On eve of EU entry, Croatian flashpoint town Vukovar still divided

With just days to go before Croatia joins the European Union, Vukovar -- the flashpoint city of the bitter 1990s Balkans war that pit Croats against Serbs -- remains deeply divided along ethnic lines.

Brussels made reintegration of ethnic Serbs in Croatia a key condition of membership for the Balkan state, but the minority population and Croats are still leading separate lives in the eastern Croatian town.

They are segregated not only in the kindergartens and schools they attend, but also at the restaurants they frequent.

"We are separated in classes and almost never mix in the school yard or out of school," said Lucija, 16.

"It is better that way. As long as they (Serbs) do not touch us, it is fine," she added.

Dubbed 'Croatian Stalingrad' after being utterly devastated by Serb-dominated army forces in the early days of Croatia's war for independence from the ex-Yugoslavia, Vukovar suffered a three-month long siege before being captured by Serb forces in November 1991.

The conflict, which claimed 20,000 lives, ended four years later with two offensives by the Croatian army that forced more than 200,000 ethnic Serbs to flee the country.

Even today, the damages wrought by the war are visible in the streets and alleys of the town, with many shelled houses remaining roofless and in ruins.

And the divisions between the two ethnic groups remain rife in the town, where Serbs make up almost 35 percent of the 28,000-strong population, a much higher figure than the nationwide proportion of 4.4 percent.

Serb parents in Vukovar are putting their children in schools that teach in Serbian, while Croat children are attending classes in Croatian.

Although the two languages are similar and were one in the ex-Yugoslavia, Cyrillic script is used in Serbian while Latin alphabets are used in Croatian.

But the language divide is merely a front behind which a larger issue loomed.

"Let's be honest: the language itself is not a problem, but what is being taught in Croatian about the war is unacceptable for us," said veteran Croatian Serb leader Vojislav Stanimirovic.

According to Stanimirovic, Croatian pupils are being taught that "Serbs were aggressors" in the war, while Serb students are being taught about "civil conflict".

Until that changes, Serb pupils would not attend the same classes as their Croatian peers, he said.

Another Croatian Serb leader Sasa Milosevic added that "the contribution of the Serb people to the development of Croatian society has been omitted from the school curriculum".

Officially, the curriculum is the same in both languages.

Vukovar mayor Zeljko Sabo said the system of segregated schooling was introduced in order to guarantee that minority rights were respected.

"It seemed to be good in theory, but in real life it has led to children being separated, maybe we should change it," Sabo told AFP.

But neither are the two groups mixing outside schools.

"Croatians go to café Kvin and Serbs hang out in café San, next to it," Lucija's friend Martina, 18, said.

"It would be awkward if a Croat went to a Serb's café or vice versa," she added.

Stanimirovic said there were even "suburbs where one ethnic group does not want to go, fearing trouble".

But the mayor denies such claims, insisting that "Serbs and Croats in Vukovar love each other, marry each other, youth go out together."

"There are many mixed marriages, very rare only ten years ago. Nobody keeps count any more, it is not one case, it is normal," Sabo said, without giving figures.

Croatia will join the European Union on July 1, becoming the second ex-Yugoslavian state after Slovenia to gain membership in the 27-nation bloc.