By Matthew Robinson
KOSOVO POLJE, Serbia and Montenegro (Reuters) - This is arguably where it all began, the place where Slobodan Milosevic made his pitch to become the defender of Serbdom, telling the nation "no one should beat you".
In April 1987, Milosevic, the Communist Party leader sent to Kosovo by the president to calm tensions, faced an elderly Serb man railing at the injustices inflicted by his neighbours, members of the province's Albanian majority.
Stiff and smart, Milosevic responded in words that would haunt the next 13 years, telling the cheering Serbs no one had the right to touch them.
However, in 1999 the Serbs were indeed beaten in Kosovo, by a NATO air onslaught brought on by Milosevic's disregard of Western warnings not to repeat the outrages of the Bosnia war in his military response to a Kosovo Albanian guerrilla revolt.
Kosovo, with 1,000 years of Serbian religious and cultural history, is widely expected to gain independence from Serbia later this year.
Today, the cultural centre in Kosovo Polje, where Milosevic spoke, is abandoned to the elements, its drab yellow walls peeling, the balcony rail coated in rust.
As war raged in Bosnia and Croatia in the 1990s, Milosevic stripped away Kosovo's autonomous status, drove the Albanians underground and ultimately confronted a guerrilla insurgency with a brutality that prompted NATO's first "humanitarian" war.
"Milosevic told them no one could touch the Serbs, no one could lift a finger to them," said Islam Bajrami, an ethnic Albanian wrapped in a thick coat against the rain. "And you know what massacres he carried out here, what crimes he committed."
The grainy images of that day mark the moment Milosevic, wagging a dismissive finger, launched his career based on the defence of the Serbs.
His legacy runs across Kosovo Polje like neon in Las Vegas. Barbed wire encircles the school, which is divided between Serb and Albanian children and has an Albanian name in the morning, Serbian in the afternoon.
The Wesley Clark driving school is named after NATO's military chief who led the 11-week bombing campaign.
A sticker clings to the window of the building where Milosevic made his promise to the Serbs. It reads: "Independence for Kosovo: The only way to peace in the Balkans."
Milosevic died without witnessing Kosovo's amputation, the likely outcome of U.N.-mediated talks under way in Vienna.
'HOOKED ON SPEECHES'
"Kosovo is a myth in Serbian politics, and he exploited it," said Agron Bajrami, editor of the respected Kosovo daily Koha Ditore. "His words (in 1987) remain with us even today. He knew the people would get hooked on such speeches."
History will remember another date: June 28, 1989, when Milosevic addressed 500,000 people on the bare plains of Kosovo Polje to mark 600 years since the Battle of Kosovo, a defeat that ushered in 500 years of Ottoman Turkish rule and resonates through Serb history to this day.
Foreshadowing the bloodshed to come, he spoke of battles and quarrels. "They are not armed battles, though such things should not be excluded," he said.
The former Yugoslav president was found dead in his cell on Saturday, aged 64. He was on trial at the UN tribunal in The Hague on 66 counts of war crimes in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo -- three futile wars for "Serb land" that cost more than 100,000 lives.
Milosevic died with Kosovo under the control of the United Nations and patrolled by NATO, its Serb minority scattered and embittered, fearing the worst.
Western powers, which backed NATO's 1999 air war to wrest Kosovo from Milosevic's grasp, are pushing for independence for this poor scrap of land, which is rich in Orthodox religious heritage and central to the Serbian identity.
The night before Milosevic died, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Kosovo's path to independence was "almost inevitable", the clearest official statement of intent so far.
Milosevic may have suspected as much in June 1999 when he withdrew his troops, although he claimed victory.
"I think he saw Kosovo slipping from his hands," said Agron Bajrami. "Kosovo was really his beginning and his end."