Skip to main content

The Little Box That Contains the World: Serbia After the Death of Milosevic

ISSUE:  Summer 2006


I had taken them for hookers, but they were just ordinary smugglers. Mid-thirties, peroxide hair, tight counterfeit Levi’s and pink blouses: the two women eyed me with suspicion as I settled back in the shabby carmine plush of my seat. The Sofia-Belgrade train was not to leave for another ten minutes, but the air in the compartment was already so thick with cigarette smoke that I felt as if I were submerged in a fish tank that hadn’t been cleaned for months. The windows were almost greenish with dirt, both inside and out; the floor was littered with stubbed-out cigarette butts. I was left with no alternative but to light up myself. Join them if you can’t beat them. My cigarette seemed to reassure my blondish fellow travelers and they resumed their Serbian chitchat. It was then I noticed the cheap duffel bags with the stenciled ilientzi logo—the biggest wholesale outdoor market in Sofia, Bulgaria. Smugglers, of course.

Everything was quiet for a while, the train listlessly trundling along. I drifted in and out of sleep, my senses dulled by the iambic dimeter of the wheels, but was suddenly lifted out of my stupor when one of the women in the compartment got up from her seat and began to frantically search for something. It took me a minute to realize what was happening. She was looking for a place to hide the contents of her duffel bag. After a short, futile investigation, every nook and cranny apparently rendered useless, her eyes finally rested on me while she spoke in sputtering Serbian, half of which I barely managed to understand. Yes, she actually asked me if I minded her using my suitcase. My suitcase! No way, I thought, no fucking way. But she looked so panicked that I relented.

I pulled down my clunky suitcase from the rack and unzipped it. It was half-empty; I always travel strategically light. The woman opened her duffel bag and started taking out clothes with their original price tags still on—I was more than relieved (and somewhat disappointed) to find out she was simply trafficking clothes—and stuffed them between my own T-shirts and socks. “No narcotics, right?” I inquired halfheartedly. My question elicited just a quick, condescending smile. “No narcotics,” she said.

At the Bulgaria-Serbia border, when the train sighed to a halt between high prisonlike fences with crooked chicken wire running on top, our compartment received two official visits—first from Bulgarian customs officers and later on, a few hundred meters down the railroad, from their Serbian counterparts. Luggage was carefully probed, including the bags of the two women, but no one bothered to check mine. “What’s inside the suitcase?” a corpulent guy with beads of sweat on his upper lip demanded to know. “Personal items,” I answered, and that was that. In the ensuing silence the thump of the entry stamp fell on my passport, shattering the tension in the car. The sliding door slammed shut, and in a few more minutes the train jerked forward bearing me westward, deep into Serbian territory.

*  *  *  *  

“How long have you been in this kind of business?” I asked delicately.

Jasmina’s clothes, the merchandise I’d just helped smuggle into Serbia, were back in her duffle bag and my suitcase was, thankfully, half-empty once again.

“Thirteen years,” she said. Now that I had won her trust, she seemed quite willing to confabulate, temporarily ignoring her more sullen and reclusive companion. She went on to tell me that she used to work as a seamstress in a textile factory in Krusevac, a town in central Serbia, before the factory closed in 1993, like so many other factories during that period. The other woman, who didn’t give her name but would interject now and again, told me she had been a high-school chemistry teacher, but the circumstances had forced her to go into the more innocuous strains of trafficking. “We resell the clothes in our hometown,” the gregarious Jasmina chimed in again. “Unfortunately, at customs they allow us to import only a certain number of articles, so we need to find ways to smuggle in the rest.” She described her job with strange enthusiasm. “Otherwise, we’d either have to pay duty or bribe the customs officers, which would significantly reduce our profits.”

How often did they travel back and forth between Serbia and Bulgaria? Jasmina passed me her blue passport. On its front cover I could read Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, in spite of the fact that the country’s name had been constitutionally changed to the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro more than three years ago. Official documents, it seems, always remain the most durable repositories of the past, circulating in day-to-day life long after their issuing governments turn to ashes. The pages inside Jasmina’s passport were densely covered with exit and entry stamps. I took a closer look, trying to make out the dates. For the previous week alone, I could count at least four round-trips across the border. This meant she probably spent around 300 hours on the train each month. Quite the Willy Loman.

