I was chatting with Vladimir Oginovic this weekend in Poseverac, hometown of the one-time ruler of Yugoslavia, the late Slobodan Milosevic. He, like many others I spoke with on the day of his burial in the town, had warm things to say about the man. Some knew him as a child. Most thought him a man to be admired.
Luckily, for what is now called Serbia-Montenegro, those sentiments are a decidedly minority opinion. The general feeling here is closer to the taxi driver who brought me in from the Belgrade airport when I first arrived. “He’s dead,” the man remarked gruffly, “let’s bury him.”
Years of debilitating civil war fueled by Milosevic’s vitriolic Serbian nationalistic rhetoric left hundreds of thousands dead and injured, millions homeless, a land in economic and political ruin.
I never met Milosevic but I certainly came face to face often with his ugly handiwork. You see, in the '90s, the Balkans was what Iraq is today for foreign correspondents. I was a frequent flyer to hellholes scattered throughout the region.
I was there to witness the opening shots of the first war Milosevic inspired in the breakaway state of Slovenia. That conflict, by the standards of the bloodshed to follow, was relatively mild. It was just a few weeks long, “just” a few dozen dead.
Even then, though, tensions were running high. I was probably the first western journalist to be seized by Milosevic’s Serbian thugs, in this case the Yugoslav National Army. Their soldiers didn’t care for me and my crew waiting outside of their base for some tanks to roll by … and hauled us in. Some fast talking by my burly German cameraman got us out of that jam.
Then there was neighboring Croatia. When the folks there declared their independence from Serbian rule the blood really began to flow. Ten thousand people died in a war that would last six months. The minority Serbs in Croatia were goaded on by Milosevic’s warped vision of carving out a Greater Serbia homeland from Yugoslavia.
I remember sitting with men and women Serb’s in the kitchen of a home in a small town outside of Zagreb. They were pleasant enough, cutting pieces of salami and bread for myself and my crew to eat for lunch. They said they were getting ready to go up into the hills to begin their part of the war. I happened to look next to me on the kitchen bench. Amid the groceries there was a bag -- full of hand grenades.
The escalation of horror didn’t stop. The fighting in next-door Bosnia-Herzegovina would last three years and by some estimates claim as many as a quarter of a million lives. It was a modern-day, flat-out killing field.
It was this war in which the dirty phrase “Ethnic Cleansing” was coined. Millions were uprooted from their homes simply because they were a member of the wrong ethnic group.
As I would drive around the seemingly beautiful countryside one would go through town after town marked by burned-out empty shells of houses, victims of an ugly policy in synch with the philosophy of the late Yugoslav leader.
I “profiled” a Bosnian Serb general in charge of laying waste to an area around the central Bosnian town of Doboj. I spent one long night drinking with him. My courage, perhaps fueled by the super lethal Serb brandy we were drinking, allowed me to ask him point blank, what was more important: “life” or “nation.” He emphatically replied, “Nation.” I knew the poor Muslims in the area, just trying to scratch out a “life,” were finished
In fact, the next day, word reached the general we had interviewed that some “enemy” Catholics and Muslims prior to arriving at his base. We were quickly sent packing and then were stopped at a half-dozen Serbian checkpoints on our way out of Bosnia where we were stripped of basically everything we had. We were lucky to get out with our lives. Many didn’t.
The final war of Milosevic’s reign of terror occurred in the southern Yugoslav province of Kosovo. The majority Kosavar Albanians there had been persecuted for years by the Serbs. When they started to fight back Belgrade’s Serbs cracked down in deadly fashion. Despite a lengthy NATO bombing campaign hundreds of thousands were uprooted.
I remember vividly talking with a young woman who was leaving Kosovo with her family on an open-bed truck along with everything they owned. She was a latter-day Anne Frank, watching and noting as Serb thugs did their dirty work. She explained to me tearfully they would go house to house in her neighborhood and yank Muslim boys away for an unknown fate.
One day in Kosovo, we walked up a hillside and, like some latter day genocidal archaeological dig, came across clothing, other belongings and bodies of Kosvar Albanians strewn in a long stain of death as they apparently fled a nearby village, seeking refuge from Serbian hordes. They didn’t find it.
I also spent time in Milosevic’s capital of Belgrade during those war years. I heard mothers early in the '90s demand Milosevic’s generals stop sending their sons away to be killed. I listened to the few voices of opposition to Milosevic, like a young man in 1993 who sang bravely on one street corner a Bob Dylan’s apocalyptic anthem, “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.”
I was there in 2000 when a million people took to the streets to protest a rigged election Milosevic staged and then had to retreat from. A year later he would be snatched from his presidential villa and sent to The Hague to face war crime charges.
It was next to that villa where I spent some time, as well, on this trip, with Milosevic dead and a verdict undelivered. Denied of a formal state funeral his supporters concocted the closest thing they could. Using a ramshackle museum dedicated to Milosevic’s predecessor Tito near that villa they put his closed casket on display. Thousands of mostly elderly supporters turned out.
I spoke with a middle-aged woman named Milena. She expressed the mixed emotions of many of her generation. This group had received some of the benefits of life in Yugoslavia before Milosevic wrecked the place and still felt some of the nationalistic pride he played on.
“He was the Yugoslav president so he should be honored,” she noted almost automatically. “He was a good leader,” she added, not seeming to be totally sure of herself, and then added reflectively, “but there were problems.”
As the current democratic-leaning government of Serbia-Montenegro struggles to be accepted by the European Union and the West, there are many who hope the passing of “Slobo” will help to put the past behind them and help them move forward.
As I drive around a land that seems little changed except for the worse in the 15 years I’ve been coming here, for the sake of the people, I can only hope that’s true.
Greg Palkot currently serves as a London-based senior foreign affairs correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in 1998 as a correspondent. Follow him on Twitter@GregPalkot.