By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 19, 2006
POZAREVAC, Serbia and Montenegro, March 17 -- Tens of thousands of Serbs gave their former leader, Slobodan Milosevic, a hero's farewell Saturday and pronounced him a victim of the U.N. war crimes tribunal, in whose custody he died a week ago.
About 15,000 people gathered for his burial in Pozarevac, his home town, and another 50,000 attended a commemoration in Belgrade, the capital. The mourners praised Milosevic, who oversaw Serbia's role in the bloodiest conflict in Europe since World War II, as a defender of the nation and man of peace and love.
The crowds in Pozarevac chanted "Slobo, hero" and "Serbia, Serbia" as they threw flowers at a silver Mercedes-Benz hearse carrying his body to the grave. A photo of Milosevic dominated the main square.
Milosevic was buried at a family residence in this depressed, industrial city about 35 miles southeast of Belgrade. The Serbian government had denied him a state funeral, and only in Pozarevac, where the Socialist Party he founded controls city hall, did the Serbian flag fly at half-staff.
Milosevic died in his prison cell of a heart attack, according to an autopsy. His use of drugs that counteracted medication for high blood pressure remains a mystery, and his die-hard followers have accused the tribunal of murder.
"They couldn't stand Milosevic's defense of himself," said Bozidar Delic, head of a Serbian group that campaigned to free Milosevic from confinement near The Hague, where he was being tried on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for atrocities during the Balkan wars in the 1990s.
Before arriving in Pozarevac, his coffin sat under a canopy in front of the parliament building, a Belgrade site heavy with meaning. In October 2000, mobs stormed the building to protest Milosevic's effort to overturn a presidential election won by Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia's current prime minister. After entering the building, protesters tossed hundreds of fraudulent ballots out windows and set rooms on fire. A few days later, Milosevic stepped down; within months he was extradited to The Hague.
On Saturday, political associates fashioned a legend of Milosevic as a steadfast champion of Serbia and victim of the West.
"We are bidding farewell to the best one among us," said Milorad Vucelic, a Socialist Party official.
The leader of the Serbian Radical Party, Vojislav Sesel, who is on trial at The Hague for war crimes, also sent a message: "Our Serbia will rise like a phoenix from the ashes."
Another war crimes suspect, Dragoljub Ojdanic, chief of staff during the Kosovo war who is out of Hague custody on bail until his trial begins, attended the funeral wearing his general's uniform.
Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. attorney general fresh from participating in Saddam Hussein's defense in Baghdad, praised Milosevic, saying "He was a man for the ages."
The crowd applauded. Banners declared: "Slobo is a hero and heroes never die" and "The tribunal kills." Some held photographs of two Serb war crimes suspects that the United States and the European Union are pressuring Serbia to arrest and extradite: the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his wartime military chief, Ratko Mladic.
About 5,000 demonstrators attended a late-afternoon anti-Milosevic rally at a castle near Belgrade. They waved festive multicolored balloons and yelled, "He's gone!"
"All citizens of Serbia must resist the hysteria that threatens to make Milosevic a leader and a saint. He is finished, but his cohorts are trying to make a comeback," said a statement from OTPOR, a student group that led protests against Milosevic in 2000, using "He is finished" as its campaign slogan.
The Milosevic family's waning influence showed in Pozarevac. His son, Marko, once ran the Madonna disco, a bakery and the Bambiland amusement park. Today, Madonna is rented out, and the park and bakery are closed.
Some residents expressed nostalgia for the Milosevic era, a time of subsidies and guaranteed jobs. "Serbia has lost a great man -- unique fighter for justice and truth in the world. We lived so much better when he was in power, maybe with less money, but better," Dragoslav Popovic said.
Not everyone in town was enamored of Milosevic. "He gave town a bad name -- he simply got pretty much what he deserved," said Mirjana Rakic, 42. "The people from the rest of the country would shout at us and say 'Go back to Sloboland' every time they saw Pozarevac license plates."
Neither Marko nor Milosevic's widow, Mirjana Markovic, attended the funeral. Both live in exile in Moscow, and Markovic said she feared returning because of charges against her for corruption. Milosevic and Markovic's daughter, Marija, who lives in Montenegro, also did not attend. She is wanted for shooting at police who arrested her father in 2001.
Markovic sent a message, read at her husband's graveside, that said: "The villains who killed you want my head and the heads of our children."
As darkness and rain fell on Pozarevac, a granite tombstone was place over Milosevic's coffin, and the Socialist and radical leaders around his grave wept.