Monday, March 20, 2006

The Day of Milsevic's Funeral

On Saturday, I decided to run some errands in downtown Belgrade. As I was leaving my apartment, my landlord warned that the traffic was bad – and it was. The bus, crowded as usual, inched along the road, despite taking an alternate route. There seemed to be a lot more busses coming from villages and towns as well. Along the route I saw a group of men, some carrying a photo of Milosevic and a few wearing the traditional shajkaca hats, heading towards downtown. I knew that Milosevic’s body had been on display at a small museum for the past several days (I had seen the queue of people standing in the rain the previous night), but that wasn’t in the downtown area. A large number of people left the bus at the next stop, which left those remaining with a seat – a pleasant surprise on most bus trips.

Two people sitting by me were having a discussion. Although I could not understand what they were saying, the inclusion of words such as Milosevic, Kosovo, UN, and Hague provided a good indication of what they were talking about. When the woman brought up words such as America and Milosevic + terrorist, I could tell that the two were exchanging opinions and observations. I wished I could have listened to their conversation and heard their ideas. The man across from me was reading a local newspaper. I could see pictures of Milosevic, his coffin, and well-wishers kissing the framed photo of the former president in front of the coffin. On the back page was another photo of Milosevic and a short article. Decoding each Cyrillic letter just as a young child, I figured out that it was his obituary. Sensing that the bus would not reach its normal destination by Trg Republic, I also got off the bus and walked.

On the main walking street Knez Mihailova, there were a fair number of people on the streets for a Saturday morning. Ice cream vendors were now selling from their wheeled carts. Popcorn vendors and newsstands were also busy. In most respects, it seemed like a normal Saturday. I noticed that many people coming towards me were wearing buttons with Milosevic’s picture, heading in the direction of the Parliament.

After running my errands, I decided to walk towards the Parliament. Here, a large crowd (estimates between 50,000 and 90,000) had gathered. Some were standing on concrete flowerpots or climbing up the wall to the elevated grassy area to get a better view. In front of the Parliament on an erected platform, speeches were being made. Large screens projected images of the former president. News vans were parked near some trees. In front of me, old woman wearing a kerchief and dark dress held up a large photo of Milosevic. To one side, a man was selling copies of the book written by Milosevic in the late 1990’s. Although the crowd was quite civilized, I decided to leave after a few minutes.

Meanwhile, across town at Republic Square, protesters of Milosevic gathered. Holding colorful balloons and blowing whistles, this crowd sought to remind others of the harm that Milosevic did – and that he is no hero. News reports such as B 92 and BBC reported that the participants of this rally were more positive and future oriented, hoping that the death would help move the country forward and close up a grim chapter on its past. As taken from the B92 (local) website: "Thank you for the deceit and theft, for every drop of blood shed by thousands, for the fear and uncertainty, for the failed lives and generations, the unfulfilled dreams, for the horrors and wars you waged in our name, without asking us, for all the burdens you've placed on our shoulders," they said. "We remember tanks on Belgrade streets and blood on the pavements. We remember Vukovar. We remember Dubrovnik. We remember Knin and Krajina. We remember Sarajevo. We remember Srebrenica. We remember the air strikes. We remember Kosovo. We'll be remembering that one for a while. And dreaming of it."

That evening, I attended a music recital. I asked one of the musicians if he had been downtown. Although this young man indicated that he was not a Milosevic supporter, he thought that both gatherings were “crazy”. Like so many people of Belgrade, he simply wanted to move on.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Death of Milosevic

Upon hearing of the death of former Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, I have followed the developments with interest. How would local people respond to his death and why? Would it vary by age, location, education, or financial status? What did the local newspapers say was the cause of his death? Would the government allow Milosevic to be buried in Serbia? If so, would the funeral be a quiet, private one, or would there be some fanfare involved?

Citizen Responses
Responses of people are definitely varied. Some couldn't care less about the whole situation - why he died, the trial and verdict, where he should be buried, etc. Some Serbians are just fed up with the whole thing and just want to move on with their lives. Younger adults I spoke to often had strong opinions. Many expressed regret that Milosevic's death and subsequent termination of the trial meant that he could never be held accountable for all the harm he had done. This includes the economic and emotional scarring of Serbia's citizens, even right here in Belgrade. Those such as the families of those who lost males through genocide had looked to the trial as a possibility of retribution and closure – now that will not happen. A few were saddened by Milosevic’s death, remembering him for the nationalistic efforts of a greater Serbia, especially his desire to hold on to Kosovo – seen as the historical and spiritual heartland of Serbia. Surprisingly, not all of these people were of the older generation.

Although I haven’t gone downtown, others have told me that there are not signs of mourners, protesters, etc. True, there were a few loyalists who gathered outside of the headquarters of the Socialist party, lighting candles and kissing his picture in memory. Even the Serbian flag above the Federal Parliament building remained at its normal position – and not at half-mast.

Press Reaction
Many of the newspaper (I depend on others to tell me this, since I can’t read Serbian) headlines proclaimed that Milosevic was murdered. Even amongst those who didn’t care for their former leader, there tended to be a distrust of anything involved with NATO and the UN War Crimes Tribunal. It is generally felt among the population that these organizations (and even Western media) are biased against Serbia. Where are the Croat and Bosnian leaders and military generals who committed atrocities against Serb citizens – are they being tried? Will families, including several teachers from my school, ever be able to return to Croatia and reclaim their land forcefully stolen from them just because they were Serbs?

Burial Location
Although people generally didn’t respond as passionately to this issue, they still often had opinions. Some would prefer that me would be buried in Russia or elsewhere. Such an arrangement would avoid the potential sticky issues of Mrs. Milosevic returning to Serbia (there is an arrest warrant out for her) and any governmental recognition of the funeral. If there was to be a funeral in Serbia, many felt that a state-sponsored one would be inappropriate. When I asked one teacher why he, as former president should not receive an honorary funeral and compared it to that of former US president Ronald Regan, she once again expressed anger at all the harm Milosevic did. The last thing she wanted to see happen was have him made into a hero.

One individual (originally from a small town in Bosnia) found it unfair that while Milosevic's wife may be allowed to return to Serbia without being arrested, there are so many young men who have been unable to return to the country, fleeing after they said or did something against Milosevic's regime while he was in power. I'm sure those families would love to have their sons return to their homeland - will their safety be guaranteed?

It now sounds like Milosevic will indeed be buried in his hometown of Pozarevac, about 50 km from Belgrade. The government has denied requests by Milosevic supporters to have his body on public view in the Federal Parliament building. Instead, the public display will happen in Pozarevac.

Possible Outcome
I hope that the citizens and country of Serbia will be able to move forward. Will the government and/or those who know of the whereabouts of prominent wanted fugitives be emboldened to hand over those war criminals? Will Serbia be able to begin its entry talks into the EU? Will Serbia emerge from political and economic isolationism? Time will tell.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Serbian A Capella concert

Invited by the music teacher of our school, I attended an a capella concert by twin Serbian brothers in downtown Belgrade. Many of the songs were performed by the two brothers, dressed in loose-fitting white traditional outfits. Some songs were accompanied by a man playing a penny flute and a longer wooden flute. A stout man, also wearing traditional clothing including a wide, colorful belt, played a traditional drum.

Nearly all the songs originated from the Kosovo and surrounding regions of Serbia - the cultural heartland of the country.