To Serb With Love
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.
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.
Pavle discovered his Serb relatives just as Yugoslavia began to break apart.
You must know something of all of these remarkable people when you wonder how long troops will be required in the Balkans to impose and keep the peace.
Pavle cannot sort out his family's legends. He wishes only for peace and the safety of his aunt in Belgrade. He is left on his own to pass on the tales, to try to make sense out of the incredible hatreds, to say, as all young people must: These are my people; but who am I?
Pavle Milic orchestrates his dinner service with the sort of spunky, comic banter one might expect if a less-frantic Roberto Benigni scripted the meal.
Menus are mere props to his stream of consciousness.
This is Pavle's story about his marriage.
He found the perfect girl in New York City, a stockbroker who graduated from St. John's.
He swept her off her feet by taking her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and introducing her to Van Gogh.
When she visited Arizona, the couple went up in a hot-air balloon, where Pavle opened up a ring box and popped the question on bended knee.
Of course, she said yes.
Still, there were complications.
"Her family was mortified," says Pavle. "She'd been manicured to marry Prince Charles, and here I was a street kid with not so much as a degree, let alone any economic prospects."
Three months into the engagement, she dumped Pavle by e-mail.
"Who gets dumped by e-mail, this, this, fiber-optic limbo?" wonders Pavle.
After indulging himself in 24 hours of inebriated despair, he refused to accept his dismissal and, three months later, on July 15, 1998, they wed.
"Then I watched the video of the marriage," says Pavle. "When they asked, 'Does anyone know a reason why this couple should not be joined in holy matrimony?' There's her mother, waving her hand wildly."
The marriage lasted 12 weeks.
"What can I say? It is true I have lived."
Dinner with Pavle is always like that. You soon feel you're meeting the new man in your favorite niece's life over Sunday pot roast.
He is neither tall nor short. The plumpness of Pavle's face is cherubic, unlined and darkly burnished like a cruet of olive oil. The dimple in his chin is the appropriate distance from his chopped, dark hair.
The truth is that women simply cannot resist his impishness.
Recently I took a winter visitor, Olivette Rodgers, to dinner at Rancho Pinot. A rambunctious woman who is more fond of Jack Daniel's and dirt tracks in the Baja than seems probable for someone past 70, Olivette sat bemused as Pavle itemized the evening specials with typical flourish and embellishment. When he returned to the kitchen, Olivette, grinning a few teeth shy of a leer, said to my wife, "Doesn't that young man have the cutest bottom?"
After many years of enjoying Pavle's professional charm, a point came when he lowered the mask of hospitality; only then did we speak more easily of children and parents. And so I learned that Pavle's family was scattered across the globe.
Nothing catalogued between the pages of Darwin's log upon the good ship Beagle ever suggested more possibility than Pavle's announcement at the dinner table some years back that he was half Colombian and half Yugoslavian.
Born in South America in 1972, Pavle grew up without knowing his father or any of his Slavic relatives. As a toddler, he spent many evenings under a cocktail table in the nightclubs Nora Lopez, his 18-year-old mother, frequented. When he was 7, she went to New York City on a temporary visa and stayed for four years.
While she was gone, Pavle attended military school in Colombia, not because his family harbored any designs about a career in uniform for their son but simply because it was a good school. He ignored the drilling and focused upon the military band, where he played the drums.
In 1983, Pavle's mom returned to Colombia with a new husband from New York, a restaurateur, Guillermo Rivera.
When she attempted to move her son to North America, Rade, who had had almost no contact with Pavle, refused to sign the papers, reasoning that Nora was not the most stable of mothers.
Undaunted, his mother baptized her 11-year-old son a second time and changed his name from Milic to her maiden name. He arrived in New York in 1984 as Pavle Lopez.
Four years later, in 1988, Pavle moved to Arizona from Queens with his new family, enrolled in Saguaro High School and began working for his stepfather at Franco's Trattoria, and later at Adesso.
Through all of this upheaval, Pavle never forgot that his heritage was also Serbian, and, in 1992, when he became a U.S. citizen, he legally changed his name back to Milic.
