BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Former Yugoslavia's first lady Jovanka Broz was laid to rest Saturday near the grave of her husband Josip Broz Tito, mourned by a throng who remembered his ex-communist federation as a haven of peace, prosperity and equality more than 20 years after it broke up in bloodshed.
Carrying roses, wreaths and symbols of the past era, many wept as they lined up since early hours Saturday at a memorial complex where the tomb of Tito, the former communist leader, is located.
The crowds swelled to some 1,500 people later in the day. As mourners rushed to visit the grave, police had to intervene to restore order and allow smaller groups into the complex.
"Today, we don't just bid farewell to Jovanka Broz, we bid farewell to Tito's era," Serbia's Prime Minister Ivica Dacic said in a speech. "Today marks the departure of the last icon of the former Yugoslavia."
While vilified during the nationalist euphoria that followed the bloody breakup in the early 1990s, Yugoslavia has since regained in popularity, even among the younger generations that were born after the country disintegrated — a phenomenon explained by the brutal reality of postwar and post-communist transition.
Tito's grave has been a pilgrimage point for the admirers of the former Yugoslavia for years. They come in buses each May from all over the former country to celebrate Tito's birthday or mourn his death in 1980.
Tito's supporters also returned Saturday to honor Jovanka Broz, who was his wife for nearly 30 years but lived in isolation after his death. She died last Sunday at the age of 88.
"We came to pay our respects and remember happy times," said Radojka Zivotic, a Belgrade woman.
Sergej Nikolov traveled all the way from Macedonia, the southernmost former Yugoslav republic.
"I have always been and always will be a Yugoslav," Nikolov said. "That is the only country I recognize."
Although he ruled with a heavy hand, Tito kept close ties with the West and allowed some freedoms — such as free travel — to the Yugoslavs. The communist state also provided job security and relative prosperity to its citizens, who later have found transition to market economy hard to bear.
Jovanka Broz fought with the Partisan guerrillas led by Tito during the war and married Tito in 1952. Over the next two decades, Broz — known by her trademark black-haired bun and elegant dresses— accompanied Tito during his many international trips and at meetings with foreign leaders and celebrities, including British royals, U.S. President Richard Nixon and Hollywood stars.
The couple started having problems and drifted apart in the 1970s.
After Tito died in 1980, Tito's successors accused the widow of planning a coup and placed her under house arrest. Broz lived in isolation as the six-member federation fell apart in early 1990s in a series of ethnic conflicts. Seven independent nations emerged after warfare that left about 100,000 people dead and millions homeless.
Broz's rights were only partially restored after year 2000, when a pro-democracy Serbian government moved to improve her status. Serbian PM Dacic said at the funeral that "it is time to admit we committed a sin."
Ivan Sarcevic, a 64-year old from the northern Serbian town of Subotica, said "it's a great shame how this country treated her, nothing can redeem us."