Fourteen years after the fall of Vukovar, Mrs Mirjana Kovac, an economist born in Vukovar, came on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje to entrust to God and to Our Lady all the pain that she is still carrying in her heart. With tears in her eyes she shared both her memories and her hopes with us.
Before the war, Mrs Kovac was Director of a Health insurance company, during the war, she led the Croatian Medical Crisis Unit, and after the war, she was the assistant to the Director for the economy. Later she was in charge of the economy, and finally she became Director of Control in the Ministry of Defence of Croatia.
Lidija Paris spoke with Mirjana Kovac at the presbytery of Medjugorje.
Lidija Paris: You are born in Vukovar, and your father was born in Posusje. So many years after the war, it is noticeable that you still carry a deep inner pain remembering all that has happened. You came here with an envelope containing some photographs and some papers. This is all that remains of the first 40 years of your life…
Mirjana Kovač: I came to be in Medjugorje during these days that are still so painful for me. With faith in God, it is much easier for us to carry our cross. We unite our cross to the cross of Jesus, we offer everything to Him. Jesus allowed us this dignity. Thanks to my father and my mother who educated us in faith in God, and with the Rosary in the hand, during those days that are unimaginable for a human intelligence, we had the impression that we were somehow mysteriously supported. We were conscious that the worst could happen at any moment, but thanks to our faith in God, everything had another dimension. Death was closer to us then life…
Lidija Paris: Your brother Ivan Kovac communicated to the world the last words from Vukovar…
Mirjana Kovač: Yes. My brother Ivan was in charge of radio communication for the city of Vukovar. He was establishing radio connections, to enable Doctor Bosanac broadcast daily news from the hospital. On November 18, fourteen years ago, at 1:25 a.m., he called the centre in Osijek saying only: “You can terminate the connection with Vukovar. It will not be necessary any more”. These were his last words. He was captured in the hospital, together with some others. Until 1997, we knew nothing about him. In 1997, we found him in a mass tomb in Ovcara, thanks to the DNA analysis…
Lidija Paris: How did you live these years of uncertainty, expectation, hope?
Mirjana Kovač: It was a sea of days… A day was greater than a year. It was difficult to live without knowing anything about your nearest family. I knew nothing about my brother, my husband, the husbands of my two sisters. Every day, we used to go to the Red Cross office… everything was prayer, mourning, crying to heaven, in order to find out something.
Lidija Paris: This war has not only taken your brother’s life but also all your material goods, and has even destroyed your marriage…
Mirjana Kovač: That is correct. When my husband came back from the concentration camp, in which he was psychologically ruined, he wanted to be alone. He said that he must go his own way, that he could not find peace, that he cannot be a husband and a father as he used to be…
Lidija Paris: When you managed to escape from Vukovar, you went to Zagreb.
Mirjana Kovač: Yes. At that time, I agreed to lead the Croatian Medical Crisis Unit. I did this until 1995. Because of the injuries that I received during the bombing of Vukovar, I had some health problems and I had to be hospitalised. When I saw so many wounded people there, I knew that I had to work, to be useful, and to find out where my brother was. Work and prayer, they were my strength. I took no notice of the change of seasons. I functioned like a zombie. I only wanted to do something for the others. People came to me. They told me what they had lost. They saw everything in black. Some of them thought that I was from Zagreb, and that I could not understand them. When I noticed that they could find no reason to live any more, I used to tell them about myself, saying what had happened to the members of my nearest family… I also had to educate my children and the children of my two sisters… our family was scattered all over Croatia; they went from house to house… Children changed schools five times before, finally, the government organised lodging in hotels.
Lidija Paris: What happened with your material goods in Vukovar? Can you go back there, what are the chances now? At the age of 54, you are retired, but you are still young?
Mirjana Kovač: When, in 1997, the region of Vukovar was reintegrated into Croatia, I was in charge of the finances and the budget of the city. We did all that we could. The problem with the city of Vukovar is that you can restore houses, but you cannot bring back the dead, and the situation cannot be the same any more. Young people who went to school somewhere else have no desire to go back there. Those who seek a job cannot find it in Vukovar.
Lidija Paris: What about the relations between Croatians and Serbians? How to live together in Vukovar today?
Mirjana Kovač: To live “together”? We could call it living “next to” one another. In Vukovar, everything is divided between “Croatian” and “Serbian”… it is a deeply divided city… Among the Serbs, there are many who deeply regret, but there is a great mistrust… and a fear to suffer embarrassments. It is difficult to establish normal relations, but surely, time will do its work.
Lidija Paris: Is it possible to forgive, to overcome the experiences from the past, to start anew? Do new generations have a chance? Are the conditions established for the new generations to live in a new way?
