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Crossing Continents Thursday, 15 November, 2001, 10:40 GMT
The Serbian tragedy
Verica Tomanovic
Verica Tomanovic's husband is missing

By Olenka Frenkiel

 Listen to this programme in full

"This is my aunt's flat. My own house is in Pristina. I left seven days before my husband was kidnapped. I tell you my story."

We are in Belgrade, with Verica Tomanovic whose husband, once the chief surgeon at Pristina Hospital is one of thousands of Serbs missing since the war, two years ago, in Kosovo.

Andrija Tomanovic

"This is my husband. He worked 36 years as a surgeon. He was good doctor, fair, treated everyone the same. On 24 June 1999 outside the hospital he was pushed into a Renault 4 and driven away."

Her husband, Andrija Tomanovic was 63. According to a witness who watched from the window, he was abducted by his own colleague, a fellow surgeon at the hospital, a Kosovan Albanian.

Verica refuses to believe he is dead.

Who cares?

It is true I had come to Serbia thinking little of this other side. Such personal tragedies had been eclipsed by the war criminals, the gangsters, the ethnic cleansers who turned this small country into a pariah state.

All this before NATO bombs and the offer of cash persuaded its people to hand over their former President, Slobodan Milosevic to an alien court in the Hague and let him carry the can for all the crimes committed in the name of Serbia.

No one wants to hear our Serbian tragedy, our Serbian misfortune

Verica Tomanovic

Verica tells me, no-one wants to know about "the Serbian tragedy". If, by this, she means the suffering of innocent Serbs she is right.

No-one really cares.

Not even my Serb driver, "I'm sorry for her - and I hope she finds her husband but you know - to have been the Chief Surgeon in Pristina, in Kosovo in the 1990s, he must have been a Milosevic supporter, a party man. They must have hated him. Of-course he didn't deserve to die - but in Kosovo it is like that."

This, he was saying, would explain how normal, decent people, doctors, or surgeons might have justified the murder or kidnap of their boss.


That night I heard the voice of Ceca, resonating through the streets.

Ceca, widow of gangster Arkan

Ceca is Serbia's prime pop diva, widow of Arkan one of Serbia's most notorious gangsters and warlords, killed last year. But no-one here holds that against her.

"You see, it's not so simple," the CD salesman motioned to turn my tape recorder off.

"Arkan was not a bad man. When he raided a village, yes, he killed everyone, every woman, child, goat or hen. He left nothing. If you were a Serb villager and had Arkan on your side no-one would dare attack. Your village was safe. Arkan was your protector, the man who saved your life."

War criminals

Today on the paved shopping streets of Belgrade you can buy a pin-up postcard of Radovan Karadzic or General Mladic. Both are wanted by the Hague for war crimes yet both are still free.

Radovan Karadzic and General Mladic

Mladic still has a villa in Belgrade and is said to come and go, flanked, not-so-discreetly by his own little army.

In the Hague these men are wanted criminals, charged with the worst of crimes, but here in Serbia no warrant has even been issued for their arrest.

A year after the new Government took power, and started the process of reform, the police, the judiciary, all the institutions that matter remain virtually unchanged.

Mass graves

Meanwhile the ghosts of those murdered here won't rest. Thousands of mass graves have been found all over the battlegrounds of Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, evidence - now being gathered by international investigators, of the carnage wrought here mainly by Serbs.

Batajnica army barracks

One grave stands out. Batajnica, an army barracks on the outskirts of Belgrade.

What makes it particularly horrible is that this place is in the heart of Serbia. It is miles from any of those battleground of the Yugoslav wars.

Hague investigators have been piecing together how the victims, Kosovan Albanians, women and children got here. It is thought they were murdered miles way in Kosovo and buried there.

But when NATO forces were about to occupy the area, in the spring of 1999, Milosevic ordered the bodies to be exhumed, loaded into refrigerated lorries and brought to Serbia where they could be safely hidden away.

One lorry, dumped in the Danube refused to sink. Another was found in a lake. In the dying days of Milosevic's regime he had the bodies brought to Batajnica.

Within the walls of this army barracks was an inner sanctum, a separate headquarters of his own anti-terrorist police. Two mass graves have already been exhumed, 340 bodies recovered. There are three more graves still to be opened.

Exhuming the bodies

Zoran Stankovic a forensic pathologist at Belgrade's Military Hospital has, to his dismay, spent the last ten years exhuming bodies in the territories once called Yugoslavia. Five thousand Serbs, Bosnians, Albanians, Croats.

Military Medical Academy
The Military Medical Academy where Zoran Stankovic works

Zoran is a doctor, a General in the Yugoslav Army - and a respected professional. He agrees to an interview but speaks in a depressed monotone, never looking up, resentful that visitors like me come to judge - as though he too must be in some way responsible for all these murders.

"It's a pity the West always sees us in these eyes. A long time ago I chose to be a Yugoslav. Most Serbs did and still do because they love Yugoslavia. When something unpleasant happens here it's very difficult. People shouldn't have done these things in our name." His answers are cryptic, he wants to make a point but dares not.

"Look at this," he says. "This is my truth."

Frankly I would rather be dead

Zoran Stankovic

He hands me a book with photographs of half-rotted cadavers. Bruised faces contorted in death. Blood, scars, damaged tissues.

"These are Serbs killed by Croats." He pulls out another. "Maybe next time you come you will ask how many Serbs were murdered, how many Serbs disappeared, were tortured and maimed. Maybe you'll ask us about our dead?"

I sense a seething resentment, a rage that Serb guilt has been singled out - they alone must take the blame for the madness that gripped the Balkans for a decade.

"Did you ever imagine your life would turn out this way?" I ask. He looks at me directly for the first time. "Frankly," he says "I would rather be dead."

No-one cares

A year after Serbia, supposedly rejoined "the civilised world" there's a numbness, an emotional deadness. Behind an affected indifference lies seething resentment.

Serbia is not the only country surrounded by former enemies but its curse is its inability to rise above its national myths, myths which cast Serbs as the eternal victim and trap generation after generation in a cycle of grief and aggression, only intensified by military defeat.

Villains become heroes, warlords protectors, the innocent interchangeable with the guilty.

And in the end, in this moral chaos, Verica is right to be bitter. No-one cares that her husband is missing. No-one cares about her Serbian tragedy.

"He was a good man but the media said all Serbs are bad. No one wants to hear our Serbian tragedy, our Serbian misfortune."

Belgrade's Natural History Museum
Shows Olenka Frenkiel around a collection which has been hidden away in cellars since the First World War.
Liberators of Belgrade school in Belgrade
The children sing an old folk song

At The Hague

Still wanted



See also:

19 Oct 01 | Europe
05 Sep 01 | Europe
29 Jun 01 | Europe
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