Day of Remembering the Victims of Croatia War of Independence and Day of Remembering Victims of Vukovar and Skabrnja

Holy Cross at Ovcara Farm, Vukovar, Croatia
Holy Cross at Ovcara Farm, Vukovar, Croatia adorned with rosary beads from pilgrims and mourners

November 18 the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Homeland War and the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Vukovar and Škabrnja.

When Croatia formally declared independence on 25 June 1991, its Serb minority openly renounced the authority of the newly proclaimed state. In August 1990, the rebellion started, and in 1991, backed by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav People’s Army (YPA/Jugoslavenska narodna armija/JNA) and Serbian authorities, the insurgents declared an independent Serbian state covering one-third of Croatia’s territory, intending to carry out systematic ethnic cleansing of Croats and other non-Serbian populations. From mid-1991, almost the entire territory of the Republic of Croatia was affected by heavy fighting, ethnic cleansing of Croats from the Serb-occupied areas, torture, rape, destruction…

The city of Vukovar today, 18 November 2022, marks 31 years since the collapse of the city’s heroic defence and the aggression of the former Yugoslav National Army (JNA) and Serb paramilitaries, in which some 3,000 Croatian veterans and civilians were killed and went missing, and the city was almost razed to the ground.

The city of Vukovar, on the Danube, was under siege for 87 days, and the battle for Vukovar ended on November 18, 1991, with its occupation which lasted until January 15, 1998 and the peaceful reintegration of the Croatian Eastern Slavonia and Western Syrmia and Baranja area ended the Serb occupation in the region. Ethnic cleansing of Croats and non-Serbs from the region meant that many were tortured, killed or turned into refugees and displaced masses. After the Peaceful Reintegration of the region, which regretfully gave hundreds of Serbs who fled to Serbia in fear of retribution for their heinous crimes amnesty against being prosecuted for war crimes, the Vukovar Croats and other people finally began returning to their home city to build life anew among the ruins and devastation.

Although fighting and clashes in and around Vukovar began earlier, e.g. Borovo village on the outskirts of Vukovar that saw a massacre of twelve Croatian policemen by local rebel Serbs, August 25, 1991 is usually cited as the date of the start of the Battle for Vukovar when the JNA and Serb paramilitaries launched a general tank-infantry attack with the intention of capturing the city in a week at most. However, the Croatian defenders, although numerically ten times weaker in terms of weapons, managed to last almost three months. Their defence was weakened and obstructed severely by the UN Arms Embargo and the Yugoslav Army was considered to be the third largest in Europe. Began ethnic cleansing of Croats from Vukovar, hundreds of Croatian civilians and defence volunteer men forcefully taken to concentration camps and prisons within Serbia – such as Begejci, Sremska Mitrovica and Stajicevo –  and later Serbs opening new concentration camps near Vukovar (e.g. Velepromet and Ovcara) where torture, rape and murder were daily horrors endured. The residents that still remained in Vukovar were without electricity and an orderly supply of water and food as a full-blown attack saw hundreds of projectiles fell on the city every day with tank and air attacks.

Hence, the Yugoslav People’s Army, aided by Serb Territorial forces and paramilitaries from Serbia, launched a full-blown attack on Vukovar in eastern Croatia on August 25, 1991, beginning a siege that would last for 87 days and leave thousands of Croat soldiers and civilians dead before the town’s Croatian defenders had to surrender.

The Vukovar hospital suffered extensive damage from Serb shelling despite the International Red Cross visibly painted on its roof, and the treating of the wounded was provided in impossible conditions in the hospital basement. On October 19, 1991, a humanitarian convoy of Doctors Without Borders managed to enter the besieged city of Vukovar, rescuing about a hundred wounded veterans from the hospital.

Vukovar was defended by about 1,800 Croatian defenders, including many volunteers from all over Croatia and from the diaspora as well as foreigners from countries like France, Germany, Ireland and on the opposite side were about 30,000 enemy soldiers, aided by more than 600 tanks, hundreds of mortars and cannons, and the air force.

The heroic Croatian resistance was broken on November 18, 1991. Part of the Croatian defenders tried to get out of the city in breakthroughs. Those who remained were taken to Serb concentration camps, and many were killed. On November 19, the Yugoslav army evacuated the wounded, veterans, and civilians from the Vukovar hospital, who were killed on the night of November 20-21 at the nearby Ovčara farm. 200 victims were exhumed from the mass grave in Ovčara, the youngest of whom was 16 years old, and the oldest 84 years old. Subsequent forensic investigation of a mass grave at Ovčara farm of victims killed by the Serbian army in 1991 showed that 198 male and 2 female bodies (one of a pregnant woman) in civilian clothes were exhumated from the site. The determined manner of death for all 200 exhumed bodies was homicide, and the cause of death for 95% of the victims was a gunshot wound to a vital part of the body, in 67% of cases to the head. Traces of medical treatment and hospital workwear were found on 53% of the victims.

About 22,000 Croats and other non-Serbs were expelled, ethnically cleansed, from the city.

On October 29, 1999, the Croatian Parliament passed a decision to proclaim the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Vukovar in 1991 in order to pay tribute with dignity and appropriateness to all participants in the defence of that city – the symbol of Croatian freedom. By the decision of the Government from 2019, November 18 was declared a holiday and a non-working day and is marked as the Day of Remembrance for the victims of the Homeland War and the Day of Remembrance for the victims of Vukovar and Skabrnja.

The Škabrnja massacre (Škabrnja), also known as Skabrnja and Nadin massacre, was a war crime perpetrated by Serb Army forces during the Croatian War of Independence. On November 18, 1991, Serb paramilitaries, supported by the Yugoslav People’s Army/JNA, captured the village of Skabrnja, some 25 kilometres east of the coastal city of Zadar, and murdered, massacred, 62 civilians and 5 prisoners of war. The massacre occurred shortly after an agreement to evacuate Zadar’s YPA/JNA garrison following an increase in fighting between the Croatian National Guard and the Yugoslav People’s Army. Most of the killings were committed by the Self-proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina troops which followed the leading armoured Yugoslav Army units fighting their way into Skabrnja on 18 November. During the initial attack, the attacking force employed a human shield of captured Croatian civilians forced to walk in front of armoured vehicles. Most of the civilian population fled the village and about 120–130 were captured by the Yugoslav Army and detained in the village school and kindergarten. However, others who took shelter in basements were killed in or just outside their homes. A portion of those killed in the massacre were buried in a mass grave in Skabrnja, while dozens of bodies were turned over to Croatian authorities.

Afterwards several Croatians also died there when stepping on landmines left by Serbs. In total, 86 people were killed, mostly the women, or the elderly during the war in Skabrnja village. Skabrnja and Nadin were ethnically cleansed of its Croatian and other non-Serb population and annexed to the Self-proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina, remaining there until the Croatian forces reintegrated them back in 1995 with the swift, heroic, and determined military operation “Storm”.

To recapture, thirty-one years ago, on 18 November 1991, after three months of siege, the almost completely destroyed Vukovar was occupied by attacking Yugoslav People’s Army and Serbian rebels. On the same day, about 300 kilometres south-west of Vukovar, 62 civilians and 5 prisoners of war, mostly of Croatian nationality, were killed in a massacre in the small villages of Skabrnja and nearby Nadin. These two tragic events marked November 18 as the saddest moment of recent Croatian history that captures the horror and terror that Croats endured just because they wanted to secede from communist Yugoslavia and become an independent democratic state. The tragedies in Vukovar and Skabrnja have become symbols of suffering and will forever remind future generations of the victims who gave their lives for a free and independent Croatia. Lest Te Forget! Ina Vukic

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