By Boris Pavelic and Bojana Barlovac
Tens of thousands of Croats gathered at the main square in the capital to greet army generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac after they were acquitted of war crimes charges in the Hague.
Euphoric Croats waved national flags and held up photos of the generals along with banners reading “Pride of Croatia” while patriotic songs blasted from speakers.
The main square was covered in red smoke from flares, with the crowd singing “My Croatia” and chanting Vukovar when the generals arrived.
Gotovina thanked the crowd and state institutions for the support. He said: “The future is in our hands and we are all together. Thank you and good luck”.
Markac also addressed the crowd saying ” I carried my homeland in my heart and my homeland are all of you”.
“I knew there was no joint criminal enterprise, I knew that the Croatian army and police liberated the country in an honorouble way”
He added that he is “happy that everyone now can say that Croatian liberation was without a stain.
“Croatia is free” he concluded.
Along with Gotovina and Markac’s photos on a big screen a sign read “Thank God, welcome home”.
The government has sent an official plane to bring Gotovina and Markac back to Croatia on Friday. They landed in Zagreb around 4pm.
Branko, a 60 year old Croat told Balkan Insight that “today is the most beautiful day as justice has prevailed and light has shined on Croatia”. Ana, a 49 year old from Vukovar was also emotional saying she lived to see this day arrive.
“After seven years of torture in the Hague now the entire world knows that this grave error has been rectified and that the Croats have been victims not villains.”
Earlier, the Hague Tribunal ruling was watched live on the main square in the Croatian capital Zagreb, with many citizens, mostly veterans of the independence war, present. The sentence was watched live also in several other cities, including Zadar, where Gotovina was army commander for several years.
As Judge Theodor Meron read out the sentence, the mood in the crowd changed rapidly from one of fear to cheer. When Meron announced the acquittal, loud celebrations erupted.
Last night, thousands of Croats responded to appeals to attend church services and pray for the release of the two generals.
“We always knew that ‘Operation Storm’ wasn’t a joint criminal enterprise. There were crimes, but Gotovina and Markac weren’t guilty for them,” Croatian President Ivo Josipovic declared soon after.
Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic made a similar statement. “Gotovina and Markac are obviously innocent, but that doesn’t mean that the [independence] war wasn’t bloody, that mistakes were not done,” he said.
“There were mistakes, and for them Croatian state is responsible. To all these we did harm, Croatia will repay,” Milanovic added, expressing gratitude to Gotovina and Markac “for withstanding so much for Croatia”.
Stipe Mesic, Croatia’s former President, said ther verdict was welcome but should not be politicised.
“The politicization of the decisions made by the ICTY Appeals Chamber would not serve Croatia or Croatian image in Europe and in the world,” he said.
“Verdicts to individuals, whoever they were and whatever they were, were never judgments on Croatian soldiers, the Croatian people and the Croatian state, as was once claimed.
“Today’s decision should not be an obstacle to a much needed facing the truth about the past and learning lessons from the past. It’s about time for Croatia to move forward.”
Serbian officials have slated the ruling as shocking and scandalous, saying it only confirmed the Hague’s political agenda.