As I handed back her passport, I felt a new kind of itinerant intimacy—peculiar to strangers who find themselves thrown together on trains for long hours—so I ventured a question: “What do you think about Slobodan Milosevic, now that he is dead?”

In a calm, completely disinterested tone of voice Jasmina said: “Only my grandmother and my grandfather cried. His death didn’t touch me at all. My life didn’t change with his death, nothing changed.” Jasmina’s nameless friend nodded in agreement. “We’re still just as poor and don’t have regular jobs.” I waited for them to take on the subject of politics, but they fell quietly into thought. Jasmina conceded that there was a nostalgia for the old Yugoslavia, for the time before the country disintegrated into ethnic war. “Our salaries were very high and we could travel wherever we wished without visas. It used to be that Bulgarians and Romanians would come over to Yugoslavia to shop, instead of the other way around. And look at us now.”

What I saw were two young women striving to eke out a living who didn’t give a damn about politics. Despite the apparent hardships, they were putting in every effort to dress well, to be attractive, to belong to the consumer culture they were daily trafficking in. It was very difficult for me to conceive how these people, or their compatriots, had entered an internecine war that killed so many. Was it the slow poison of history? Or the swift dagger in Miloševic’s deadly hand?

*  *  *  *  

Serbia is a beautiful country. As the train was ponderously making its way northwest, toward Belgrade, I stood up in the narrow corridor, taking in the racing landscape (and fresh air, finally) through the wide-open windows. Rolling green hills, much like Pennsylvania’s, bobbed up and down; broadleaf woodlands were gradually replaced by orchards, vineyards, and farmland, every plot perfectly planned out and plowed. Small herds of cattle grazed the first tufts of grass; sheep methodically mowed a rural football stadium. The villages we passed through consisted mostly of one- or two-story bare redbrick houses huddled together, square as shoeboxes—all on the same architectural blueprint. Adjacent to almost every house was a barn and a coop, although many people had let their chickens and geese roam freely in the streets. Yes, the signs of poverty were visible everywhere, people subsisting mostly on small-scale agriculture, but, like an old coat mended and kept clean by its fastidious owner, the Serbian villages I observed were outwardly pleasant and perhaps even comfortable to live in. Their well-kept April gardens bespoke an inordinate love of flowers and fruit trees: daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, wild geraniums, and lilacs growing next to blossoming cherries and plums and apples. It was as if war had never visited here.

But this was a mistaken impression. Though the countryside bore no literal battle scars, the economic toll suffered by the country in the last fifteen years was obvious—dilapidated factories with toppled chimneystacks and broken windows like missing teeth; farms turned into junkyards for scrap iron; fields were strewn with bottles and garbage bags. The environmental impact, however, was far greater than the mere debris of economic collapse. Several locals later told me that fruit and vegetable crops had started to fail after the NATO bombings, and cancer rates had increased—a consequence most commonly attributed to the depleted uranium used in some NATO munitions (a problem familiar in Iraq today). In his 2001 report titled “Environmental Impacts of the NATO War in Yugoslavia,” Vucasin Pavlovic, director of the Belgrade-based ECOCenter, warned, “Depleted uranium is just one page in a very thick book of the ecological and health catastrophe caused by the NATO bombing.” He claimed that the deliberate targeting of petrochemical plants, refineries, and other highly hazardous industrial sites had caused significant damage to the environment of the Balkans and beyond. Genocide, ecocide—oftentimes it is hard to tell the difference.

*  *  *  *  

When I returned to the compartment, another man had taken a seat next to mine. Unlike the chic smugglers I’d spoken to earlier (who had already made off with their illegal cargo), his appearance suggested something altogether different and slightly unsettling. White hair grew sparsely on his balding pate. His face looked gaunt and weather-worn, the color of tanned leather, but still taut and defiant in its expression, the brash face of someone who knows he has survived. I peered into his eyes—brown, rimmed by colder blue—and couldn’t decide if they were in the process of freezing or thawing. Rough and callused, his hands seemed accustomed to hard, menial labor, and he wore a tattered jacket concealing a fraying woolen vest. There was no telling his age. For all I knew, he might have been on the crew of the Pequod.

