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Last Updated: Saturday, 18 March 2006, 12:16 GMT
Milosevic's shadow of death

By Nick Thorpe
BBC News, Belgrade

Following a week of accusations and high emotion, Nick Thorpe reports on laying the ghost of the former Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, to rest.

There are so many little dyings, wrote the American poet, Kenneth Patchen, half a century ago, that it does not matter which of them is death.

Gravediggers work in the backyard of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's house in his home town of Pozarevac
Gravediggers work in the backyard of Slobodan Milosevic's house
Watching Slobodan Milosevic's black, plastic wrapped coffin, lowered down the cargo chute of an all-white, Yugoslav Airlines plane on the runway at Belgrade airport last Wednesday, I wondered how many times Milosevic died.

And how many people would still be alive, in Serbia, and beyond, if he had never come to power.

"Did you ever talk with him about death?" I asked his close friend Milorad Vucelic this week. He thought for a moment, then told me this story.

The two men were flying together once in a small Falcon aircraft, as part of a delegation of Serbian and Bosnian Serb leaders.

They ran into a storm and the plane began tossing and turning. The others were worried for their lives but Milosevic started laughing.

"Why?" His friend asked.

"I just imagined," he replied, "all the people, scrabbling for our positions if we die now."

As an atheist, he had no truck with the afterlife. But he was interested in power, and it clearly amused him to contemplate the redistribution of his own.

Burnt in memory

Contemplating Milosevic in death, I remember another funeral, in Serbia in March 1999, of a young ethnic Hungarian, who died for him.

As a result of covering the conflicts in the Balkans, I have come to believe that evil exists, as a disembodied force, darkening peoples' hearts at certain times, in certain places
Zoltan Nemes was just 21 years old when he was killed as a soldier in the Yugoslav army, in combat with ethnic Albanians, fighting for the independence of Kosovo.

My recordings of the funeral were confiscated by the secret police when I was expelled from Serbia after the start of Nato bombing a week later.

But many details are burnt into my memory.

The whole, mainly Hungarian population of his village, Mol, in the northern province of Vojvodina turned out for his funeral.

At the graveside his commanding officer read out a speech commending his bravery.

An ethnic Hungarian politician commented bitterly, in another speech, that he had died for nothing - a member of one minority killed by one of another minority, in someone else's war.

I remember too the bells of the Catholic church, mixing with those of the Orthodox, the hooves of the horse-drawn hearse, the volley of shots over his grave, and the sound of 3,000 villagers, weeping.

And I remember Zoltan Nemes' father moving his head constantly from side to side, as though rocking a baby to sleep in his arms, as he buried his only child.

"There is so much Serbian blood spilt there, so many holy relics, that Kosovo will be Serbian even when not one Serb remains there," the nationalist poet Matija Beckovic had said, 10 years earlier, in June 1989.

Quest for power

These were the sentiments Slobodan Milosevic fanned in order to rise to power, and then to hold onto it, as up to a quarter of a million people died, some on the battlefields, but most as civilians, murdered in their towns and villages.

Slobodan Milosevic
Slobodan Milosevic's contribution to history will forever be disputed
As a result of covering the conflicts in the Balkans, I have come to believe that evil exists, as a disembodied force, darkening peoples' hearts at certain times, in certain places.

But to even suggest that, am I absolving them of a part of the crimes they should stand trial for, in courts like the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague, where Slobodan Milosevic died?

It is easier to prove the existence of evil. But if evil is a power at large in the world, surely good must be present too? And justice - beyond the efforts of human courts.

The simplest Balkan peasant understood that better than all the urban intellectuals.

I once asked a Bosnian Muslim woman if she thought that those who had killed all the men in her family would ever be brought to justice.

"God will be their judge," she said.

"Serbia is a victim of its own necrophilia - the celebration of death," says Vuk Stambolovic, the head of the Centre for Social Medicine in Belgrade.

He believes the malady began even before Milosevic came to power, in the 1980s, when nationalists queued to dig up prominent Serbs who had died in exile abroad and rebury their remains in Serbia.

The macabre circus surrounding the return of Milosevic this week - where he would be buried, who would accompany the body, and with or without which honours, confirmed to Stambolovic that the shadow of death still lies heavily on his people.

Perhaps after the deaths of so many, the funeral of Milosevic allows us to focus finally on the Serbs, as victims.

Looking out of my hotel window in new Belgrade, surrounded on all sides by tall rectangular housing blocks, I feel like a Lilliputian, the tiny people created by the writer, Jonathan Swift in his novel "Gulliver's Travels".

Surrounded by giant tombstones.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 18 March, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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