When the producers of HBO’s Game of Thrones wanted a massive, raucous crowd for the show’s infamous “walk of shame” scene, they recruited hundreds of citizens of Dubrovnik, the ancient Croatian walled city that serves as the fictional King’s Landing. To ensure the mob of extras was genuinely angry at the naked and humiliated but still defiant Cersei, the directors asked locals to think of a common reason to be pissed off. Their inspiration for collective fury? The bombing of Dubrovnik, which almost three decades ago damaged two-thirds of the city’s buildings, leaving scars that still mar the battered stones. “Everyone will tell you that the world should have acted better,” a tour guide laments while recalling the event.
Today, tourists boat through Dubrovnik’s waters while drinking dragon blood cocktails and cosplaying as Jon Snow or Daenerys Targaryen, scale its walls to glimpse the Red Keep and Blackwater Bay and, most crucially, pose for selfies while sitting on the sword-slatted Iron Throne. Tourism fuels the Croatian economy, bringing around 4 million visitors per year. But if history had turned its dagger differently, the King’s Landing beloved by Game of Throne fans would not exist and, more important, the globe would have lost a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Almost no part of Dubrovnik’s historic Old Town was spared.
Founded in the mid-seventh century, Dubrovnik peaked in the 15th and 16th centuries as a maritime trading power, with elaborate churches, palaces, limestone streets and red-tiled roofs earning it the nickname “Pearl of the Adriatic.” The medieval character of the city survived into the 20th century, despite devastating earthquakes and multiple foreign takeovers.
In the early 1990s, as Yugoslavia was breaking up, Serbians, Slovenians, Croatians, Bosnians and other groups began warring over the former communist country’s shattered pieces, with Serbia driving the conflict. It appeared as though Dubrovnik would escape the worst of the fighting. After all, the small port city of 71,000 had next to no military value in what was quickly becoming a land war, and its Serbian population was small — just 6.8 percent, according to a report by University of Alberta professor Srdja Pavlovic.
But the bombings came, and their story is one of changing media perception. Led by the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), a Serbian paramilitary force, violence ramped up in Croatia during July and August 1991, leading to the destruction of the Croatian town of Vukovar. Global outlets, the same ones that included reporters who callously called Yugoslavia’s downfall the “Balkan Babel,” were unsure what to make of the incident and slow to react.
As Vitaljina, Brgat and other villages became Serbian artillery targets, Montenegro, whose borders are less than 50 kilometers from Dubrovnik, saw the infighting as an imminent threat. To be a “pacifist at this time comes very close to surrendering to fascism,” announced one communist leader, R. Krsmanovic. The Montenegrin prime minister aligned himself with the JNA and launched a misinformation campaign, describing Dubrovnik residents as mercenaries. He justified attacking the city as protecting territorial integrity, as well as preventing “a potential conflict along ethnic lines,” Pavlovic writes.
It wasn’t until the bombs began falling that the global community started to reconsider its ambivalence. Serbian leaders deployed nearly 7,000 troops to take on the Dubrovnik defenses … which numbered 480 troops, maybe 50 of whom were actually trained, according to historical accounts. They began the offensive on Oct. 1, 1991, and later that month shelled the Old Town within the city walls, drawing immediate protests from the U.S. State Department.
As residents holed up in hotels and restaurants, the JNA issued an ultimatum: total surrender and removal of the newly formed Croatia’s elected officials. “The image of this ancient pearl enshrouded in a thick cloud of smoke became a media motif much more potent than the veritable inflation of human casualties that could be found at every step in occupied Croatia,” wrote Albert Bing of the Croatian Institute of History in an essay titled “The Media-Political Paradigm.”
Almost no part of Dubrovnik’s historic Old Town was spared. By the time the guns fell silent, 11,425 buildings sustained damage and 886 were destroyed. The St. John Fort and St. Peter’s Bastion, used as shelters for some of the 15,000 refugees who had come to the city from the burning countryside, were shelled; the Sponza Palace, the Jesuit church, the Franciscan bell tower and the city’s clock tower were also hit.
Lost amid the rubble were nearly 100 civilian dead, along with the Inter-University library and its 20,000 tomes. Looters went beyond mere acts of war, former Montenegrin Foreign Minister Nikola Samardzic recounted, pillaging and then trying to disguise their crimes. “They would take valuables from houses, such as television sets, household appliances, etc., and then throw a hand-held rocket or something to destroy the house and all traces of looting,” he testified later.
Those depredations ultimately turned public opinion against Serbian forces. The international community condemned their warring with no regard for cultural heritage. Eventually, the situation became untenable: Neither Montenegro nor Serbia was willing to rule Dubrovnik under global scrutiny. Despite more propaganda attempting to portray the assault as “a war for peace,” they had been exposed — and with the world watching, the siege ended seven months later, in May 1992. The damage remains, though. “Such deep resentment lingers understandably to this day because the Montenegrin authorities had refused to acknowledge any responsibility,” Pavlovic says.
That pain worsened after a prolonged United Nations trial of prison camp guards ended with no convictions. The memories of trauma “last a lifetime,” as Pavlovic puts it. If you thought Game of Thrones was gruesome, imagine what you would hear if the walls of Dubrovnik could talk.
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