'Dubrovnik Has Become A Hell'

Auguste Frederic Viesse de Marmont seized Dubrovnik for Napoleon in 1808. The French marshal praised its "serene nobility"--and never harmed a stone of the city he grew to love. Neither did the Ottomans, who for centuries exacted tribute from Dubrovnik, nor the Germans as they fought their way through Yugoslavia during World War II. Almost magically, Dubrovnik escaped the ravages of time and war, as if its beauty were sufficient to hold back periodic tides of barbarism.

After nearly a thousand years of peace, the bloody chaos in Yugoslavia has engulfed Dubrovnik. Along with the rest of Croatia, Dubrovnik claims independence. But Serbia wants the city for its own and has ordered the Yugoslav People's Army to seize it, apparently at any price. For four weeks the city has been besieged (map). Navy gunboats almost daily shell its port. Artillery and rockets slam beachside hotels and ancient villas, churches and monasteries. Incendiary bombs dropped from the air have blackened the surrounding hills, burning pine forests and swathing the city in smoke. For a time it seemed the walled medieval town at the heart of old Dubrovnik would be spared. But last week it, too, came under fire. If the city does not surrender, it will almost surely be devastated. "Dubrovnik, once destroyed, could never be rebuilt," says one Croatian cultural minister in Zagreb. He condemns the Army's attack as an act of "cultural genocide."

Belgrade claims its offensive has touched only nondescript suburbs and not Dubrovnik's landmarks. Because of the fighting, it was difficult to gain access to the city, but refugees and those in touch by phone reported profound damage. "This is the Villa Gradic, built in the 17th century," says Nada Grujic, an art historian at the University of Zagreb, as she leafs through a folio of Dubrovnik's architectural treasures. "It has burned down," she has heard. The next photo shows another grand palazzo, the Villa Bozdari, built in 1715. "Its roof has been blown off," says Grujic. The 14th-century Franciscan monastery at Rozat has been hit, as has the 15th-century fortress of Sokol; so has the Villa Rastic near Dubrovnik's port, and the Sorkocevic Palace near the bombed-out marina, and dozens of other palazzos, churches and grand Venetian houses. Dubrovnik's 500-year-old Arboretum, with exotic shrubs and trees from Asia, Africa and Europe, was destroyed on Oct. 3, Grujic says. Army soldiers shot at firemen fighting the blaze.

So far, fewer than a hundred of the city's 60,000 civilians have been injured. But food and medicine are running out. Water must be fetched in buckets from the sea and ancient cisterns. Ferries organized by European peacekeepers evacuated more than 10,000 refugees last week. "Dubrovnik has become a hell," said 23-year-old Morana Cumbelic, one of those who escaped. "The sky was black with smoke. Bombs fell all around. People are hiding in cellars and inside the walls of the old city." One of those who stayed, a woman named Berta, phoned friends in Zagreb with news of a small victory: "My husband got two liters of water today." Weeping, she predicted Dubrovnik would fall within the week.

She fears more than bombs and gunfire. Rumors swirl that when it takes the town, the Army will shoot resistance leaders or at least persecute the city's overwhelmingly Croatian population. Belgrade TV airs film of its soldiers firing rockets and mortars into houses and hotels, some crowded with refugees. The attackers cheer each hit. "You can only imagine what will happen once they attack the city proper," says Vera Cicin-Sain, a cultural adviser to the Croatian government. Belgrade may order restraint, but Army discipline is poor. At the end of the week, Serbian forces were pushing into Dubrovnik with tanks and infantry under covering fire from naval warships and artillery. European Community peacekeepers, meeting in The Hague, wrung another "cease-fire" from representatives of the Yugoslav republics. Around Dubrovnik, the fighting paused, but probably not for long. The city that foreign invaders never harmed risks being destroyed by its own people.