Mirjana Kovač: We have to create conditions every day, each of us within oneself, in one’s own soul. To forgive? I must confess that, five or six years ago, I could not hear of this word. I didn’t know where my brother was, I didn’t know what had happened to him, how could I forgive? I wanted to know the truth. I did not want to judge, I never thought of being a judge, we are not called to judge. God is there. Then, I received a great grace: I could feel the beginnings of forgiveness. I forgive, but I do not want to be close to them, in order not to fall into the temptation of harbouring other thoughts. But with time and through prayer, I was happy to notice that I could pray for them; I was praying to God to touch them, to make them tell us the whereabouts of all those victims whose destiny we ignored. This is one of the reasons behind my pilgrimage to Medjugorje. 1400 people are still on the list of the disappeared. I came to present all this to Our Lady, and to ask her to touch their hearts. May Our Lady take them under her protection. I remember the words of Jesus from the Cross, when he was forgiving, forgiving all of us. He said: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This is how I pray for them now.
I also pray for my father Matthew who was persecuted by the communists, who lost his brother at the end of World War II. Today, my father is 78. It was hard for him when he came from Herzegovina to Slavonia. He worked hard all his life, but he had a great heart, a heart that was generous towards everyone. We used to tell him: “You have nourished half of Herzegovina here!” People used to live in our house freely for several months, until they earned their own incomes. My father cannot forgive, I can see him suffer, and I mostly prayed to Our Lady for him, to make it easier for him. My mother is also suffering a lot, but she is holding on to the rosary.
Lidija Paris: In Lourdes, you have received a sign that Heaven has heard your prayer?
Mirjana Kovač: Yes. It was in 1992, when my husband came back from the concentration camp. I had the occasion to go to Lourdes. I left a little paper there, on which I asked Our Lady to help me to find out where my brother Ivan was. Half an hour later, I met a Hungarian who spoke to me in Croatian, and who offered his own home to us, to be our home. I received an address on which a name was written – the same name as my brother’s! In France, I met a Hungarian having exactly the same name as my brother! For me, it meant that Our Lady was telling me that everyone is my brother. This greatly strengthened me until 1997, when we finally found out what happened to him.
Lidija Paris: You came to Medjugorje during these days when we commemorate 14 years since the fall of Vukovar. It awakens all the wounds in a very intense way. What do you find in Medjugorje?
Mirjana Kovač: My whole family used to come to Medjugorje since the first days of the apparitions. Every year, we used to come to visit our family in Posusje, and we always used to come to Medjugorje. We were convinced that Our Lady is appearing here. In difficult times for the visionaries, we used to pray for them. I mention this in connection with the last words pronounced by my brother in Vukovar… I feel like Our Lady had opened a red hot line… While bombs were falling on us and bringing death, Heaven above us was all the time open through prayer, through the rosary. When a bomb fell, we were shocked and we interrupted prayer, and then we continued without knowing where we had stopped. Through this hot line, we were storming Heaven, and I am very grateful to Medjugorje. Whenever I pray, I close my eyes and I am here, in front of Our Lady’s statue in Medjugorje. For me, Medjugorje is a place where Heaven opens, it is a great grace, which is difficult to express. There is no other place where I would like to be in the moments when I want to share sorrow and joy. Jesus and Our Lady can give this deep peace. All the rest is passing. We experienced this. If we had not experienced this, our hearts would have remained hearts of stone, but truly, Our Lady has touched us in a special way. Jesus asked us to carry a cross, but he also gave the strength to carry it. It is a graceful cross. I feel a great joy in prayer and a joy in living the message.
Lidija Paris: You have plans for the future?
Mirjana Kovač: I used to have long-term plans, but not any more. I entrust the past to God’s mercy, I live the present moment by God’s providence. The keys of my house that was destroyed in Vukovar, I threw them into the lake of Galilee. They are safe there. In the hands of Jesus. No wicked hand can do them any harm any more. After a period of hard work, I am proud to have been in that army and which carried the rosary around the neck, which defended homes and families with the rosary. Where my brother and thousands of defenders stopped, I want to continue. I still cannot realise that I am retired. I have so much time, and I am trying to intensify my spiritual life.
Lidija Paris: Thank you for this conversation. Pray for us and we will pray for you.
Mirjana Kovač: May Jesus give us the grace to unite all our pain to His Cross. In His Mother, I see all our mothers. It is a sea of sorrowful people with great wounds in both heart and soul. We are all somehow closed. Each one of us remains alone in one’s own pain. We hold back, we remain silent. We want to own and control our pain, we keep it for ourselves. Thanks to prayer, we can feel better.