The Occupation of Tovarnik – Where the Yugoslav People’s Army had its Teeth Smashed

On 22 September 1991, the border village of Tovarnik in Srijem was occupied, after which the Yugoslav People’s Army (YPA) and rebel Serb Chetnik troops began to expel and massacre the remaining Croatian population.

The primary attack began on 20 September and the small amount of poorly armed defenders put up a fierce resistance. The village was defended by approximately three hundred locals, 30 policemen from Slavonski Brod and Varaždin and a number of members of the 1st A Brigade of the Croatian National Guard (CNG) who were originally destined for Ilok. Initially, they resisted the attacks and managed to capture two YPA tanks. The defense of the village continued through 21 September which was the Feast of St. Matthew, the patron saint of the church parish in Tovarnik. On that day, the church bell tower was particularly targeted. However, the defense of the village was broken on the third day when the 252nd Armoured Brigade of the YPA from Kraljevo, Serbia joined the attack. Although the first assault was successfully repelled, the second in the afternoon was too strong.

The YPA and rebel Serbs occupied the village during the night of 22 September. Some of Tovarnik’s defenders and civilian population broke through to the village of Nijemci while the majority fled towards Ilok. In the days that followed, dozens of Croats were killed, many were taken to camps in Vojvodina, Serbia and the elderly who remained in their homes suffered constant abuse and harassment.

After refugees from Tovarnik returned to their homes in 1997, 53 victims including village pastor and martyr Rev. Ivan Burik were exhumed from a mass grave. Other victims were disinterred from secondary graves and jointly ushered to their final resting place in Tovarnik’s cemetery on 31 January 1998, a day remembered as “The Day when Tovarnik Wept.”

In 2012, the War Crimes Chamber of the Vukovar County Court issued a first-instance, non-final verdict sentencing those responsible for committing war crimes in 1991 in Tovarnik to a total of 42 years in prison. However, this shamefully light sentence was revoked upon appeal by the State Attorney’s Office and the case sent for retrial so that as of yet no one has been held criminally responsible for the massacres in Tovarnik.

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