To Serb With Love

Pavle Milic untangles his Balkan roots and discovers a cauldron of ancient passion and prejudice

As the cruise missiles fell in her Belgrade neighborhood, one woman's writing floated her spirit with the buoyancy of hope.

Maritza Yosimlevic longed that her short stories might give pleasure, a desire that exceeded her fear of death.

"I must leave now. The air-raid sirens are going off. The bombers are coming," she says on the phone.

"But first, tell me, do you like my work?"
What a magnificent question.
Assured of my fond regard for her fiction, Maritza hung up the phone before I could ask her . . . well . . . there were so many unanswered thoughts from that first phone call. But really, how do you ask a woman about genocide apparently committed by her sons or brothers or uncles, by the men in her country? Where does that conversation begin?

In time, between NATO bombing raids, Maritza will tell me many things about "ethnic cleansing."

A cultured, widely traveled woman of letters, Maritza explains that the Albanians are not who we think they are. Nor are the Serbs.

When she tells me that the published photographs of mass graves in Kosovo are fake, I feel disoriented, under water.

How could she say such a thing?
I can talk to Maritza over the phone. We converse at length by e-mail and we share in common the images of death and mass deportation broadcast over CNN. All of this data, all of this communication, yet we cannot agree upon what is genocide.

Even allowing for second-language awkwardness, her remarks have a surprisingly blunt force.

Yet I know her to be a sensitive human being.
In her short story "Amnesia," Maritza writes of the spirits of those killed in Sarajevo from 1992 to 1995: "They crowded the houses, the streets, hung over the town like a dark cloud; they sprung like an arch overhead, filling the space below with foggy darkness, making everything dense and angst-ridden; a lot of them pressed down on the folk here. . . ."

Her written images of the Balkans are so heartfelt in the depiction of the tribal killing in Sarajevo, so seemingly at emotional odds with the atrocities in Kosovo. Yet she stands resolute, a Serb convinced that the rest of us are mistaken about the ethnic cleansing of the Albanians.

I first met Maritza through her fiction, which was given to me here, in Phoenix, several years ago by her nephew, Pavle Milic. A man of immense charm and passion--even for a 27-year-old--Pavle dreams of operating his own restaurant, but until fantasy becomes reality, he works for celebrated chef Chrysa Kaufman and her impresario husband, Tom, who preside over the gracious tables at Rancho Pinot Grill.

Pavle has shared with me his poetry, essays, paintings and film criticism as well as an underlined edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. His yearning for tender connection and insight wafts from his own writing, as sharp as a young man's first cologne.

Of late, Pavle's vast emotions have enveloped the members of his family who were lost to him, all of them Serbs and all of them, including his father, new to him.

Imagine for a moment that you are a coffee-house scribe, beset by life's anxieties, when, in through the front door, walks the family you never knew, each member more precariously perched than yourself.

What of your verse now?
Such is Pavle Milic's dilemma.
"NATO is dropping bombs on my aunt. My cousins in Belgrade are stealing bread off of government trucks, and me, I'm in my swimming pool," marvels Pavle.

Pavle tells me not just of his aunt, but also of his deceased grandfather, a fierce Serb sent to Kosovo after World War I by the King of the Slavs to, in Pavle's word, "disperse" the Albanians.

Pavle also introduces me, over the phone, to his father, Rade Milic, a Serb who immigrated to Colombia as a young fellow nearly 40 years ago. A displaced man who still agonizes over his homeland, Rade turned his back upon religion long ago and today abhors the Balkan slaughter, all of which, he believes, is executed in God's name, a God at once Eastern Orthodox and Islamic.

"You have to abolish God," says Rade. "God should be like a hobby, like smoking a cigarette, or having a drink. But you cannot have God to justify all this killing."

Rade may be an atheist for peace, but he is also a man of his blood.
When Pavle tells Rade that here, in America, he has dated a girl of Albanian descent, his father makes guttural noises of contempt in the back of his throat.

What else would you expect? According to Rade, his father-- Pavle's grandfather and namesake--was licensed to kill Kosovo's ethnic Albanians in self-defense after World War I.

For himself, Pavle has heard from his family the stories of Albanian Muslims who crept into villages and stole Serbian children, secreted the young ones out of the area to brainwash them into becoming assassins who would return to murder their families.

Who can believe it?
On and on Pavle talks until his family takes on a shape both rich and dark, and, ultimately, as unexpected as a tapestry in a dungeon.

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