To Serb With Love

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

More recently, however, his candor focused upon the struggle to bind himself to kin.

His mother, who still lives in New York City, is known to the family, with dramatic affection, as Betty Boop. Though she moved with the family to Phoenix, she quickly decided she hated the desert.

"Arizona is so desolate," she told her son, "that even the sky has no clouds."

Longing for his mother's companionship, Pavle enlisted legendary Scottsdale bon vivant Mayor Herb Drinkwater in a campaign to keep her in the Valley of the Sun.

Mixing equal measures of brass and charm, Pavle asked the mayor to take the waiter's mother out to dinner and say whatever it took to keep her in Arizona.

And Mayor Drinkwater did it. He even presented her with the key to the city.
Ms. Boop was not convinced and high-heeled it--click, click, click--back to Queens.

Pavle's isolation from his family, his uncertainty as to his actual home, continued to claw at him.

You can only imagine Pavle's agitation when, unexpectedly, he met his father for the first time in 1990 on a visit to Colombia.

They spent exactly one evening together; it was then that Pavle learned he had a half-sister.

Pavle was beside himself after meeting his father.
"He is the part of me that I never knew," exclaims Pavle. "He is my only link to my Slavic heritage. You cannot imagine . . ."

Pavle and his dad wistfully dreamed of a trip to Yugoslavia. In the early Nineties, they made fruitless plans to visit Belgrade, a scheme undercut by the murderous fighting in Bosnia.

For some years now, Pavle has told me of his people as I lingered over Nona's chicken at Rancho Pinot. With the latest violence in the Balkans, we have hashed out his family and the war with morning espresso.

In Pavle's recollections, no one is sweeter than his dad, no legend more vivid than the grandfather's reign over the Albanians in a small town in Kosovo, no backbone stiffer than his aunt's.

But what Pavle knows of his Slavic roots, he knows from his father. So Pavle's conversation is distilled, strong like alcoholic spirits but stripped of impurities in the retelling.

When I talk to his dad, Rade, his account of his time in Kosovo jolts me like a snort of raw moonshine.

And his Aunt Maritza in Belgrade gives human voice to the unthinkable.

In those brief moments between world wars in Eastern Europe, a rakish young man, Pavle Milic, was dispatched by the Slavic royal family to preside over the town of Grekovce in Kosovo.

According to Rade Milic, his father was not put in charge of Grekovce to "disperse" Albanians, as Pavle suggests. The word "disperse" is objectionable to Rade, imprecise, because of its link to the present-day policy of ethnic cleansing. Instead, Rade portrays his father as something of a homesteader in a wild Serbian territory surrounded by outsiders.

Pavle's photograph betrays him as a dandy with elegant shoes and a movie idol's molten eyes.

Free tracts in Kosovo were offered to Serbs who would settle and work the soil. These Serbian lands were consecrated with Serbian blood in 1389 in a bloody defeat at the hands of the Islamic Turks.

Christian monasteries in Kosovo served as points of pilgrimage and reminders that Serbs bitterly resisted the Ottoman Empire as well as the religion of those they rightfully regarded as invaders.

Over hundreds of years, the Turks encouraged and favored fellow Muslims, including the Albanians, who settled in Yugoslavia. At the time that Pavle went to Grekovce, many Albanians left their own country and its forgettable monarch, King Zog I, for the greener pastures of Kosovo.

Prior to World War II, Kosovo was roughly 50 percent ethnic Albanian; by the time the bombing began two months ago, the number of Albanians had increased, exceeding 90 percent.

But in Rade's mind, it was always Serb land.
"My father could never be alone," says Rade. "My mother told us often of how he was ambushed by Albanians. My father's best bodyguard was named Rade. I am named after the bodyguard."

Danger and death were constants on the frontier, but Pavle Milic was autocratic, defiant and beset with exquisite melancholy.

At dusk he marched into the town square and sat outside at a table with a bottle of slivovitz, a plum brandy. He dispatched a trumpeter into the hills that surround the town and, as Pavle Milic drank, the bugler played "Little Lamb of Mine."

The song, says Rade, reminded his father of his daughter, who was too young to travel to the badlands of Kosovo.

The Albanians were forced to listen to the Serb bugler every night as they went to bed, Rade says.

The song was repeated, over and over, until Pavle Milic fired his pistol from his seat in the town square to signal that he could not tolerate another note.

Then everyone, even Pavle Milic, slept.
Rade tells me that his final memory of Kosovo as a child was his family's flight during World War II.

Though his father was the mayor of Grekovce for approximately 20 years, the family fled Kosovo in a farmer's cart pulled by oxen.

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