Yugoslav Army Shells Dubrovnik

During the autumn of 1991, the city of Dubrovnik in Croatia was bombarded by Yugoslav federal forces, an assault that resulted in numerous casualties as well as significant damage to medieval structures in and around the city.

Summary of Event

The city of Dubrovnik, situated on the Dalmatian coast on the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea, traces its history to the end of the seventh century c.e. The city, originally called Ragusium and subsequently known as Ragusa, was founded by displaced Roman settlers from the Greek city of Epidaurus (located immediately to the southeast) after Epidaurus had been seized by Slavs. Eventually, as the Slavic and Latin communities became integrated, Dubrovnik came under the autonomous control of the Byzantine Empire. Racial and ethnic conflict;Croatia
Dubrovnik bombardment
Yugoslavia;Dubrovnik bombardment
[kw]Yugoslav Army Shells Dubrovnik (Oct.-Nov., 1991)
[kw]Army Shells Dubrovnik, Yugoslav (Oct.-Nov., 1991)
[kw]Dubrovnik, Yugoslav Army Shells (Oct.-Nov., 1991)
Racial and ethnic conflict;Croatia
Dubrovnik bombardment
Yugoslavia;Dubrovnik bombardment
[g]Europe;Oct.-Nov., 1991: Yugoslav Army Shells Dubrovnik[08210]
[g]Balkans;Oct.-Nov., 1991: Yugoslav Army Shells Dubrovnik[08210]
[g]Yugoslavia;Oct.-Nov., 1991: Yugoslav Army Shells Dubrovnik[08210]
[g]Croatia;Oct.-Nov., 1991: Yugoslav Army Shells Dubrovnik[08210]
[c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Oct.-Nov., 1991: Yugoslav Army Shells Dubrovnik[08210]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct.-Nov., 1991: Yugoslav Army Shells Dubrovnik[08210]
Marković, Ante
Mesić, Stipe
Tudjman, Franjo
Milošević, Slobodan

Between 1205 and 1358, Dubrovnik was controlled autonomously by Venice. Between 1358 and 1526, it fell under Hungarian protection. Subsequently, Dubrovnik came under the protection of the Ottoman Empire but retained a large measure of independence. Dubrovnik was a leading center of maritime commercial activity in the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries, second in the Adriatic only to Venice. Dubrovnik also emerged as an important intellectual center in the development of Balkan culture. Indeed, throughout its history the city has retained a strong cosmopolitan flavor that has blended Mediterranean influences with the diverse cultural characteristics of the Balkan region.

Beginning in 1272 and continuing through the seventeenth century, the city erected an elaborate series of fortifications. Dubrovnik’s main city wall, approximately six thousand feet in circumference, between thirteen and twenty feet thick on the land side, five to ten feet thick on the sea side, and about eighty feet high, surrounded what has become known as the old city. Punctuating the walls are five bastions, two corner towers, twelve square towers, three round towers, and the citadel of Fort St. John (Sveti Ivan), a formidable defensive structure guarding the old harbor. Dubrovnik’s medieval character has been preserved within the old city, with many of the buildings dating back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The physical characteristics of medieval Dubrovnik, combined with its rich cultural and artistic attractions, made the city Yugoslavia’s principal historical tourist site, with thousands of visitors flocking to the city annually. In recognition of Dubrovnik’s unique historical value, the city was placed on the United Nations World Heritage List in 1979 as a site whose safety and preservation are said to be humankind’s collective responsibility.

In 1808, Dubrovnik was taken by Napoleon, but in the settlement at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the city was awarded to Austria. It remained under Vienna’s control until the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I. After 1918, Dubrovnik was attached to Croatia, within the framework of the newly created state of Yugoslavia, which was dominated by Serbs. Historically, Croatia and Serbia represented two different aspects of their common Balkan heritage. Whereas the Serbs were Orthodox in religious persuasion, the Croats were predominantly Catholic. Linguistically, the Serbs used the Cyrillic alphabet, and the Croats used the Latin alphabet. Eastern Ottoman Turkish influences remained strong in Serbia, whereas Croatia followed the lead of Central Europe.

During the interwar period, tensions mounted among the Serbs, the Croats, and the other nationalities within Yugoslavia. These tensions were manifested during World War II, when, under Nazi sponsorship, Yugoslavia was broken up and an independent Croatia was established. Nazi atrocities, combined with traditional Balkan hatreds, led to persecutions and massacres that left postwar Yugoslavia deeply scarred. In the wake of the collapse of Nazi Germany in 1945, Yugoslavia was reestablished, this time under the leadership of the Communist Party, guided by the partisan leader Marshal Tito. Tito managed to suppress the national hostilities, but after his death in 1980, these hostilities gradually resurfaced.

