By Colin McMahon Tribune foreign correspondent 30 minutes ago
Nebojsa Minic looked pitiable on his deathbed, shriveled beyond recognition, eyes rolling in his head, a misshapen mouth struggling to utter the simplest of words.
But pity often eludes those who fail to show it themselves. And according to the survivors of ethnic Albanian families massacred by Serb militias in Kosovo, Minic never showed humanity, much less pity. If Nebojsa Minic, commander of the notorious Lightning paramilitary group, was rotting on the other side of the world, he would get no sympathy from the Albanian town of Pec.
"Home," Minic said repeatedly in a tense interview Tuesday night, 36 hours before he died. It was one of the few words besides "yes" or "no" that Minic could say clearly, and he kept coming back to it like a prayer.
But it was not Pec he meant by home; it was his apartment in the western Argentine city of Mendoza.
Kosovo? "No," Minic said. He did not want to go there.
Minic's run from his blood-soaked past began in 1999 after the men of Lightning were accused of dozens of rapes, robberies and murders of Albanian Muslims in Kosovo. It ended Thursday in a cramped public hospital in Mendoza, on a plastic mattress with soiled linen, when Minic, 41, stopped breathing and freed the hand of his devoted Argentine girlfriend.
In between those bookends of death, Minic stumbled through a half-dozen countries, through moneymaking schemes that sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. The odyssey bought Minic time, but it never brought him peace.
Minic could not escape a Mendoza state police investigator. He could not escape a jilted lover who gave Minic a roof, food and money only to be repaid with intimidation. He could not escape cancer and AIDS.
Nor could he escape the horrors of Kosovo or the nickname he adopted there: "Mrtvi," the Serbian word for "dead."
"He seems tremendously sad," Minic's attorney, Alejandra Ruiz, said the day before he died. "He cannot imagine a life without war. . . . The thing is: He could have led a normal life here, and now he's dying."
Minic's "normal" life in Mendoza was a mess of irregularities. He told people he was rich but often had no pocket money. He opened a pizzeria called La Bomba without a proper permit. He came into Argentina on a false passport, was arrested for using a second false passport and then freed and allowed to stay in Mendoza using his first false identity.
Friends, lovers and even Minic's guards at the hospital called him "Vlada" until the day he died. But the real Vlada Radivojevic, whose identity Minic had assumed, was somewhere in Europe, according to a police trace of passport and immigration records.
"I was shocked when I saw the files," said Omar Perez Botti, Mendoza's top police investigator when authorities were tipped about Minic's true identity in March 2005.
The crimes Minic was accused of ordering or participating in were ghastly. Munja, or Lightning, was a loose grouping of police, thugs and self-proclaimed Serb patriots who engaged in violent "ethnic cleansing" of Albanians from Pec and other Kosovo communities.
Testimony collected by human-rights activists and Serbian prosecutors accuses Minic of joining a Serb paramilitary raid on the village of Cuska in which 41 ethnic Albanians were executed. Minic was also accused of ordering the rape, torture and murder of members of the Bala family in Pec.
In the interview Tuesday night, Minic responded to a series of questions with "yes" or "no." Occasionally he forced out a clear word or a phrase, fighting the paralysis that had spread through most of his body. His lack of teeth made it worse--Minic had yanked several out himself when they rotted in his mouth.
Minic's girlfriend, Anahi Escobedo, manipulated Minic's mouth to help him articulate. She stroked his head, which lacked the long black and gray hair that had given him a bohemian look a few months before, and held cigarettes up to his mouth.
Minic held the gaze of his questioners, and there was plenty of fire left in the blue eyes that had so unnerved and intimidated Lightning's victims. He acknowledged knowing other members of Lightning. But he reacted with disdain when confronted with the accusations and when told that many people in Kosovo hated him.
"No," Minic said, giving his head a slight shake, he did not kill innocent civilians.
"No," the war was not about religion.
"Yes," God still loved him.
"No," he did not regret anything he had done.
"I am not a criminal," Minic said. "I am a soldier."
Minic's definition of soldier is as loose as his definition of war. Anything went in war, he told friends, lovers and people he merely ran into through his travels. There could be no such thing as a war crime, Minic said. And if you were not there, if you did not see the fallen comrades and the civilians tortured by the other side, then you cannot know what war is, nor can you judge.
"He would say he was the kind of person who leads," said Iris Palomares, a 52-year-old science professor in Mendoza who thought that she and Minic were in love but now believes he was just using her.
"He said, `Some people could say I was a criminal, but others would say I was a leader who defended my country.'"
Palomares and others said Minic spent hours talking about his life, especially about the Kosovo war. At times he would say he was a "very bad person."
Then one night, during a typical conversation in the kitchen, Minic told Palomares and her son that he was on the Internet. He spoke his real name, even wrote it down, and suggested she look for him on the Web. She and her son tried, she said, with Minic by their side. But maybe because the connection was poor, nothing came up. Minic appeared surprised.
"I never have understood why he told me that story. He did not tell me the details. He just gave me the name and told me it was a nom de guerre," Palomares said. "Maybe he wanted me to turn him in."
Whatever Minic's motive, writing down his real name led to his arrest.
After Minic and Palomares had a falling out, things turned ugly. There were disputes over money, with Palomares estimating she loaned Minic thousands of dollars to get travel documents and start his business ventures. Minic accused Palomares of stalking him. He even went to the police for a restraining order.
Then one day, angry and suspicious, Palomares found the name scribbled among some papers. She went to an Internet cafe and ran a full search. The screen filled with hit after hit.
"I wanted to die," she said, futilely trying to hold back tears during a 90-minute interview. "That I had a person like this with such a past in my house with my children.
"He was always making you feel sorry for him and making you help him," Palomares said. "I don't understand how I as a grown woman did not see this."
Palomares went to the local police, and eventually her information reached Perez Botti. In mid-May, Minic was arrested while being treated at the hospital for lung cancer and AIDS.
Within weeks, Serbian war crimes prosecutors would request Minic's extradition. That process was working its way through Argentine courts when Minic died.
`Not the same man'
On the morning of Minic's death, Escobedo stood by the corpse and idly rubbed Minic's ankle and calf. She had dressed him in jeans and a light blue shirt. She had closed his eyes. And she had wrapped a bandage around his head to keep his jaw closed. It gave Nebojsa Minic a cartoonish look, like a corpse with a toothache.
"This man called Nebojsa, this is not the same man I know as Vlada," Escobedo said.
And she was right. The man lying there was a picture of impotence and frailty. Minic had decayed from the inside out, and whatever fear, rage and hate he had been hauling around were no longer dangerous or frightening or volatile. It was still there, spent, stuck inside him.