It turned out that Sando Ganchev was my countryman, a Bulgarian, but had been residing in Serbia for almost thirty years. What did he do for a living, I asked him. He showed me the things he carried—two burlap sacks stuffed with vine grafts. “I sell these,” he said, “but I also keep a little vineyard myself.” So my new companion was nothing more than a viticulturist after all, not a tough sea dog. I told him I was a journalist. For a couple of minutes we engaged in small talk about Bulgaria, and everything was going well, until I made the error of asking about his family. “Do you have children?” In an instant his face darkened, hardened like a nut. “I have no family,” he said. “I have no one.” Then, after an edgy pause, he continued: “You are a journalist. Write this down: ‘Sando Ganchev from Bulgaria made his home for thirty years in Serbia, married a Bosnian wife, and fought as a volunteer on the Serbian side in Bosnia. His son was killed in the war, his wife died, his son-in-law died, and his daughter died. He himself was wounded three times in the stomach, but lived.’”

What does a person do in such moments? Express condolences? Ask more questions? Keep silent and stare ahead in the distance? I chose the last, and it became obvious that our conversation was over.

As a kid I’d watched the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina on TV, but I didn’t give a damn back then, though Sarajevo was barely 250 miles from Sofia. The death of 100,000 people had touched me less than the death of Winnetou, protagonist of the eponymous novel by Karl May. Now it was different. That man next to me, buried alive in his grief, was solid proof that the horrors of the war were still stalking people’s memories here, more than ten years after the Dayton Peace Agreement had put an end (temporarily) to hostilities.

Out of the corner of my eye I watched Sando take from a plastic bag a loaf of bread and some sausage. Using his jackknife, he proceeded to slice a few bits, chewing on each and every morsel with absent-minded deliberation. While he ate, I couldn’t help wondering whether he had also killed somebody’s son, or daughter, or wife. Did he think the war had been worth it? I didn’t dare ask.

*  *  *  *  

For three days the rain wouldn’t stop—cold April rain that washed the streets of Belgrade completely clean of people. For three days I stayed in my room in a downtown hostel, the Belgrade Eye, trying to ward off the depression that seems to flourish in the rain. For three days I walked Belgrade vicariously: tracing streets and sights on the map with my finger, reading books, but venturing out into the real world only to buy myself a sandwich or pizza from the nearest food stand. “The little box that contains the world / Fell in love with herself / And conceived / Still another little box.” In the box of my room, in the box of my head, I’d open the box of Vasko Popa’s poetry only to enter another box, and then another, and another. His honest Serbian surrealism made for the best guide to his homeland and illustrated the surreal boxed-in fate of the whole region. One could put anything into that box, take anything out. “Throw in your head / You’ll take out two,” wrote Popa. There, myth suddenly bloated into history, and vice versa. The line between victims and victimizers blurred, and what had once been a chest full of fantastic treasures was now Pandora’s stinking dumpster.

To understand what led to the most devastating war in Europe since 1945, one must imagine such a Chinese box—little boxes nested one inside the other, in ever-descending sizes. Yugoslavia was the large box containing six smaller, identical versions of itself: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia (with Kosovo and Vojvodina—two more boxes—as autonomous provinces). In a sense, Yugoslavia was the European Union before the European Union, boasting a multiethnic, cosmopolitan community that thrived socially and economically from its inception at the end of the First World War. The ride was bumpy at times, no doubt, with nationalistic potholes scattered here and there (most notably the Nazi-sponsored Ustase regime in Croatia, which, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, brutally exterminated over 500,000 Serbs, as well as 72,000 Jews and Gypsies, between 1941 and 1945), but for a while at least the utopian pan-Slavic idea, which in the nineteenth century had sought to bring together the Slavic peoples of the Balkans under a single banner (so as to resist the colonial clamp of the bigger empires), seemed to have worked. After the Second World War, when the Communist-cum-reformer Josip Broz Tito took control of the country and exchanged the iron curtain for a velvet one, Yugoslavia experienced a period of relative political stability and economic growth, despite the fact that Tito’s rule was far from democratic. Each box had its own government and, after 1974, received the right to self-determination and even secession. The constitutional and administrative reforms introduced by Tito, however, unwittingly laid the groundwork for what was to ensue. Immediately after his death in 1980, Yugoslavia’s federalism quickly began to unravel, leading to a period of political instability, economic recession, resurgence of nationalism, and—ultimately—war.