In the beginning of our conversations, Pavle's stunted familial connections were draped in the misdirection of anecdote: Instead of trotting out skeletons, or relatives, from his visits to Colombia, he dazzled listeners with stories, like the time he saw the shrine where the Medellin drug cartel's killers pray to become better executioners.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
After hearing of grandfather Pavle's gun-toting justice in Kosovo, you might find it hard to imagine that any Albanian would choose to migrate to an area controlled by Serbs.
But living with the Serbs might well have been preferable to life with the erratic Hoxha, an obsessive conniver who covered his diminutive and potholed nation with more than 500,000 concrete bunkers as defense against invaders who might covet a nation whose capital city airport, prior to the NATO strikes, had exactly eight daily flights.
Tito, says Maritza, didn't care that those coming to Kosovo were Albanians--as long as they were communists.
She wonders how many Americans can list the atrocities committed by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) against Serbians and, of course, there have been precious few reports on this topic.
Maritza cites the May 13 issue of the British journal Defense and Foreign Affairs, which describes the KLA as "a product of Islamic extremists who have support in the U.S. and Germany and other governments despite the fact that they are involved in drug trafficking and crime."
She says her country's troubles motivated others to act.
"When Yugoslavia dissolved, it was a signal to the Albanians to commense organizing terrorist groups . . . in '97 and '98 massive, coordinated attacks were carried out on Serbian police and the military."
Maritza writes, "The Albanians in Kosovo wanted to ethnically cleanse Kosovo so they offered to buy Serb land and homes in the hope that the Serbs would move away. The Serbs refused since they and their fathers have lived there for centuries and loved that soil. Then the Albanians threatened them, first verbally and then physically. They attacked them from ambushes--they never attack face to face. They have done many evil things to the Serbs. . . ."
How severe were the assaults by the ethnic-Albanian partisans in the KLA?
According to Maritza, the KLA was brutal.
"There were cases that were similar to the atrocities the Turks did to the Serbs in earlier centuries."
Maritza's declaration is not so much a measure of Serbian nationalism--though it is certainly that--as it is the Balkan lament: No matter which side you are on, the current atrocity was foreshadowed by a medieval outrage that is neither forgotten nor forgiven.
Maritza compares the KLA to the Islamic Turks who crushed the Serbs in Kosovo in 1389, a point of reference six decades before Gutenberg invented movable type, 200 years before Galileo created the pendulum and 300 years before Newton explained gravity.
Consequently, the hatred between the ethnic Albanians and the Serbs is not the sort of mindless prejudice directed at people who have done you no wrong, unlike, say, the viciousness that led three Texans to drag a black man behind their truck, or the thugs in Wyoming who left a gay man to die upon a wilderness fence.
In the Balkans, all sides can point to murder and rape on an organized scale to validate their loathing of each other. It is not racism or homophobia or any generalized feeling of bias that we are so familiar with here in the United States.
In fact, Maritza is quick to point out that she does not prejudge Albanians.
"Personally, I did not have any bad experience with Albanians. I visited the monasteries of Kosovo when I was in high school, twice.
"In 1986, while I was visiting . . . New York, I was a guest of one very rich Albanian family that lived in the suburbs of the city. They wanted to pay back a favor one of my relatives did to them. Individually, they pay good with good. . . . What I like and respect about them is that they are very industrious and disciplined. No matter how rich a family may be all the members work with no vanity at all."
Even Rade, four oceans removed from the current conflict, suffers complicated emotions over Kosovo.
Rade, like Maritza, thinks the Albanians must yield.
"Kosovo is the result of six centuries of ethnic and religious oppression," says Rade. "There is no end. If Kosovo doesn't seek independence, it will always be a problem. But Kosovo is the nest of Serbian culture.
"I don't see a solution. The only way to finish is that the Albanians have to abandon Kosovo. Any peace arrangement where they live within a Yugoslavian regime will only cause more fighting."
Unlike Maritza, he accepts the likelihood that the Serbs have committed genocide.
"War is like a fever," explains Rade. "You lose the concept of reality, old hatreds come alive."
Rade asks that before we unequivocally condemn the Serbs for ethnic cleansing, we first answer what our government would do if the Cubans in Miami, like the Albanians in Kosovo, organized a rebel army that murdered American policemen and postal workers in an effort to promote Miami's secession from the union.
The long, snaking lines of Albanians fleeing to refugee camps trigger crushing flashbacks for Rade, who told his son that what he sees on television reminds him of his own flight from Kosovo during World War II.
