Tovarnik, a Croatian village near the border with Serbia had since 17 November become the newest hotspot in the EU refugee crisis. Refugees and migrants broke through a police line at Tovarnik on September 17, as Croatia struggled to deal with the sudden influx of people. With the border between Serbia and Hungary closed, thousands of refugees and migrants made their way to Croatia, a great majority through Tovarnik. According to some sources about 35000 refugees and migrants had come into Croatia within the week, stayed a couple of days and were moved on to continue their journey to their desired destination within the EU, leaving distressing amounts of garbage strewn everywhere and hygienic devastation behind.
What the world reporting on Tovarnik these days doesn’t report or mention are the events of 22 September 1991 that occurred in it. In September 1991 Tovarnik, a place near Vukovar, was a place of genocidal murders, horrific tortures and ethnic cleansing of Croats and some other non-Serbs by the Serb rebels and Serb led Yugoslav army.
On 22 September 1991, 68 innocent civilians were murdered and massacred in Tovarnik and many more in the days that followed.
Hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles moved in columns from Belgrade and Novi Sad in Serbia, heading for Vukovar but came across fierce determination in Croats to defend Croatia as they passed through the villages of Tovarnik, Ilaca, Bogdanovci and others. Croatian resistance to Serb aggression was fierce even if the Croatian defenders had little or no weapons or ammunition of speak of.
But, the killings, the beatings to death, starvation, and unimaginable physical and psychological torture were daily occurrences in the house of dr Djordje Cvejic, which was turned into a concentration and torture camp. During late 1991 at least 300 Croatian soldiers and civilians passed through that house owned by that ethnic Serb, mostly from Tovarnik and surrounding places. People that were not killed in that house were taken at a mass gravesite and killed there and buried, after being tortured at the house. Father Ivan Burik, Tovarnik’s long-standing parish priest was murdered and buried there. More than 95% of 2,500 Croats that lived in Tovarnik were forced out of their homes to flee, were ethnically cleansed by Serbs and ended up destitute refugees. The elderly and women that were permitted to remain in Tovarnik had to wear white ribbons around their sleeves as a sign that they were of Croatian nationality. The same sign (white ribbons) marked their homes.
Trial on criminal charges laid against Milos Stanomirovic and 14 other persons of Serb ethnic background for war crimes committed in Tovarnik after 20 September 1991 commenced in March 2010 in the District court in Vukovar. Charges laid against them said that they forcefully deported from Tovarnik Croatian and other non-Serb population, killed and physically abused and stole or destroyed the property belonging to Croats and had, therefore, committed acts against humanity and international law – genocide.
Verdits and sentencing were delivered on 23 April 2012: Milos Stanomirovic, Dusan Stupar, Bosko Miljkovic, Dragan Sedlic, Zeljko Krnjajic and Radoslav Stanimirovic were found guilty. Milos Stanimirovic received 10 year prison sentence, Srdic and Miljkovic 8 years, Stupar, Krnjajic and Sedlic 6 years, and Radoslav Stanimirovic 5 years.
24 years after September 1991 Tovarnik sees tens of thousands of refugees passing through the still battle-scarred eastern Croatia, where vivid memories of their own war inspired the local people to help these victims of distant conflicts as well as poverty stricken lands.
“Yesterday, locals came down here with 20 cars full of food and water,” Robert Martinkovic said on Monday 21 September as he helped fellow volunteers clear a makeshift transit camp near the Croatia-Serbia border for refugees, predominantly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “We understand completely what this means for this people, what it means to be a refugee.”
The war of Serb aggression in Croatia killed about 20,000 people, most of them Croats, and displaced hundreds of thousands. Eastern Croatia (where Tovarnik sits) suffered the worst atrocities, and the biggest massacre occurred at Vukovar. For three months in 1991, a couple of thousand lightly armed Croats defended Vukovar from more than 35,000 Yugoslav troops, as Serb commanders pounded the city with tanks, heavy artillery and bomber aircraft. Barely a building was left undamaged.
Twenty-two thousand people fled Vukovar, and about 1,700 Croats were killed before Serb-led military groups overran the city on November 19, 1991. When they did, hundreds of people sought shelter in Vukovar’s hospital, from which they hoped to be evacuated. Instead, the Serbs transported about 250 fighters and civilians to a nearby pig farm at Ovcara, where they were tortured and shot dead. Their bodies were later found in a mass grave not far from the city.
“Throughout the territory…crimes were widespread and systematic. They included the destruction of Croatian communities; forced deportations of thousands of citizens; murder, torture and extermination; and the unlawful confinement of civilians. Areas that were affected by these crimes were Celije, Daljski Atar, Dalj, Dalj Planina, Sarvas, Ernestinovo, Laslovo, Erdut, Aljmas, Lovas, Sarengrad, Tovarnik and Bapska. And there was Vukovar, where violent criminals devoid of even the slightest hint of humanity perpetrated the single largest massacre in Croatia during the war,” page 120, The Devil’s Garden: A War Crimes Investigator’s Story, By John R. Cencich.
The people of Tovarnik embraced with good will and assistance the refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries during the week as they arrived in tens of thousands. Croatian defenders fought the Serbian troops advancing toward Vukovar through Tovarnik almost barehanded in 1991. On 22 September 1991 68 of them lost their lives in the most brutal of ways! Lest we forget! Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb), B.A., M.A.Ps. (Syd)