What happened afterward is common knowledge: Every republic contained its own jack-in-the-box—a sinister face forcefully held under the lid for so many years, while a secret hand had been winding its spring. And when one popped forth, it set off a chain reaction. The subsequent process of balkanization—the term coming back to its origin—prompted a series of painful and bloody conflicts across the region. The most publicized atrocities were, of course, the siege of Sarajevo, which resulted in more than 10,000 casualties, and the Srebrenica massacre, when 8,100 Muslim men were executed by the Serbian paramilitary groups of General Ratko Mladic while the UN Dutch contingent stood passively by. But certainly, all sides were implicated, and the violence only perpetuated itself. When fighting ended with the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995, no party could claim victory: a total of 250,000 people had perished and more than 3,500,000 had become refugees. “Don’t bow down to the little box,” Popa warned his readers. “If you do / You’ll never straighten yourself out again.”

The little box of Kosovo was next. Kosovo, the southernmost province of Serbia, once had been the cultural center of Serbia’s medieval empire, and many Christian-Orthodox monasteries (Gracanica Monastery, Decani Monastery) still attest to that greatness. At the end of the twentieth century, however, it was rated the poorest, most economically backward region in the country. From being Serbia’s heart, Kosovo had gradually turned into its asshole. (Indeed, one of the most publicized and galvanizing events of the ’80s, which indirectly contributed to subsequent wars, was the rumor that a Serbian man had been sexually assaulted with a bottle by a group of Albanians; the man later retracted his claim and said he had been pleasuring himself.) The violence, however, continued. Despite their ethnic predominance—roughly 90 percent of the population—Albanians were not given a separate republic in Tito’s time the way Bosnians were, although they enjoyed significant autonomy within Serbia under the 1974 constitution. Nevertheless, political tensions steadily grew and finally came to a head in 1998, when full-scale violence between Albanians and Serbs broke out.

The last jack was out of the box. Slobodan Milosevic deployed the Serbian army to rein in the Albanian separatists from the terrorist-led Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), but his campaign soon slipped into thinly veiled ethnic cleansing of ordinary Albanians. This time around the international response was swift. After several failed rounds of negotiations, NATO proceeded to bomb major government buildings in Belgrade and strategic positions of the Serbian army, forcing Serbia’s withdrawal from Kosovo and placing the area under UN protection. Several months later, in October 2000, faced with mass demonstrations in Belgrade and dwindling political capital, Milosevic had no other choice but to concede the election victory of the opposition—led by Zoran Dindic and Vojislav Kostunica—and step down from office.

And, just like that, he was gone. But who was Slobodan Milosevic? Was he the region’s most leering jack, its Stalin and petty Hitler, as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) tried to prove? If so, how did he gain power and hold it for so long?

*  *  *  *  

On my fourth day in Belgrade the sun finally appeared. The glassy wet sidewalks quickly dried out, annealed by the rising temperatures. The awakening of the city was no different from the awakening of any another major European city: the bustle of people in the streetcars, the frenzied din rising in a thin mist over the traffic jam, the unlocking of shops and cafés, the smells from a bakery slackening the determined pace of late workers. I was enchanted, completely. As I walked up and down the streets and the day steadily made its own progress, I realized I had not arrived in some kind of war zone, as I’d initially expected, as perhaps most CNN-fed foreigners have learned to expect. There were no lingering reverberations here. Downtown Belgrade looked modern in every aspect, a city upsetting its visitors’ prejudices—impeccable public parks with lawn mowers purring across fresh ryegrass, construction work everywhere evinced by cranes high-rising over the city’s concrete canopy.

