To Serb With Love

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

The Albanians, joining forces with the Nazis, had gone on a homicidal tear.
Rade and his family hid in barns or in the forest during the day and traveled at night. His mother fed him all she had--cloves of garlic--for breakfast.

Rade escaped Kosovo and headed for Belgrade dressed as a little girl. The disguise was necessary because Albanians were killing all male Serbs.

For centuries, Muslims and Serbs have persecuted each other in a deadly game of musical chairs; identifying the guilty depends upon when you stop the music.

During the war, Rade's father fought with the Yugoslav royalists, who were eventually defeated by Tito. The strongman ordered that Pavle Milic be executed, a sentence that was commuted only through the intervention of family members who were ardent communists.

Though he would live another 40 years, Pavle Milic's life was over.
Tito ordered that Milic work as a street sweeper, and he was not allowed to rise above that post.

"The communists took our home in Kosovo," says Rade. "They paid my father enough to purchase bedroom furniture in Belgrade.

"Life was hard. Very hard. We were very, very poor. My mother worked in a bakery and when she was able to take a loaf of bread, it was like a celebration. My father picked up cigarette butts out of ashtrays to smoke. And of course the secret police were always watching."

Rade often compares the family's life in Eastern Europe to the worst scenes of upheaval from Doctor Zhivago.

As poor as the family was, they were poorer still because Pavle Milic saved money with a religious fervor to finance his family's escape. When one of the aunts married a man with business in Colombia and then moved there, the old man resolved that all of his family would leave communist Yugoslavia for South America with tickets he purchased.

Rade was the last to emigrate. With the rest of the immediate family safely away, he packed, expecting that his father would follow him shortly to Colombia.

But it was not to be.
Pavle Milic was a patriot who refused to be driven from his country's soil.
"Ave Marie," says Rade. "It was the biggest trauma in my whole life when he told me he was not coming. Nights and nights I tried to convince him to come to Colombia. But no.

"He told me, 'You have to go. You have your whole life in front of you. I've lived mine. I am no longer important.'

"The last night, we sat together. He brought a liter of slivovitz. We both started drinking, quietly. You know, we could not even speak to each other. We just sat there crying."

As Rade tells me this, he begins to sob over the phone.
"He pushed a note across the table. It said, 'My son, tonight I say goodbye to you.'"

And with that Pavle Milic stood up and departed from his son's life forever.

When Maritza and I first spoke in March, the phone call that was interrupted by air-raid sirens was followed by an e-mail from her the next day.

"Only an hour and a half after our conversation," wrote Maritza, "a NATO projectile fell near the large Sports Hall which is a hundred meters from my house. We heard a muffled strike and didn't know what it was. Fortunately, it didn't explode, otherwise I might not be sending this message to you. . . . All that night, the sky over Belgrade was full of fireworks, and although exposing ourselves to the danger, we went out many times to watch that wonder that came upon us since these fireworks gave death instead of joy.

"This morning, an explosion startled us before the air-raid sirens--it happens sometimes. I still don't know what was hit. Dear Mr. Michael (if I can say so in these circumstances), you want to hear my personal view, and I don't know where to start from. The fact is that our country is being savagely destroyed day after day. . . . The attacks are stronger each and every day, I cannot follow so many things have been destroyed, so many wounded or killed . . .

"In Belgrade, many hospitals are damaged, and many patients hurt, even the obstetrician hospital, the biggest of that kind in all the Balkans, babies and mothers together . . .

"We will never forgive you our children. Where does all this hatred come from? Why don't you ask yourselves who is governing your country and where is it leading you to? Don't you have souls? Don't you have children too? Where comes all that thirst for other people's blood? I really feel awful this morning, tired, disgusted."

Maritza does not understand that President Clinton stopped the fatal musical chairs with the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

Despite her own moments of despair, Maritza wrote in April that the spirit in Belgrade was unprecedented and that for the first time in 10 years the Serbs were united.

"Every day, people go out and defend themselves and the city, singing in the squares. At night, when sirens announce the bombardiers, people go to the bridges to defend them with their own bodies."

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