Tens of thousands were slaughtered and millions of lives were ruined as a petty official with a glint in his eye brought genocide back to Europe. Tim Judah recounts the reign and downfall of the Butcher of the Balkans
Sunday March 12, 2006
He came, said a young Serbian monk who was there, like 'an antique god'. A million Serbs had come to hear their leader at Kosovo Field, to mark their defeat at the hands of the Turks 600 years before. Milosevic got out of the helicopter and mounted the podium. 'Once,' he said 'we were brave and dignified.' Now, 'six centuries later, again we are in battles and quarrels. They are not armed battles, though such things should not be excluded.'
One thing people did understand. A phoenix was rising, the phoenix of Serbian nationalism. But even then, so late in the day, few were to understand that Milosevic meant war and the end of everything they knew. A few months later Milosevic warned again, to a vast crowd in Belgrade: 'We shall win ... regardless of the obstacles facing us inside and outside the country. We shall win despite the fact that Serbia's enemies outside the country are plotting against it, along with those in the country. We tell them that we enter every battle ... with the aim of winning it.'
Whatever else people in the former Yugoslavia may disagree upon, few would argue that these speeches were a turning point beyond which there was no return. Curiously, obvious though that may seem today, relatively few realised at the time, or could bring themselves to understand that these were declarations of war, which would end in the destruction of their country, the deaths of tens of thousands and the ruin of millions.
Who would have believed that this man would rise so far and destroy so much? Born in provincial Pozarevac in 1941 he was the second son of recent Montenegrin immigrants. His father had trained for the priesthood but, after the war, abandoned his family and committed suicide in 1962. Milosevic and his brother were brought up by their strait-laced communist school teacher mother Stanislava, who in 1972 was also to take her own life.
Slavoljub Djukic, Milosevic's unofficial biographer, says the young Slobodan was 'untypical'. He was 'not interested in sports, avoided excursions and used to come to school dressed in the old fashioned way - white shirt and tie'. He 'preached' to his schoolmates and, as one of his old friends said, he could 'imagine him as a station-master or punctilious civil servant'.
And indeed that is exactly what he might have become had he not fallen in love and married Mirjana Markovic, his school sweetheart, and the woman widely believed to have been the driving force behind him. Related to the communist aristocracy of Tito's Yugoslavia, Mira, as she was known, pushed her Slobodan. She once said she could imagine him as leader of Yugoslavia, as the new Tito. In another time, she might have had her way. If she was, as she is so often painted, the Lady Macbeth of the piece, then it was her, or their, vaulting ambition, which was to end in so much blood and tragedy.
At university and beyond Milosevic did well. He worked for various firms and as befitted the times was a communist party member and apparatchik. By 1986 Milosevic was head of Serbia's Central Committee but still, despite the power that this implied, he had not yet really been noticed. He was, for most people just another boring official.
It was Kosovo that was to give him his chance. An autonomous province of Serbia, its majority Albanian population were restive. But Kosovo's minority Serbs felt harassed and discriminated against. Milosevic seized his chance. He betrayed his friends who had sent him to calm fears and, sensing that communism was on the wane, played the nationalist card. He became their champion. In so doing Milosevic became a changed character. It was as though he had come to life, a man now ruthless and determined, a man sensing real power was within his grasp.
At home with Mira he plotted the downfall of his enemies. Conspiring with the director of Serbian television he mounted a modern media campaign which soon gave him full power not just in Serbia but soon in Vojvodina in the north of Serbia, in Montenegro and then in Kosovo whose autonomy he was to abolish. By now his eyes were firmly set on the greatest prize of all. He would be master of all Yugoslavia.
It is often thought that Milosevic was a nationalist. He was not and his speeches are not particularly infused with the language of nationalism. It was power he wanted. Once he had crushed the Kosovo Albanians and brought the Montenegrins into line, it was inevitable that others in Yugoslavia would not want to follow him. He wanted power but he had let the evil genie out of the bottle. As it became clear that Milosevic wanted all Yugoslavia for himself, Croats and Slovenes decided to leave. Each, as they said, would now be master in their own house.
