I’M writing this from the town of Vukovar that sits on the banks of the Danube River in Croatia. It’s perhaps not a place many readers will have heard of, other than those who recall events of exactly 30 years ago when Vukovar became the bloody epicentre of the opening salvoes in the wars that marked the break up of the former Yugoslavia.

I was here back then too in 1991 as a journalist reporting from inside the beleaguered town during part of the 87-day long siege – the culmination of which saw Vukovar’s fall to the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) supported by Serb paramilitaries, some of whom committed what was the first mass atrocity in Europe since the Second World War.

At its height, the battle for Vukovar saw some of the fiercest and most protracted fighting since 1945, with up to 12,000 shells a day fired by Serb forces exploding into this community of some 30,000 people. Yesterday, I visited the site of what is sometimes referred to as the Ovcara massacre. There, some 260 patients and staff from Vukovar hospital, mainly Croats, were taken to a nearby pig farm where they were held and beaten while Serb paramilitary forces prepared a mass grave. The victims were then dumped after being shot dead in batches of 10 and 20 over a four-hour period.

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Today, on a quiet plain stands a monument where those people were brutally slain, while nearby at the farm sits a memorial centre where visitors enter a darkened warehouse, on the walls of which are ghostly projected images of the hundreds of victims. In the evisceration of Vukovar – for that is what it was – the oldest victim of the battle was in their 90s, while the youngest was just a few months old.

Walking around the Ovcara massacre memorial and later talking to Croatian survivors of the battle for Vukovar these past few days, I was reminded of just how easy it is for ethnic hatred to take root.

That it did so right in the heart of Europe not all that long ago came as a shock to many.

“Never again” was the cry after the Second World War, but here being repeated was the spectre of concentration camps and mass atrocities happening on our European doorstep.

Vukovar, like so many places in the former Yugoslavia, was a community where up until that explosion of enmity, Serb and Croat lived side by side as neighbours. But something changed all that and people who had gone to school or worked alongside each other found themselves facing off across a frontline. Only yesterday I talked with a Croatian man who told me how he ended up in a detention camp after Vukovar’s fall, where Serbs that tortured and beat him had been his neighbours before the war.

From Vukovar back in 1991 this odious breakdown spread to other places that had comprised the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo among them. Other towns and cities too followed Vukovar into the abyss. Sarajevo, Mostar, Srebrenica were among the more infamous where mass murder, ethnic cleansing, deportation, mass rape and other crimes against humanity were committed.

I remember reading around that time of the war someone describe how the entire region was “drunk on slivovitz and nationalism,” a reference to powerful and intoxicating fruit brandy and political fervour that gripped whole communities at that time.

There is a warning there for all who embrace nationalism, a lesson on how it can blinker, twist, contort even the most seemingly reasonable and rational. Vukovar was a reminder too of how unbridled nationalism can be such a force of evil, a dynamic that starts wrapped in flags and slogans with talk of freedom and independence but can tip remorselessly into division and intolerance, and in the case of the former Yugoslavia, a terrible violence.

“It could never happen here” goes the familiar refrain. “Such things only happen in far-off places with strange names and long simmering historical differences” argue many.

But as some of Vukovar’s survivors have told me these past days, that is what they thought until their world changed overnight and neighbours became enemies as one community’s definition and pursuit of nationalism was deemed superior to others.

Scotland is not the Yugoslavia of those days – far from it – but as someone desirous of independence, I, like many of my fellow Scots, have at times listened as a minority within our nation have become increasingly shrill in their denunciation of others whose nationalism they perceive or criticise as “tame” or “not fit for purpose”.

We must tread warily here, remaining ever vigilant that the voices of division who seem obsessed with a “them and us” mindset within Scotland’s independence community, or see our English neighbours forever as a threat or adversary, do not begin to damage the civic nationalism on which our aspirations must rest.

To some in Scotland, and indeed elsewhere, the very word “nationalism” makes them feel uneasy. Talking to people in Vukovar these past days was to be reminded of why such apprehension exists and why many find it difficult to subscribe to a political philosophy, ideal or movement that in their own mind is all about division and separation.

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Nationalism as we know takes many forms, but for Scotland it is only the inclusive kind, the civic nationalism that adheres to the values of tolerance, freedom, equality and individual rights, that I for one wish to see independence emerge from.

Over the coming days and weeks I will be continuing my journey across Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina and doubtless will hear many more stories likes those I have listened to from ordinary people here in Vukovar who suffered when caught in the maelstrom of those political events back in the 1990s.

I welcome hearing such stories for they put so much back home in Scotland into political perspective for me. Above all else, they act as a valuable lesson of nationalism’s dark side and how all too easy it is to cross a line that results in so much unnecessary division and pain.