To Serb With Love

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

To get to Colombia in 1962, Rade Milic crossed the Adriatic, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and, finally, the Caribbean. It was too much water between father and son, too many miles between a Serb and his homeland.

His life fell apart.
The aunt that preceded him had married a banana plantation owner, and it was expected that Rade would work for less than he was worth because he was fresh off the boat.

He rebelled by immersing himself in computer systems in 1969, working for both the government and the private sector. It was a convenient fit but not a good one.

He is artistic by temperament and by training. He will always play music and paint, without the world's notice.

Rade was in his mid-30s when he married Pavle's mother. The marriage was over before Pavle saw his first birthday.

Rade wanted stability and settlement, but at 18, Nora wanted to go out dancing.

If Rade's father had been nearby, he might well have warned his son of the danger in marrying a girl half his age.

But the family patriarch was on the other side of the world.
Rade says Colombia, like Kosovo, is a wild place where control of the land is split among government troops, drug dealers and leftist rebels, all heavily armed. While he might not have had his father's advice or affection to prop him up, Rade claims the lessons he learned from his dad helped him survive in Colombia's lawless terrain.

When Rade and I first talked, he spun a yarn, unbidden, a tale all the more touching because it was told by a gentle man who, though 62 years old, still measures his manhood beside his own papa's.

Shortly after old man Pavle surrendered to Tito and his forces, he made the mistake of asking a communist woman for a cigarette.

"'Instead of a cigarette, I will shoot you,' is what she told him," recounts Rade.

"He just looked her right in the eye, then walked away.
"The same thing happened to me. In Colombia, I went into a bar to buy cigarettes and the bartender took out a gun and put it to my head.

"'You want cigarettes?' he demanded.
"Then he put the gun in the air and fired a shot.
"I looked him right in the eye. Then I turned my back and left."
But Rade is not his father.

On his own in Colombia, he failed with two marriages, suffered crushing anxiety and never quite put his past or his homeland up on the shelf. On three separate occasions, he seriously contemplated suicide.

He was an invisible father.
When he saved enough, he bought a plot of land in a part of Colombia called Montenegro. Though the area is not without allure, young Pavle tells me the acreage is significant because Montenegro is the name of the part of Yugoslavia where the family originated.

"You know," says Pavle, repeating his father's words, "when God made the world, he dumped all of the rocks in Montenegro."

Romantic gestures, however, did not bring Rade peace.
At the age of 53, Rade Milic stood up to the sadness created by the vacuum where his family ought to have been.

When his former wife, Nora, phoned him in 1990, she told him their grown son was returning to Colombia for a visit. She asked Rade to see his son, and he agreed.

The 18-year-old Pavle was enraptured by the hours he spent with his dad.
"He was not at all like a father figure to me," says Pavle. "It was like meeting my best friend."

Of course. The men shared more than DNA. Young Pavle, like his father, was struggling with his identity.

And Pavle, like his father, was overwhelmed by feelings of displacement.
"Where do I find my voice, where do I find it?" worried Pavle.
When he met his father, the part of him that was diffuse began to congeal.

Where Rade was raised and survived upon little more than stoic silence from his father, young Pavle pointed to his dad's thoughts like they were surveyor's stakes marking life's path.

"My dad has three rules," Pavle explains to the uninformed. "First, there are no rules. Second, never say no beforehand. Third, accept life."

In words that might have been found upon a shield from the 14th-century Kosovo battlefield where the Turks crushed the Serbs, Rade told his son that he would "kill himself for dignity."

During that first visit in 1990, Rade and Pavle resolved to bring the family, scattered through diaspora and divorce, back together.

On a subsequent visit to Colombia in 1995, Pavle played with his 15-year-old half-sister in Medellin. The excited siblings cavorted together until they fell asleep, side by side, in the yard.

Sitting next to the brother and his sister in the tall Colombian grass, Rade strummed his guitar and serenaded his children out of their slumber.

Rade told Pavle about his aunt in Belgrade, an accomplished writer.
Though he did not know the lady, Pavle felt an immediate charge because he, too, longed to be published.

"I wish to be more than a food server," said Pavle. "I want to break down the images of Latin Americans. My dream is to be a writer."

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