Except the tables were turned in the Forties and it was the Albanians who were hunting down Serbs.
"What is going on with the Albanians today, I experienced," Rade says with exhaustion over the phone.
Maritza, too, is but a moment removed from her own, fresher wounds.
"Many relatives of mine lived in Sarajevo. I loved that city and visited it many times," she says.
"I never had problems with the Muslims. But during the war my family there was dispersed, like the majority of Serbs. Some went to Australia, others to London."
"I have heard from friends who have relatives in the security forces in Kosovo that there are cases of killing of civilians, stealing of property and expulsions," says Maritza.
"These are usually committed by Serbs who have once themselves lived in Kosovo and have suffered at the hands of Albanians."
She insists that these are isolated incidents and not government policy.
"The photos of mass graves [of ethnic Albanians] killed by Serb troops are photomontages, forged," avers Maritza.
She dismisses the horror stories emerging from international relief agencies because she believes that most of those organizations, like the Red Cross, for example, "have long ago been infiltrated by the CIA."
If you wonder how a civilized person can say such a thing . . . well, there is no comforting answer. Her act of denial, however, is not so unlike many of our reactions when we were first told of the slaughter at My Lai in Vietnam.
Nor is she prepared to accept the allegation that it is her countrymen who are purging Kosovo of its Albanian residents.
Instead, Maritza echoes her government's position: that the ethnic Albanians are fleeing NATO's air attacks, which she says include 400 cruise missiles and smart bombs dropped on Kosovo daily.
"With such a concentration of firepower, it was inevitable that people of Kosovo would flee," Maritza says. "The pictures of destruction caused by these projectiles are so horrible that the only thing that can be compared with this devastation is the destruction of London by German V-1 and V-2 projectiles by the end of World War II. I am asking you: Who is crazy as to stay in a city exposed to such destruction? And why all that bombing?
"Exactly to force Shiptars [ethnic Albanians] to start evacuating themselves and the CNN reporters take pictures of them with explanation that they are fleeing persecution by Serbs. It is so evident, almost transparent, that I really cannot understand how can anybody think different or believe in what CNN is serving the world."
Certainly the bombing of Kosovo by NATO made a bad situation worse.
One of the first United States senators to visit Kosovo and the refugee camps in Albania was Oklahoma's James M. Inhofe, who said on his return: "Without exception, the refugees were convinced their plight was precipitated by the NATO bombing campaign."
Maritza's unflinching perspective on the war, and the extent to which it mirrors popular Serbian opinion, makes evident the enormity of any peacekeeping mission that must follow NATO's air raids.
"Yes, we have seen Albanian refugees, especially on cable TV, since CNN does not emit anything else," says Maritza. "They are fleeing from NATO bombs, not from Serbs and I presume they were paid for, or rather, forced to give such reports. You are certainly aware of the fact that Albanians kill their own people if they try to be friends with Serbs."
I was not aware.
"I myself was watching CNN when a woman refugee was explaining in Serbian before the cameras how she fled NATO bombing while the translator translating in English spoke of Serb atrocities."
Referring to the writing of Noam Chomsky, Maritza believes that Americans suffer from media naivete.
"The U.S. lives a life of relative isolation from the rest of the planet," she says. "This isolation is cultural, political but most noticeable in its information aspect.
"Yes it is propaganda. Yes only one side of the killing is being reported."
"You should know that now, here in Belgrade, we have many Albanian refugees, their wounded people are being treated together with Serbs in our hospitals, but of course you will not see that on CNN.
"I will tell you one more thing," she concludes. "During our demonstrations and gatherings on squares, there were many signs against NATO and Clinton. But never one has appeared against the Albanians. As far as I know, ordinary Albanian people lived quite well, on friendly terms with Serbs. They were good neighbors."
This picture is at dramatic odds with the loss of autonomy that occurred March 27, 1989, when the Kosovars were stripped of their rights by Slobodan Milosevic, a step that inflamed the KLA.
"I think their politicians [ethnic Albanian leadership] are to blame," says Maritza of Milosevic's harsh measures. "You cannot imagine all the privileges they had and they behaved like spoilt children.
"The more you gave them, the more they wanted."
As I drive to meet Pavle for coffee on a fine spring morning, hikers march forth en route to the desert's mountain preserve. None appears burdened by anything heavier than a fanny pack. Halfway around the world, ethnic Albanians sit upon wagons pulled by tractors through the mountainous Balkans on their way to the shelter of refugee camps.
