ILOK, Yugoslavia -- A convoy of French doctors accompanied by European Community monitors managed yesterday to enter Vukovar, the town Croatians are calling their Stalingrad.
But it was a small -- and imperfect -- victory in a spreading war.
Although Croatian forces and the Serb-led federal army had agreed to a two-day truce to give the convoy safe passage, it came under fire as it was leaving the besieged town.
One vehicle reportedly struck a mine, and two French nurses were hurt.
About 60 of the most seriously injured patients had been loaded into ambulances, but dozens more remained in a Vukovar field hospital. A planned second trip to the town to evacuate more of the wounded was in doubt.
In return for allowing the 21 French doctors accompanied by European Community observers into Vukovar, the Croatians had agreed to lift their siege of the main army barracks in the Croatian capital of Zagreb. But as the French convoy came under fire, the Croatians retaliated by halting the convoy of army vehicles evacuating the Zagreb barracks.
It was against all odds that the convoy reached Vukovar. Last week, a European Community convoy carrying medical and other supplies failed several times in a similar mission. For two months, the eastern Croatian town has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the four-month war between Serbia and Croatia.
Serbian reservists, regular federal troops and weapons have been pouring to the Vukovar front, led by tanks and armored personnel carriers and backed by federal jets.
But after a two-month siege, Croatian defenders have so far withstood the brutal onslaught on the town, which is the most exposed Croatian stronghold.
Fighting from a network of sewers and basements, the Croatians have drawn Serb forces into street-by-street and building-by-building firefights.
Two days ago, in what appeared to be an effort to clear the ground for a final assault, the Serb-led army expelled 6,000 Croatians from Ilok and other settlements around Vukovar. For Croatians, Vukovar has become the symbol of their gritty defense against the superior might and manpower of the federal army -- and of their hopes that somehow, against all odds, they can turn back the tide of defeat.
Parallels with the siege of Stalingrad are not entirely without foundation. In 1941, the weaker Russians allowed the German forces to march into sections of Stalingrad as part of a well-planned strategy. It was the only way to cancel out Germany's superiority in air power and heavy artillery. With German soldiers inside the city, the Germans were afraid to use air power and big guns for fear of hitting their own soldiers as they fought street-to-street battles with the Russians. Stalingrad never fell.
Conversely, for the Yugoslav federal army, Vukovar has become the symbol of its impotence.
On several occasions recently, the Belgrade daily Politika -- considered the voice of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic -- announced that Vukovar was about to fall.
This weekend Vukovar was still in Croat hands.
But those remaining in Vukovar, once a town of 50,000, are hard pressed. They have little food. Although few reports have penetrated the army's wall of iron around Vukovar, the situation in the town is known to be desperate.
About 5,000 Croats, including 300 wounded and an unknown number of women and children, are believed to be inside. Hiding in basements -- without electricity, telephones, water or other supplies -- they are subjected to daily bombings and rocket and mortar fire.
Some reports speak of hundreds dead.
The town has been flattened and its familiar landmarks are gone, according to reports. The baroque castle that served as the town's museum has been badly damaged by heavy artillery fire. So has the Dunav Hotel on the banks of the Danube. The Vukovar Department Store burned down after being hit by rocket fire. It is hard to find a building that has escaped damage.
For all their grief, the refugees who were expelled from Ilok and the surrounding area have cause to consider themselves lucky. Indeed, their expulsion two days ago provided the first snapshots of what could be the eventual resolution of the Yugoslavian war: a forced exchange of people from mixed ethnic areas followed by a redrawing of the borders alloting Serbia many of the large chunks of territory that it -- or the Serb-led army -- has seized.
It is a far more probable outcome than the negotiated settlements advanced so far by the European Community, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and others.