Other capitals in the neighborhood, like Prague and Budapest, feature more beautiful architecture, to be sure, but Belgrade had something all its own, especially considering that it was razed during the Second World War. The malignant growths of socialist realism aside, the pedestrian area in and around Knez Mihailova Sreet is a spectacle of Renaissance Revival and Neoclassical behemoths lightened by a touch of Secession. I couldn’t resist the touristy drive to visit the ancient Kalemegdan fortress and park with its panoramic views of the city and surroundings.

Old Belgrade along the Sava River
Old Belgrade along the Sava River (Dimiter Kenarov).

Perched on a hill at the northernmost tip of old Belgrade, overlooking the confluence of the Danube and the Sava rivers—a vast, mind-boggling expanse of water—Kalemegdan (from the Turkish words for “fortress” and “battlefield”) was the last outpost of the Ottoman and later the Holy Roman empires. Only the ruins of its outer wall and crenellated turrets remain now, on top of which I saw, instead of armored soldiers, amorous couples and small groups of friends drinking beer. The park itself, dappled with daisies and dandelions, was full of families, pensioners, and mothers with their children, cocky skateboarders showing off, and a horde of street vendors, mostly old ladies peddling their hand-embroidered doilies dirt cheap. more than just a curiosity! the best souvenir from belgrade! buy a banknote of 500,000,000,000! read a sign on a small collapsible table, a reminder of the not-so-distant past, when Serbia had been on the verge of collapse, when hyperinflation was more than just a curiosity.

Between 1993 and 1994 the dinar lost 5 quadrillion percent of its value. That’s a five with fifteen zeros. To put it differently: the average daily rate of inflation—daily—had risen to about 100 percent. How was it possible, I wondered, that this same country just ten years ago had been a patient on life support? I was certainly not blind to the glaring gap that divided the capital and the countryside; I knew that bigotry and poverty lurked under the surface, but it was hard not to marvel. Serbians, at least in Belgrade, seemed to have collectively risen from their deathbeds, and—though haltingly—staggered again to their feet.

*  *  *  *  

I love graffiti—street graffiti, bathroom graffiti, graffiti in underpasses and subways, graffiti on trains, graffiti on monuments, all sorts of graffiti. Graffiti is an open code, bilateral communication that hasn’t yet been surpassed in its effectiveness. Unlike a blog, graffiti presupposes illegality and is primal in its urges. It is the one place our most secret thoughts and desires find expression, reduced to urgent scrawls. And that’s why graffiti is the most accurate social gauge.

Belgrade teems with graffiti. Skillfully executed, full-color pieces were mixed with cursive love confessions (i love you, marija), the names of the biggest local football teams (Crvena Zvezda, Partizan), along with ugly, meaningless scribbles. But the political graffiti that I expected was almost nonexistent. Maybe one in ten had some kind of political agenda: kosovo—death to the occupiers, end the occupation of serbia, and šešelj (the leader of Serbia’s Radical Party, indicted for war crimes by the Hague tribunal) for president. Not one mentioned Milosevic.

As for posters, I chanced upon two. The first one was a close-up of Šešelj with the caption šešelj—serbian hero, while the second, pasted right next to another poster advertising a Nirvana tribute concert, depicted the face of Miloševic’s henchman Ratko Mladic in a military beret, giving a salute, with the word Serbin (Serbian) underneath. I might have moved on unimpressed, were it not for the bit of linguistic fun: the first part of the word Serb was written with Cyrillic letters, while the last one, in, used the Latin alphabet. In short: it was “in” to be Serb; it was cool to love your homeland. Serbia’s foremost ultranationalist had adopted a ludicrous international stance, trying to lure the younger generation with his swell American lingo. As Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain sang at the height of Miloševic’s rule, “I’m not like them, but I can pretend.”

Posters on a Street Corner
The poster of Ratko Mladic overlaid with posters for the tribute band Static (Dimiter Kenarov).

