In the 1990s Lana Mayer fled from Croatia to Germany. Now, she has returned to Vukovar. A film tells her story.

“A thing that many people don't understand when they see refugees is that no one flees if they don't really have to.”

The film “Return” is about a young Croatian woman's flight and eventual return to her home town. Lana Mayer, now 36, had to leave her home as a twelve-year-old due to the military conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Since then, Mayer stresses, “time is divided into before the war and after the war”.

Between 1991 and 1995, over 15,000 people in Croatia lost their life to the war. 700,000 people had to flee for limited and unlimited periods of time. Most refugees remained within the country's borders, heading to its unoccupied regions.

Vukovar, situated directly at the border to Serbia, was nearly completely destroyed in 1991, more than any other Croatian city. Thanks to an international UN Peacekeeping operation, an agreement between the Croatian government and occupying forces was reached, that allowed the inhabitants to return to their city. This so-called “peaceful reintegration” of the Croatian Danube Area regulated nearly every aspect of city life, such as the school system, policing, health care and administration of personal documents.

Still, tensions between the two ethnic groups are palpable in the city to this day. What was meant to be temporary, such as separated education along ethnic lines, is practiced in Vukovar even today. This makes the hoped-for integration between the two ethic groups more difficult.

“Here in Vukovar, we still talk about the war so much...but I think that we should focus on peace.”

Now, there are attempts to found a common elementary school in which the children would not be separated by their their ethnicity, but be educated together. Several civil society institutions are facilitating meetings, fostering communication and rebuilding trust between the two ethnic groups. One of them is “Europe House Vukovar”, a local NGO that is promoting a peaceful co-existence. Today, Lana Mayer is the president of Europe House Vukovar.

Last year, Croatia's eastern regions were suddenly facing new challenges when over half a million people were crossing Croatia in the direction of Western Europe. The local population, however, mastered these challenges with aplomb.

Lana Mayer is one of the people exemplifying this ethos. She explains her motives thus: “It is very sad to see this (arrival of refugees from the Middle East, editor's note) and look at it from another perspective. Back then, I was a child myself. Now, as a mother, I see the children and understand their parents' fears for them.”

Locals recalled their own experiences of flight in the 1990s and were therefore willing to help today's refugees. Lana Mayer summarizes this as:

“I hope they will be taken in, just as I was.”


Contact: Dr. Max Brädle, director of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s office in Croatia


Short Film Program: “People in Motion” – Why do People leave their Homes? What Paths do they Take?

In cooperation with local partners, the FES international offices produced a short film program that deals with these questions. The films are available on our TOPIC pages “Flight, Migration, Integration”. Please feel free to use them for your own events.


The Route was never the Destination. “We have become migrants....but one day we will arrive.” Short film about a Cuban family that had to flee their country.

Move. Three people leave their homes and end up in Namibia. In the short movie “Move”, they reflect upon migration, European double standards and imbalances of power.

The Rainbow-Center of Gaziantep. “Exile offers the chance of overcoming the shadow of violence”. A short film on Syrian dissidents caring for traumatized children.

Caught in the Middle – Migration in Ethiopia. “I do not want my children to live in fear, like I did”. A short film about Ethiopian refugees in Sudan.

Chaught in the Middle, Part 2. Elsa's husband, Yosef, has arrived in Sweden. He has not yet been able to bring his family. Part 2 of the short film “ Between Two Stools”.

Jaminton and Yannia are Leaving. Displaced in one's own country. A short film about a family in Colombia who have become internally displaced due to civil war and violence.

Unseen Shadows - Those who are left behind. A short film on the challenges of women and families in India, whose men have migrated in search of work.

Cyber-Mom. A short film about three children from Central American El Salvador who are raised by their grandparents because their parents have migrated to the USA for work.

Asfur - Syrian Refugees in Turkey. "Asfur" gives an insight into the life situation of Syrians who had to flee from the war zone Syria and now living in Hatay (Turkey).

Nowhere Man - Pakistani Refugees in South Korea are fighting for Recognition. The A. Family has fled from Pakistan to South Korea, 6000 miles away. A story that also deals with South Korean asylum policy.

Behind the Sea. The film deals with the story of four Algerians who left their homeland for various reasons and returned to Algeria after a certain time. [only available in german]