As jailed Milosevic readies for trial, his nation suffers

Yugoslavs struggle to live, denying guilt

February 10, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia - He lost his youthful illusions about the supposed glories of war when he was in a cornfield in Croatia. A decade later, he rushed through tear gas on Belgrade's streets to help pull down the regime that had ignited the fighting that broke Yugoslavia apart.

Now, Nebojsa Pavlovic wants to forget a past whose most important figure is Yugoslavia's former president, Slobodan Milosevic.

Milosevic goes on trial Tuesday in The Hague on charges of war crimes - the first head of state to be so charged. His countrymen, however, are reluctant to question themselves about their role in his actions.

"I don't care about Slobodan Milosevic," says Pavlovic, an army veteran who is chief of maintenance for Belgrade's bus fleet. "He harmed us. He took from us 10 years of our lives. He made us live in complete fear and on the edge of total destruction."

These are unusual days for the people of what remains of Milosevic's Yugoslavia. They yearn to bury a past that keeps intruding on the present.

Milosevic is charged with crimes against humanity in the conduct of wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo; he is also charged with genocide in Bosnia. Since he is being tried, what of his fellow citizens who followed his nationalist path to war and ruin? The question hangs in the winter air as surely as do the fog and coal smoke blanketing Belgrade.

"Most people were not involved in the war, so they don't want to admit what was done," Pavlovic says. "This is the way you protect yourself."

That is the refrain, that they were "not involved." Milosevic, however, was elected three times as president of Serbia and then president of Yugoslavia. He and his cadre of gangsters and ideologues sought a "Greater Serbia" and ignited the collapse of multi-ethnic Yugoslavia. The Balkan wars of the 1990s left more than 200,000 people dead or missing and 2 million displaced.

Milosevic came to prominence in 1987 when he promised Serbs that no one would ever be allowed to defeat them. In 1991, after Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, his army captured nearly a third of it. In 1992, when Bosnia declared independence, his allies launched three years of fighting that became the bloodiest in Europe since World War II. In 1995, Croatia recaptured most of its territory, and NATO bombed Bosnian Serbs. Hundreds of thousands became refugees.

In 1999, the Yugoslav army began forcing ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo. NATO bombed Belgrade and forced his troops to withdraw in defeat. When he called elections in 2000, a national strike forced him to recognize the victory of his opponent, Vojislav Kostunica. And Milosevic's presidency ended.

After the lost wars and years of protests, the people of this old city are exhausted by politics. Many of them don't care about the trial at The Hague but can't help but see what was done in their name.

Pavlovic ponders it as he sits in the two-room apartment he shares with his parents, wife and two children, in a down-at-the-heels neighborhood of decades-old cars and dogs running wild.

He tells of getting drafted at the start of the Balkan wars, fighting that was started "not by intellectuals but by those whose hands were calloused." In Croatia in 1991 and 1992, he commanded a Yugoslav Army artillery unit. His most fearful moment was in a cornfield. He and his men had just unloaded ordnance when they were attacked with grenades. He ordered his men to crawl beside their howitzer.

Then he prayed.

They all survived. But any illusions he had about war were gone. He was happy simply to be alive. For nearly 10 more years he lived under the cloak of Milosevic's rule, working quietly on the night shift in a bus maintenance shop for a meager wage. And then, like hundreds of thousands of others who felt they were being cheated by Milosevic in an election, he took to the streets on Oct. 5, 2000, and pushed the regime from power.

Six months later, the country's democratically elected officials bowed to world pressure by extraditing Milosevic to The Hague.

"There is no possibility for collective guilt," Pavlovic says of the Serbian people. It was Milosevic, he says, who was the criminal; the Serbs, the victims.

That may be difficult for outsiders to accept. Yet there is a case to be made that most Serbs didn't blindly follow Milosevic. Through much of the 1990s, there was a protest movement that nearly toppled the regime through peaceful demonstrations in the winter of 1996-1997.

Bojan Brkic, who once worked as an aide to a banker whose business empire mushroomed during the Milosevic years, is a correspondent for RTS. It is the once-reviled state TV network that spewed Milosevic's nationalist propaganda but now is more balanced.

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