To Serb With Love

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

The young man was elated to see his family growing in such a rich dimension.
Together Rade and Pavle began to plot a journey to Yugoslavia.
Pavle learned that his grandfather, although only a street sweeper, had saved enough money to purchase a grave marker. The old man built it as a monument to his own father, who fought and died in World War I but whose body was never brought home.

The monument was also intended to serve as a beacon to the Milics who were dispersed around the world, a homing signal that would one day pull them back to Yugoslavia--when it was safe.

For Rade and Pavle, the pull of the old country is unwavering. But the land is never safe. Bullets have ricocheted in Yugoslavia almost from the moment it shed communism.

Unable to travel to the Balkans, Pavle returned to Arizona, and, with his father's prodding, he called his aunt in Belgrade and introduced himself.

"I got to know Pavle when he was five months old," Maritza e-mails from Belgrade, recalling her visit to Colombia in 1972. "I changed his diapers. Once I made a mistake and instead of putting Johnson's oil, I used alcohol. I'll never forget the look in his eyes. It said, 'Hey! What do you think you're doing?'

"At that moment he conquered me forever. Later the things of life separated us, but I have always kept the trust in the contact we made that particular instant. Only his body was five months old, not his soul.

"So, when one morning, 20 years later he calls me by phone I was both surprised and not surprised. He is a great guy."

Her memories of Pavle's father are equally warm.
"Rade has a strong personality and the sensitive nature of an artist, what he should have been. I still hope he would be. I keep some of his paintings that he did as a student. . . . He has such a great talent."

Pavle, Rade and Maritza share more than their heritage: All three are driven to expression through art. But the oldest, Rade, denied this urge for much of his life, and Pavle, the youngest, is frustrated, not knowing how to release the energy. Only Maritza supports herself with her art.

Although she has published four collections of short stories and novels, she keeps the wolf from the door as a literary translator (Fuentes, Arenas, Llosa and Gallegos) and as an editor at a publishing house in Belgrade.

"I knew I would be a writer since the age of seven when I wrote my first poem," says Maritza. "I had it in my blood. . . . I have always known how I would like to write. I suppose I had my literary style hidden somewhere deep inside my chest and when the time came to be capable of producing exactly in the way I've seen it in my mind, or shall we say, when I obtained the maturity of my literary expression, I wrote my first book."

Despite a childhood awareness that she must write, Maritza was 40 before she published her initial work. First she graduated with majors in literature, English and Spanish. Then she journeyed to Latin America, the United States and points throughout Europe.

"I always thought that a prose writer must participate in life directly, feel it with his own flesh, and only then enter the adventure of writing. So, I gave myself time, I traveled a lot and always sensed life and lived it to its brim."

Now she will have war as an inspiration.
"My daily routine during the bombing is work, work and work. I don't pay much attention," says Maritza. "What has changed is that I am not paid regularly for the articles I write or for editing the books at the publishing house since everything has been stirred up.

"My two sons are all right. They're both students and talented painters. The older one will be having an exam tomorrow and during the night he will take care of the people in the nearby shelter. The younger one is again attending classes which were interrupted by the bombing."

The NATO onslaught, two months after its inception on March 24, is taking its toll.

"I am under terrible pressure," writes Maritza by e-mail. "Last night was horrible. I went to sleep at 4 o'clock in the morning and woke up with a splitting headache. They hit the central TV station. Many are killed, others hurt. I don't think that anyone slept last night, the whole city was trembling with detonations. The scenes of the poor people wounded or killed were so horrible that no horror movie director could make anything similar.

"After this, I can only say that NATO armies are in the service of the Antichrist."

Maritza believes that Americans do not understand the history of Kosovo or more disturbing recent events. She says it was the Albanians who wanted to push the minority Serb population out of Kosovo.

Once Tito united Yugoslavia, she says, Albanians fled the poverty of their own land and the harsh rule of their dictator, Enver Hoxha, and sought a better life by slipping across the border into Kosovo.

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