Pavle is in no mood.
"I cannot believe people. Some of the people I wait on, there is no other way to describe them. They're freaks. I listened to these people at the restaurant. They are going on vacation and they are renting dolphins. Someone is bringing dolphins to them and will pen them up with nets. There is a war going on and people are renting dolphins."
It isn't merely the idle rich that are under his skin.
"My generation is meaningless," declares Pavle.
"My generation, we have not been exposed to any sort of movement. We have had our music and drugs, but we don't know anything more significant than our cars or our college degrees."
Stopping genocide and ethnic cleansing would certainly give meaning to any generation.
Is Pavle prepared to put on a uniform? After all, he is a naturalized citizen of the United States, and these are his people. Is he a ground troop?
"No way, Jose," he responds.
Pavle Milic's answer resonates all the way to the White House. If he won't serve, who will?
Writing recently in the New York Times, Jacob Weisberg made the point that stopping genocide in the Balkans provides meaning to the lives of the president, many members of his cabinet and a substantial part of the baby boom generation.
Weisberg argued that Clinton and his advisers wish "to prove that it was the Vietnam War that they objected to, not the risk of war and sacrifice of war per se."
He speculated that the World War II movies of Steven Spielberg have provided the moral inspiration for those who came of age in the Sixties.
But Clinton wants to stop genocide without American casualties. The lesson he learned from Vietnam wasn't that war is wrong, but rather that body bags sent home to the States are political death. His is a draft dodger's learning curve.
So he depends upon "surgical" bombing to create his legacy as Oskar from Schindler's List. But it's the wrong Spielberg movie.
Stopping the Holocaust took the lives of hundreds of thousands of ground troops, death so vividly captured by the reenactment of the Normandy invasion in Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. Then we dropped two atomic bombs.
Clinton has shown that you cannot stop either the genocide or the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans without the ground troops necessary to stand between Muslim and Christian. How will he ensure the peace when the bombs stop? How many men, for how long?
When you listen to Maritza Yosimlevic rationalize the ethnic cleansing, you might be tempted, with American can-do assuredness, to assume that you possess the moral high ground, like a teacher breaking up a particularly vicious schoolyard fight.
But a teacher must put her hands on the combatants.
For all the talk of war crimes in the Balkans dating back to the early Nineties, for all of the legal tribunals, and especially for all the mass graves, there have been no significant prosecutions of war criminals.
No one anticipates that last week's indictment of Slobodan Milosevic by the international tribunal in The Hague will have any more effect upon the president of Yugoslavia than similar indictments had on Bosnian leader Radovan Karadzic or his top military leader, General Ratko Mladic, both of whom walk about freely.
Now that NATO has at long last responded, with limited force, what will the peace look like?
Are we proposing the English tranquillity of Northern Ireland?
The difficulty of the challenge is not an argument for paralysis but simply a caution against arrogance in the face of complexity; after all, America's only real experience with ethnic cleansing consists of putting Indians on reservations and interning Japanese.
The number of displaced ethnic Albanians from Kosovo is inching toward a million. In Bosnia, in 1992, it was estimated that 750,000 Muslims were pushed out. In 1995, some 200,000 Serbs were forced to flee Croatia.
Pavle does not believe his president has any plan to solve the problem of such staggering levels of ethnic cleansing throughout the Balkans.
The bombing smells to him of politics. However many ethnic Albanians are at risk, the truth is we made a better show of it when the royal family of Kuwait was threatened.
"The feeling I have is one of powerlessness," says Pavle. "Who do you talk to about it? Who cares? Nobody! If I had the opportunity to go over there as some sort of peacekeeper, or a journalist who could get out the facts, I would do it. But not as a soldier. No way."
The bookmark in Pavle's life never moved. He always opened at the page where his identity formed the plot.
"Every customer I have ever waited upon always asks me, 'Where are you from?' Always," said Pavle.
In fact, he made it a permanent part of his tableside hustle, offering to pay for dinner if his inquisitive guests can divine his bloodlines.
"In 12 years, no one has ever guessed except once a couple of years ago when I first returned to New York City and was working at The Lobster Club.