*  *  *  *  

At the corner of Nemanjina and Kneza Milosa streets, a major intersection in the center of Belgrade, I saw the last remnants of the 1999 NATO bombardment: two ten-story buildings with the top floors completely destroyed, concrete and twisted metal hanging from the facades, bricks scattered in all directions, as if a careless parent had tripped on his child’s Lego structure. No one seemed to care much, really, people hurrying along, quite used to the sight of the ruins, except for the few awestruck tourists who stood around in the hopes of finding the best possible angle to take a picture. I shut my eyes and tried to imagine what it must have been like then, in the spring of 1999, when every night for eleven weeks fighter jets would roar over Belgrade, laser-guided bombs homing in on their targets. The explosions. And the silence afterward, sliced by the serrated wail of the sirens.

When I got back to the hostel I asked the girl at the reception desk if those buildings were left to stand, six years after they had been bombed, to make a political statement. Was the government trying to sustain Serbian animosity toward NATO and the West? “No, no, no,” she said, laughing. “It’s just that the buildings belong to the Defense Ministry, while the land is municipal. And now they can’t agree on who gets what. It’s economics, not politics.”

The hostel’s lounge was spacious and comfortable, magazines and guidebooks spread out on a coffee table and a TV buzzing next to it. That’s where I preferred to hang out in the evenings, gabbing with the backpackers from western Europe and America, watching the Serbian news stations. That evening it was the Danube floods again, the worst the country had seen in fifty years. The Serbian media seemed to have put aside the otherwise omnipresent Kosovo chatter to show instead the inundated stretches of low-lying arable lands, riverside villages and towns submerged under two to three meters of water. I watched people pile sandbags in front of their doomed houses and cry inconsolably in front of the cameras. This was the Serbian countryside. As for Belgrade, its hilly terrain didn’t allow the water to rise too high, except in the lower district, Terazije. Even this natural disaster, it seemed, could not faze the city. Then, I shit you not, the screen filled with the image of an SUV driving full speed down a flooded Belgrade street—behind it, gripping his rope, a cheerful wakeboarder.

*  *  *  *  

It was party time in the evening. Following a tip from a local, I headed for Andergraund (Underground), which was not the famed bunker from Emir Kusturica’s movie, but one of the most popular dance clubs in downtown Belgrade. Set in a natural grotto underneath Kalemegdan, Andergraund was the caveman’s paradise. In the half-dark, punctuated by strobe lights and dizzying lasers, I could feel the ceiling and the floor along with all their appertaining stalactites and stalagmites vibrate with the primal hip-hop bass coming from the speakers. It was 50 Cent’s “In Da Club.” Throngs of young people swayed under the beat, hands in the air, partying it up like it’s yo birthday. Butterfly girls in flashy clothes were showing skin for the burly, crew-cut guys—the lucky few hooking up in the corners. I might as well have been clubbing in New York City.

I sat at the bar and ordered a beer. Belgrade had managed to upset my most apocalyptic expectations of Serbia. Or was it all a feast in a time of plague? I didn’t think so. For this particular (affluent) class of Serbians clubbing seemed integral to their lifestyle, not a rare debauch. If not necessarily rich by Western standards, these club-goers were not at the edge of starvation either. An atmosphere of hedonistic abandon had replaced the privations and suffering of the ’90s. Nobody cared about politics anymore; everyone was out to enjoy themselves.

Later, a Serbian girl approached me in the alcohol-reeking gloom and started a conversation. Where was I from? What was I doing in Belgrade? By then I was too tipsy to lie. “I’m writing an article about life in Serbia after Milosevic,” I shouted—definitely not my best pickup line. She laughed out loud then shouted in English, “I don’t give a fuck about Milosevic. I’m here to have some fun.”

