More Chapter. Her two most recent books, The Collaborator’s Daughter and The Dubrovnik Book Club, feature characters who have been Dubrovnik Defenders.

Catch the author on Twitter X @JaneCable  and on IG @evaglynauthor

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