Croatia commemorated on Monday the fall of Vukovar in 1991, when Croatian defenses broke down after a relentless three month siege by the Serb-led Yugoslav Army and backed by Serb paramilitary forces.
The fall of Vukovar to Serb forces on November 18, 1991 claimed the lives of 1,624 Croatian soldiers and civilians and forced the exodus of 22 thousand people from the city.
Several thousand people marched on Monday in the Remembrance Procession, a 5.5 kilometer walk from the city's hospital to the Memorial Cemetery, to commemorate the soldiers who died defending Vukovar and the civilian victims of the fighting.
"My younger son and my husband went to try and push through enemy lines. My husband disappeared without a trace. My son made it through. My older son was captured in the city center and taken to Velepromet, where he also disappeared," Marija Mirjak, who is a member of the Vukovar Mothers' Association, told Croatian Radio.
Katica Majić is also still searching for her son, who was wounded and taken from Vukovar Hospital on a stretcher.
“They called out his full name, Robert Majić. The Chetniks took him. He was born right here in this hospital in 1971. It was the happiest moment of my life and in 1991, it was the saddest,” Majić said.
The fate of more than 300 people who vanished in the aftermath of the siege is still unknown. This remains a major sticking point in relations between Croatia and Serbia. Croatia has accused Serbia of refusing to hand over records that may shed light on what happened to these people. Many survivors are angry and frustrated because they feel the people who are responsible for the war crimes that were committed in Vukovar have never been brought to justice.
"We are still looking for people who were killed at Ovčara, Velepromet or taken to POW camps all over the place. People know who did these things, but nobody wants to investigate and bring these cases to trial," said Zvonimir, a soldier who fought in Vukovar.
Croatia's leaders attended today's memorial events and said the government was working hard on the issue of missing persons, in particular, obtaining records from Belgrade. The government will not stop until this issue is resolved, vowed Prime Minister Andrej Plenković.
"I think there has to be some political will for the records that currently exists in Belgrade to be delivered to Croatia so that we can know the fate of all of our missing people. As far as Serbia's accession to the EU is concerned, that a very controlled process with many conditions attached to it and a new methodology. It is going to take a very long time," Plenković responded when asked if Croatia would bloc Serbia's EU accession until then.
Parliament Speaker Gordan Jandroković was more direct.
"Serbia will have to turn over its records. Croatia is a member of the European Union. There are mechanisms at our disposal when it comes to the accession negotiations of any state that is seeking to join the bloc," he said.
Veterans Minister Tomo Medved said the government stood behind families searching for the missing.
"We know and understand that every one of these families is eager to learn what happened to their loved ones. This is one of our top priorities and we will continue to work on this issue," said Medved.
Vukovar Mayor Ivan Penava said he appreciated the government's efforts on this front, but claims not enough was being done to prosecute war crimes. Interior Minister Davor Božinović responded to the mayor’s criticism by pointing to a working group that has been tasked with investigating war crimes. He says that working group has made progress and has gathered lots of valuable information from the local community that could lead to charges being filed in some of these cases.
SDP leader Davor Bernardić expressed disappointment that the government has been unable to solve this issue and said it must be through the proper institutions.
"I would much prefer to be talking about Vukovar's bright future today, a future where young people have a chance at making it, regardless of their religion or ethnicity, and a Vukovar where they choose to stay and raise their families. That's the Vukovar we want and dream about," said Bernardić.
The Prime Minister believes there are policies in the pipeline that will improve Vukovar's prospects. One, in particular, is a bill on stimulating investment in Vukovar, which is awaiting approval from the European Commission.