*  *  *  *  

The next morning I went out for coffee with Nenad Lazarevic, the proprietor of Belgrade Eye hostel, then to lunch at Prolece, a wonderful restaurant with outdoor tables. His girlfriend, Irena, soon joined us. In their late twenties, Nenad and Irena exemplified what the mainstream media might term Serbia’s future—something that in their case wasn’t devoid of meaning. In the course of our conversation, I was charmed by their fluent English, the complexity and depth of their thought. A true entrepreneur, Nenad had completed his MBA in Prague some time ago and was hoping to go into real-estate development—the most profitable venture at the moment. “Then,” he went on, “I might try a career in politics.” He had founded the hostel just recently—the first (legal) youth hostel in Belgrade—but was already tired of it and planned to sell it soon. “I just don’t want people calling me in the middle of the night to tell me the toilet doesn’t flush,” he said with a huge grin on his face. “The hostel’s good business, but I’m ready to move on.” Irena, who was half Serbian and half Hungarian but looked almost Scandinavian with her long, naturally blond hair and limpid blue eyes, was working for an NGO that specialized in organizing seminars and training courses for Serbian members of Parliament. “When they’re first elected into office, most MPs don’t have a clue of the system’s inner workings,” she said. “They are doctors, or lawyers, or businessmen without any expertise in politics. So we teach them how to write legislative proposals and such. Our projects have been quite successful, actually.”

Conversation about the future inevitably turned to the past. “Milosevic was not a Communist or a nationalist,” Nenad said, insistently. “He was pragmatic and just wanted to stay in power . . . he always had a crazy obsession with power. Not money, you know. If he wanted money, he could have had it.”

“The best export Serbia ever had was Milosevic,” Irena said. He was a criminal and deserved what he got. Good riddance.

Nenad jumped in: “Most people in Serbia would tell you, ‘Yes, Milosevic was a criminal . . . but there are other people who are just as guilty.’”

Serbians, he said, felt unnecessarily demonized by the Western media and the international community, which aimed to portray them as the sole villains in the war. And Serbia was much more than Milosevic and war crimes. The country certainly had its ultranationalists, but they were probably only about 15 percent of the population. The rest of the 35 percent support for Šešelj’s right-wing Radical Party, according to Nenad, came from poor, uneducated voters, who were dissatisfied with the policies of the Socialist Party.

I suggested that the Radical Party might win more votes if Kosovo became independent and the Montenegrins voted in the independence referendum on May 21 to break off from Serbia. Nenad disagreed.

“I think that if Kosovo secedes, it will be good for us because politically we don’t have any other issues to solve. Only then we’ll be able to address the more pressing economic and social concerns. Our politicians also know that quite well, although they deny it in public. Plus, if we are to join the EU, it doesn’t really matter if Kosovo becomes independent.” I think he could read my surprise. He paused for a second, as if calculating something in his head. The April sun filtered through the branches of the chestnut trees and laid a map of shadow and light over his face. “Unless, of course, the Radical Party wins the next elections and stops the process. But even if they win, I don’t think it’s going to be the same. They won’t be the crazy guys who go into wars. It’s not practical. If 70 percent of Serbians want to join the EU, you have to have an EU agenda.”

But I also couldn’t help remembering Miloševic’s funeral only a month before, when tens of thousands of his devotees had gathered from around the country to pay last respects to their dead hero at the Museum of the Revolution in Belgrade, before the cortege departed for his hometown and final resting place of PožarevacPožarevac. The Radical Party—the very people Nenad insisted weren’t crazies—threatened to withdraw from the government if Milosevic was not given a state funeral. It was just a bluff, but the incident served to emphasize the deep political rifts within Serbian society on the subject (now object) of Milosevic.

As if to illustrate this divide, on the day of his funeral, while mourners dressed in black, others in Belgrade, mostly young people, turned out with colorful balloons and organized an “anti-burial” demonstration. Even Miloševic’s supporters were not united in their grief: at the memorial service a scandal had erupted between atheist-minded Communists and sanctimonious nationalists about whether or not a Christian cross should be placed on the grave. Was Milosevic a Communist or a nationalist?—that was the question. Or, more properly, who will control how Milosevic is remembered? Nobody seemed to know.

*  *  *  *  

The bus ride to Požarevac took less than an hour. After a string of sunny days, the sky had become overcast once again: the color of moldy bread, beige-gray, with grainy spores of darker clouds. Intermittent drizzle pinpricked the soft landscape. A few minutes before we reached Požarevac I glanced over the shoulder of the woman next to me, who was reading the Serbian tabloid Kurir. The headline: Slobodan Becomes an Orthodox Christian Posthumously. I craned my neck to skim the article. It said that a cross had been placed on Miloševic’s gravesite and a priest had been called to hold a service. Did that make Milosevic a nationalist? And was he now free to go to heaven?