The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980’s created the context for the disintegration of postwar Yugoslavia. Croatia and Slovenia elected governments pledged to assert independence from the Yugoslav state. On June 25, 1991, the Slovenes and Croatians declared their independence from Yugoslavia. Slovenia moved immediately to secure its borders. Following a brief series of clashes with the Yugoslav federal army that left fifty people dead, the fighting subsided and attention shifted southward to Croatia.

Approximately 600,000 of Croatia’s 4.5 million citizens were ethnic Serbs. They contended that they did not wish to become an ethnic minority within an independent Croatian state. Serbian leaders outside Croatia supported these claims, asserting that Serbs left within an independent Croatia would be persecuted by the Croatian majority. Consequently, even prior to Croatia’s formal declaration of independence, and with Serbian support, the Serbs within Croatia began to prepare for an armed insurgency.

Following Croatia’s declaration of independence, the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav federal army began operations against the rebellious Croats. Simultaneously, the federal army gradually began to coordinate its activities with the Serbian insurgents. Although the Yugoslav federal army cited a variety of goals to justify its military operations against Croatia, ranging from protecting the Serbian minority in Croatia to defending and restoring Yugoslavia, the Croatians contended that Serbia was using the federal army and the ethnic Serbs in Croatia as instruments to dismember Croatia and create a Greater Serbia. In any case, by autumn, 1991, the Yugoslav federal army and the Serbian insurgents had captured approximately one-third of Croatian territory. By that time, an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 people had been killed in the intensifying Yugoslav civil war, with as many as 10,000 wounded and more than 300,000 displaced from their homes.

By the beginning of October, 1991, fighting between Croatian forces and units of the Yugoslav federal army had spread to the area around Dubrovnik. On October 1, the Yugoslav army surrounded the city, laying siege to it and its 60,000 inhabitants, 90 percent of whom were Croats. Dubrovnik’s citizens, joined by refugees from outlying areas, were deprived of electric power, telephone communications, and fresh water. By late October, rationing had been introduced. Families were allocated 1.3 gallons of fresh water daily, with very small supplements sometimes collected from Dubrovnik’s cisterns. People were reduced to washing and flushing toilets with water from the Adriatic Sea. Food was also rationed, with a family’s weekly portion consisting of one quart of cooking oil, one pint of milk, one pound of potatoes, one pound of bread, two tins of fish, and two tins of meat. The people of Dubrovnik were concerned particularly with the prospect of disease that might result from untreated sewage and a shortage of medicine. Tensions among the population increased with the duration of the siege, as people spent long hours in basement shelters or in chambers within the walls of the old city.

By mid-October, planes from the Yugoslav federal air force had bombed the marina, and federal artillery had shelled the city, although at that point the old city remained undamaged. By October 23, units of the Yugoslav federal army had moved to positions within three miles of the old city, and the danger to Dubrovnik increased daily. As the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav military continued to increase its pressure on Dubrovnik, international efforts to prevent the situation from further deteriorating also continued. Representatives from the European Community and the United Nations, in addition to their efforts to secure a comprehensive cease-fire in the Yugoslav civil war, appealed to both Serbs and Croats to honor the U.N. convention protecting historic sites and to spare Dubrovnik from further destruction. The United States condemned the Yugoslav federal army’s attack on Dubrovnik as an irresponsible assault on a civilian center that was devoid of military value. For their part, Yugoslav military authorities denied that their forces had attacked the old city and pledged to keep them from doing so.

In late October, Croatian and Yugoslav army leaders agreed on a partial evacuation of Dubrovnik under the supervision of European Community monitors and the Red Cross. Males between the ages of eighteen and sixty, however, would not be allowed to leave the city unless they were joined by ill or elderly relatives. By the end of October, Dubrovnik’s population had decreased only marginally, because refugees from outlying areas continued to arrive. The old city had sustained only light damage up to that time. As of October 28, the Red Cross reported that fifty-two people had been killed and slightly more than two hundred had been wounded in the fighting in and around the city.

In early November, 1991, Dubrovnik was subjected to its heaviest artillery and gunboat bombardment. Yugoslav federal shells hit targets inside and immediately around the old city. On November 9, the Yugoslav military intensified its joint bombardment of the old city, the surrounding tourist hotels, and adjacent civilian targets.


