Milosevic buried after funeral in hometown

Preceding rally in Belgrade draws 60,000 mourners

March 19, 2006|By ALISSA J. RUBIN | ALISSA J. RUBIN,LOS ANGELES TIME

POZAREVAC, Serbia and Montenegro -- Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was buried in his hometown yesterday on a day that had the air of a political rally, with fervent crowds chanting his nickname, "Slobo," as though he were still their leader.

Although more than 60,000 defiant supporters had gathered in the capital, Belgrade, earlier in the day to commemorate the former president, the burial service here in a small central Serbian town was low-key and oddly devoid of emotion.

Neither Milosevic's widow, Mirjana Markovic, nor his children, Marko and Marija, attended the funeral, which was televised on a single Serbian network. Despite expectations that a Serbian Orthodox bishop would preside, Milosevic was buried after dark without a religious service under a linden tree in the garden of the house he owned here.

After letters were read from his widow and son, leaders of the Socialist Party he once led kissed the simple wooden grave marker, followed by two boys and a girl dressed in camouflage uniforms.

The burial came a week after Milosevic died in a United Nations detention facility in The Hague, where he was on trial on genocide and war-crimes charges. During the 1990s, he led his countrymen into nationalist wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia's Kosovo province that left more than 225,000 people dead.

Conversations with Milosevic supporters and critics over the past several days suggest that his legacy here will be one of widespread distrust and alienation from the West. Regardless of whether Serbs loved or hated him, they share a sense that this part of the world has been treated unjustly and almost always misunderstood.

"The most lasting legacy for Serbia is how he divided Serbia from the rest of the world," said Ljiljana Smajlovic, the editor in chief of Politika, one Serbia's largest daily newspapers. "In The Hague, Milosevic was representing a catalog of Serbian grievances, and people listened to that."

Milosevic died a far more popular man than when he was deposed on Oct. 5, 2000. The five years he spent in The Hague burnished his image as television beamed him into Serbian homes facing down lawyers and judges in a foreign court.

Unexplained circumstances of Milosevic's death have exacerbated the image of the West as agents of evil.

The International Crisis Group, a Washington- and Brussels-based research organization, counts 71 percent of Serbian deputies as holding openly or secretly anti-Western views.

"The majority of Serbs agreed with Milosevic's reading of history, and the government did nothing to undo the Milosevic propaganda. ... They continued to strengthen the myths and lies, and they are now even stronger because they are being repeated by democrats," said James Lyon, the director of the crisis group's Belgrade office. He pointed out that yesterday's rally in Belgrade, which was organized by ultranationalists and Socialists, had the tacit approval of the government of Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.

However, the government refused to hold a state funeral for Milosevic or bury him in a place of honor in the Belgrade cemetery, suggesting that there is considerable difference of opinion in official circles about how to treat the former leader.

The mood at the rally in Belgrade was sober but angry. Some people refused to talk to Western journalists, waving them away.

The second ceremony of the day took place in Milosevic's hometown on an alluvial plain between the Danube and the Morava river. Nearby is a U.S. Steel of Serbia factory that belches fumes into the air.

As a fine, chilly rain began to fall, thousands of supporters lined the main streets, people threw red roses and red carnations at his hearse, and a small brass band played a funeral march.

Many supporters had come in buses, but many were local residents who felt a need both to defend and explain Milosevic and the Serbs.

"We were represented as monsters in the international community," said Dragana Ocokoljic, 43, an official in the local prison and a member of the municipal council. "We are a civilized people. I have read 3,000 books.

"The West said they would help us when they brought down Milosevic, but in fact everything was even worse. ... Now Serbia is waking up, and this funeral is part of that."

Alissa J. Rubin writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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