Off the bus, I asked a cab driver to take me to Miloševic’s house. “Yes, I know where it is,” he nodded vigorously, apparently delighted by the recent wave of pilgrims coming to town. Intending to please me further, he added: “Everybody loves Milosevic around here.” Well, if nothing else, Milosevic was definitely good for business.

At the main gate to Miloševic’s house I saw two men, apparently guards, who were keeping a close watch. Nearby, a Gypsy woman was peddling candles on a wooden crate. “Come to visit Miloševic’s grave?” she asked with approval. “Yes,” I said. I could see she was hoping I’d buy some of the candles, but I didn’t. Instead I approached the gate, and the guards came up to meet me, all the time eyeing me with suspicion. Both of them had commemorative buttons with a portrait of Milosevic pinned to their lapels. An open condolence book rested on a nearby table. “I’ve come to see the grave of Slobodan Milosevic,” I said. Then, to explain my bad Serbian, I told them I was a journalist from Bulgaria. After a short deliberation, during which they tacitly tried to assess my credibility, I was led in.

A narrow stone path between dwarf cedars and various scrub bushes gradually opened out onto a one-story house with prominent eaves and off-white stucco. Miloševic’s house. It vaguely resembled a pagoda, Eastern European style. A well-tended lawn covered the entire perimeter. The grave was on the right side of the house, tucked under the legendary linden tree where Slobodan had stolen his first kiss from his future wife (and accomplice) Mira. A massive marble slab, laid flat, bore the gilded inscriptions Slobodan Miloševic (1941–2006) and Mirjana Markovic (1942– ). The slab itself was surrounded by a smoothly paved pathway edged with pansies. Two large vases, filled with red roses, were set down at the sides; the celebrated wooden cross stood at the head. By any standard, this tomb was modest.

“Go on, take a closer look if you want to,” one of the guards urged me.

I stepped onto the path and circled the grave. Once. Twice. I didn’t feel anything: a grave is a grave. We can mourn only our closest ones. Whether Milosevic was a cold-blooded butcher or a patriotic politician was not for me to decide. The boxes of history, I realized, were too many to open.

“You are an Orthodox Christian, right?” The guard’s hoarse voice startled me.


“Well, it’s an Orthodox tradition to kiss the cross.”

I stared back.

“Go on, kiss the cross.”

I stood wondering what to do. What the fuck should I do? Seeing my confusion, the guard thought I hadn’t understood him correctly, so he repeated his words, this time more slowly.

“Kiss … the … cross.”

“No,” I finally said, “I don’t do that kind of stuff.”

“So you don’t love Milosevic?” he asked, his mood obviously souring. A woman who had been standing nearby—maybe the grave caretaker—told him to leave me alone. He barked at her to shut up and then turned back to me.

“Do you know what Bog is?” he asked.

I tilted my head back, toward the sky to indicate that Bog meant “God.”

“That’s right,” he said. “Milosevic was our Bog, our Serbian God.”

I managed a thin smile. He stared back, hard and unforgiving, for what seemed like a terribly long time, wishing perhaps to kick me out. But he just grunted and left.

I lingered uneasily for several minutes more, gazing at the tomb, and was about to turn back toward the gate when two old women, two middle-aged men, and a boy of about fifteen approached from the other side. Each held a carnation. They lined up in silence, and one by one, like ghosts, drifted around the grave to kiss the cross and place their flowers on the marble slab.

I had seen enough. I didn’t want to kiss the dead, and I didn’t want to see others do it, either. The drizzle had started again and I felt cold. It was time to go. But, as I walked down the stone path toward the gate, I turned around one last time. I saw the boy—skinny, with a barely perceptible limp—bending over to kiss the cross of Slobodan Milosevic.

I pray the dead may never kiss him back.

Ornate Grave
Miloševic’s grave at his home in Požarevac (Dimiter Kenarov).


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading