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Crowds at Tito widow's funeral

The funeral of the former first lady of Yugoslavia, Jovanka Broz, is drawing crowds of those who remember the ex-communist federation as a haven of peace, prosperity and equality.

Carrying roses, wreaths and symbols of the past era which broke up in bloodshed more than 20 years ago, hundreds have gathered since the early hours today at a memorial complex in Belgrade, Serbia, where Jovanka Broz will be buried close to her late husband, former Yugoslavia's communist leader Josip Broz Tito.

One woman in the crowd, Radojka Zivotic, says that "we came to pay our respects and remember happy times".

Jovanka Broz became Tito's wife in 1952. After he died in 1980, Tito's successors accused her of planning a coup and placed her under house arrest. She died last Sunday at the age of 88.

"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.

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 recognise."

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.

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 2000, when a pro-democracy Serbian government moved to improve her status. Dacic said at the funeral that "it is time to admit we committed a sin."

Ivan Sarcevic, 64, from the northern Serbian town of Subotica, said: "It's a great shame how this country treated her, nothing can redeem us."

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