Tens of thousands of Croatians gathered in the eastern city of Vukovar on Sunday to commemorate one of the bloodiest episode of the Balkan nation’s 1990s war for independence.
Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic and Croatian President Ivo Josipovic attended the memorial ceremony, which drew about 50,000 people.
Also present was general Mladen Markac, whose conviction for war crimes was overturned on appeal on Friday by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
“My heart told me that I have to come here, and I did,” Markac told national TV.
Mourners gathered at the town’s hospital, a wartime symbol of resistance, then proceeded to a memorial cemetery, where they lit candles and laid wreaths for those killed during and after the city’s three-month siege.
“We are here again to remember Vukovar’s suffering, to remember innocent victims, and promise our children that anything similar will never happen again,” Josipovic said.
The fall of Vukovar to the Serbs in 1991 marked the start of Croatia’s war of independence from the former Yugoslavia, which claimed about 20,000 lives.
However, the battle for the city was crucial for Croatia because it stalled Yugoslav forces long enough to give Zagreb time to arm and prepare troops.
During the siege of the city, about 1,600 defenders and civilians were killed and the town was virtually razed to the ground. Afterward, Yugoslav forces expelled about 22,000 Croats and other non-Serbs, almost half of its population.
Some of those attending carried Croatian flags and a giant banner with photographs of Markac and Ante Gotovina, the other general freed on appeal by the tribunal.
Both Gotovina and Markac had already received a hero’s welcome home after The Hague-based tribunal acquitted them on Friday.
Markac and Gotovina, were initially convicted and last year sentenced to 24 and 18 years in jail respectively for war crimes against ethnic Serbs.
Croatians have been euphoric over their successful appeal at the Hague-based court and Vukovar Mayor Zeljko Sabo invited both men to attend Sunday’s commemoration, though Gotovina did not appear.
In 1991, about 400 wounded Croats and other non-Serbs were evacuated from the hospital by the Yugoslav People’s Army.
Soldiers then bused about 260 evacuees to a secluded pig farm a few kilometers away, where they were beaten, killed and buried in mass graves.