"This couple came in and the lady said, 'Hmmm, with those cheekbones, I think part of you is Colombian.' The husband said the other part was Yugoslavian.
"Jesus Christ. I'm in New York two days, I have no money and I'm going to have to buy this couple a $200 dinner. How will I do that? How did they do that?
"Then they both started laughing. I'd waited on them years earlier in Phoenix."
Pavle laughs easily at the memory.
But the puzzle of Pavle's identity had always been jumbled and painful.
Pavle never forgot the ridicule he suffered at the hands of a football player when he attended high school in Arizona.
"They said I had an accent," remembers Pavle. "Yet I did not know where I was from."
He might as well have etched the quandary upon his business card.
He recalls clearly how disoriented he was to discover his father.
"I'd been so detached from this idea of having a dad. I had this monologue in my head. . . . 'So, this is my father.'
"I didn't know what a father was. My father was fearful of me pointing fingers. But no. Christ, he was welcome. This was my father. And it was such a surprise. He was highly interesting and philosophical. He didn't talk about my job or ask about my accomplishments. He asked me what I thought about this or that. He asked me what it was like to be alone in America."
The discovery of his Serbian family finally allowed Pavle to grasp the loose laces and tie his shoes.
"I grew up in a Colombian tradition, the food, the music. But I knew something was missing. It was as if I was always rough around the edges. It felt like a part of me was never nourished. With my aunt, I know that a part of me is in Eastern Europe. She is a threshold that allows me to step over the questions. It fills me up. The body asks for this."
But discovery does not contain itself to a simple mold.
How did Pavle feel upon learning that his dad was infested with old hatreds, or that his aunt was an apologist for ethnic cleansing and a carrier of the party line on genocide?
"I talked to my dad about that," said Pavle. "When he was here in Arizona, he met a friend of mine, another waiter, who is from Bosnia. My father was very pleasant to him when they talked. But later, he told me he couldn't help his initial reaction to this fellow who was Muslim.
"I said to him, 'Don't you think your bigotry is unintelligent?'
"'God help me,' he answered, 'I still can't help feeling pissed at Muslims.'
"As for my aunt, yes, it is a little upsetting. But I can't blame someone who only sees one side. Is she a patriot? Is she a victim of propaganda? And having bombs dropped on your head alters your objectivity unless you are highly evolved.
"But what she closes her eyes to in Kosovo is very sad. That is war."
Pavle Milic has, finally, a measure of contentment as he climbs upon the new limbs in his family tree. He still intends to visit his grandfather's grave in Yugoslavia in the company of his father and his aunt. Their hatreds, for him, are beside the point.
"A great deal of who we are rubbed off on us from others. Those are their experiences," said Pavle of his aunt and father. "But I've never been hurt by Muslims."
In the months of discussion between us during the Balkans war, Pavle had more on his mind than the safety of his aunt.
When his fiancee dumped him by e-mail in the spring of 1998, Pavle made a mistake.
"Needless to say, I was devastated, so devastated that I called an ex-girlfriend and went out to a bar and flooded my bloodstream with as much alcohol as I could withstand. The rest I'll leave up to your imagination," said Pavle.
While trying to comprehend a Serbian family he never knew, Pavle inadvertently began a new one.
He hopes that what he has discovered about his own family will sculpt him as a parent.
"It makes me pensive that this little girl that carries a Serbian name, does not know hate," says Pavle. "This baby will not be raised to hate other people because of their religion or race. This baby does not live in the Balkans, for this I'm glad.
"On a more personal note, I'm really scared about being a dad."
The details of this new family are complicated; the parents do not intend to wed or even live together.
And the mother and infant are not expected to return to Phoenix from California until July.
But Pavle is resolved to stand by the baby, Hanah Lynn Milic.
Every morning at 7, the infant will be dropped off with Pavle, who will care for his daughter until 4 p.m., when he must get ready for work.
"I can't let what happened to me happen to this baby," says Pavle. "You must try to change history."
Pavle's mother and grandmother are already boxing up clothes to ship for the new child.
And what did his father, Rade, say when he learned Pavle was now a papa?
"My father was terrific. He said, 'Don't call me a grandfather just yet. I too need to be tested for grandfatherhood.'"
Then Rade spoke to Pavle as a father to his son: "Welcome to the club."
The father and his son now shared a new life.
Contact Michael Lacey at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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