Saturday, March 18, 2006

At first, we saw Milosevic as God'

By Colin Freeman in Belgrade

As a Serbian Army veteran, the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic filled Vladimir Miladinovic not with defiant pride, but dreadful memories of his time fighting in Kosovo.

There was his fearful comrade Nick the Houseburner, for example, notorious for setting light to Albanian homes and mutilating dead bodies. There was the indiscriminate bombardment of villages by units armed with tanks and grenades. And there was the awful, gradual realisation that the entire, horrific campaign was being waged for a leader he had long idolised.

Vladimir Miladinovic: No tears
"When Milosevic first came along I adored him, like everyone else," said Mr Miladonivic, who was an intelligence chief during the campaign in Kosovo in 1999. "But now we know that he wasn't a patriot, just an opportunist who exploited the nationalist cause for his own rise."

Mr Miladinovic, 33, is not unusual in harbouring regrets about the campaign that forced an estimated 800,000 Albanians from their homes and saw many hundreds killed and tortured. He is, however, one of the few ex-Serbian servicemen who have recanted publicly.

The reaction to his whistleblowing role in a recent television documentary, in which he detailed atrocities against Albanian civilians, showed the difficulty that many Serbs have in accepting any culpability for the bloodshed. When it was broadcast six months ago, the spectacle of being denounced by one of their own sparked a public outcry that forced him into hiding.

As a Serb, born and raised in Kosovo, he remembers how attractive Milosevic's nationalist rhetoric was. After decades in which feelings of ethnic identity had been suppressed by President Tito, Serbs had long felt marginalised by the Albanian majority until a visit from Milosevic in 1987 when he promised: "Nobody is allowed to beat you".

"From that moment, we saw him as God. He liberated us not just physically, but spiritually," Mr Miladinovic said.

His loyalty wavered only 12 years later, when he was posted to a Serbian Army garrison in his home town of Gnjilane. As a boy, he played with his Albanian neighbours. Now he saw fellow Serb soldiers use counter-insurgency operations against the guerrillas as the front for savage ethnic cleansing.

Once part of a machine that spilt endless blood in Milosevic's name, yesterday he found himself unable to shed a single tear. "I had no emotion when I heard of his death whatsoever. He had no sympathy for anyone who died, not even Serbs. I hope that after his death one very thick line is drawn under all this."

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