The bombardment of Dubrovnik in early November caused significant damage to the old city and adjacent areas. Approximately fifty people reportedly were killed, and many more were wounded in the land, air, and naval bombardment, which continued until November 13. Several of Dubrovnik’s tourist hotels were seriously damaged or destroyed as Croatian defenders attempted to halt the advance of the Yugoslav federal forces. Federal planes attacked Croatian positions in the Napoleonic-era fort, constructed in 1808 on Brdo Srdj (Mount Sergius), which rises above Dubrovnik. Fort St. John, as well as many of the towers along the city walls, was damaged, as were a number of sites within the medieval city itself. Both the fourteenth century Dominican friary and the Franciscan friary at the opposite side of the old city were damaged, as was the seventeenth century Jesuit church. Elsewhere in the old city, such medieval architectural treasures as Dubrovnik’s clock tower were hit during the shelling.

Even after considering the physical damage to Dubrovnik and the suffering of the city’s people, Croatia’s new leaders vowed to defend the city against the Yugoslav federal military attacks. From their perspective, Dubrovnik had become a symbol of Croatian independence and resistance to Serbian domination.

On November 13, the Yugoslav federal shelling tapered off, and in the afternoon, a relief ship was allowed to enter Dubrovnik’s harbor. Food, medical supplies, and fresh water were unloaded, and on the following day, more than two thousand refugees were evacuated from the city. This set the stage for subsequent relief efforts. Eventually, a spokesperson for the Yugoslav federal army apologized for the shelling of Dubrovnik, attributing the action to local forces that allegedly acted without permission from the central authorities.

In eastern Croatia, the eighty-six-day siege of the city of Vukovar ended on November 17 with the city’s capture by Yugoslav federal troops and Serbian insurgents. Like Dubrovnik, Vukovar had become a symbol of Croatian resistance to Serbian efforts to suppress Croatia’s spirit of independence. Unlike Dubrovnik, Vukovar was reduced to ruins, and extremely heavy civilian casualties were sustained as Serbian forces bombarded the city into submission.

At the end of 1991, as Germany led members of the European Community in formal recognition of Croatia and Slovenia, the Croatian government remained committed to recapturing those territories it had lost at the outset of its war for independence. An internationally brokered cease-fire among the belligerents had been put in place at year’s end.

Although it had been damaged significantly, Dubrovnik had escaped the level of destruction visited on Vukovar. The fact that the priceless treasures of this historic medieval city were damaged at all, combined with the tragic loss of human life and the wounding of a large number of Dubrovnik’s citizens, amplified the need for a common commitment by all nations to honor U.N. agreements governing the protection of the irreplaceable relics of humankind’s global heritage.

The Balkans as a whole continued in bloody warfare that spread into Bosnia and Herzegovina, as that province also sued for independence. Not until the Dayton Accords of 1995 was a degree of order and peace restored to the troubled region. Racial and ethnic conflict;Croatia
Dubrovnik bombardment
Yugoslavia;Dubrovnik bombardment

Further Reading

  • Binder, David. “Dubrovnik Diary.” The New York Times, November 16, 1991, p. 4. Vital account provides a firsthand description of the shelling of Dubrovnik from November 10 to November 14, 1991. Should be read in conjunction with the author’s other articles published in The New York Times on November 9, 1991 (pp. 1, 4), November 10, 1991 (p. 8), and November 15, 1991 (p. 3).
  • Djukić, Slavoljub. Milošević and Marković: A Lust for Power. Translated by Alex Dubinsky. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001. Presents an account of Milošević’s political career, including discussion of his wife’s influence, and a close examination of his regime.
  • Nelson, Daniel N. Balkan Imbroglio: Politics and Security in Southeastern Europe. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991. Informative volume focuses on contemporary problems of the Balkans. Includes a chapter devoted to the problems of Yugoslavia.
  • Sell, Louis. Slobodan Milošević and the Destruction of Yugoslavia. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002. Presents a comprehensive examination of the political life of Milošević and how his policies led to the breakup of Yugoslavia.
  • Shoup, Paul. Communism and the Yugoslav National Question. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968. Key background study provides context necessary to an understanding of the complexities of the Yugoslav nationality question.
  • Tanner, Marcus. Croatia: A Nation Forged in War. 2d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. Presents a thorough account of Croatia’s history.
  • Wolff, Robert L. The Balkans in Our Time. New York: W. W. Norton, 1967. Classic work focuses primarily on the development of the Balkans during the first half of the twentieth century.

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