So, now, by 1990 Milosevic changed tack. If Slovenes and Croats wanted to leave Yugoslavia they could so, so long as they did not take areas inhabited by Serbs with them. Above all this applied to Croatia and to Bosnia. As Milosevic was to threaten, Serbs might not be good at business, but they 'knew how to fight'.
Evil times were to follow. On the one hand Milosevic and his old friend and enemy, Franjo Tudjman, the president of Croatia, fought, but at the same time they met, they talked and plotted the division of Bosnia.
Milosevic armed the Serbs in Croatia and then the Bosnian Serbs. Backed by the Yugoslav army, Croatian Serbs launched the war. Their idea was literally to 'amputate' as much as a third of Croatia and annexe it to what would one day be a greater Serbia. By the end of 1991 they and Milosevic had carved out a Serbian statelet in Croatia and now he wanted to do the same in Bosnia. But, in a way, Bosnia was his downfall. He never expected Bosnia's Muslims to fight. Serbian forces quickly seized 70 per cent of Bosnia. But this part of the war was easy. Bosnia's Muslims and Croats were mostly unarmed.
Throughout the summer of 1992 euphoric Serbian forces looted and burned their way across the country, driving before them hundreds of thousands of non-Serbs. It would soon be over, they thought. But Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, stubbornly refused to fall and within months the brutality of the seige and prison camps such as Omarska turned the world against them. The war was to drag on till 1995. With the Americans helping the Croats and arms arriving in ever greater quantities to support the Bosnian Muslims, the tide turned. With all sides exhausted, Bosnian Serb lines being breached and Nato bombing of Bosnian Serb positions, Milosevic, in the unlikely setting of a US airforce base in Dayton, Ohio, agreed to peace.
Now he had enemies to fight at home. Stealing local elections in Serbia he had to face down hundreds of thousands of angry Serbs. But he survived. Then came the Kosovo war. Now, perhaps, he could rid this land, which the Serbs considered the cradle of their history, of the Albanians who now make up more than 90 per cent of its population. But after the massacre of 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica in Bosnia 1995 Nato acted, and following 78 days of bombing they drove his forces out in 1999. Eighteen months later he was to fall, much to the joy of millions of his people. Soon after this, Serbia's new government, led by Zoran Djindjic, arrested him and in 2001 on the fateful anniversary of the 1389 battle of Kosovo sent him to face justice at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in the Hague.
Milosevic was a pied piper who started wars but did not win them. In the dock he has repeated that he was defending his people against a diabolical plot. To those of us who remember the joy with which his men whooped as they fired down on Sarajevo or grimly did their business 'cleansing' Muslims and Croats and Albanians, his defence was a travesty.
In 1990 Yugoslavia was a prosperous country about to sign an agreement with the EU. Now the vast majority of people who live in its successor states, are poorer than they were, and millions have seen their lives and dreams destroyed.
Soon, some of the characters that came to life with the pied piper's call, such as Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, may also come to trial at The Hague, but there will never be any escaping the fact that, killers though they may have been, Milosevic was the puppet master.
Recently a trial began in Belgrade of a man accused of murdering prisoners after the fall of Srebrenica. He said: 'It is certain that I am guilty before God, but whether I am guilty for executing my orders, it is up to you to assess.'
In this world at least, Milosevic has escaped his judgment.
· Tim Judah is the author of The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, and Kosovo: War and Revenge, both published by Yale University Press
April 1987: Catapults to prominence with inflammatory speech in Kosovo to Serbs demanding protection from ethnic Albanian majority in province.
1989: Becomes President of Serbia, strips Kosovo of autonomy.
1992: UN-patrolled ceasefire in Croatia takes effect. Milosevic bankrolls Bosnian Serb rebellion.
1995: Agrees to settlement of Bosnian war at US-sponsored peace talks.
February 1998: Sends troops to crush new Albanian uprising in Kosovo.
October 1998: Nato allies authorise airstrikes against Serb military targets.
Oct 5, 1999: Ousted after huge mobs rampage through Belgrade.
April 1, 2001: Arrested following 26-hour stand-off with police.
June 28, 2001: Flown to The Hague to face trial on war crimes charges.