Milosevic's Hometown Lauds Freedom
Oct. 16, 2000
POZAREVAC, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Slobodan Milosevic was a strange boy, a loner who'd hit the books while classmates played soccer or pilfered neighbors' apples. His son, Marko, lived for fast cars and women before turning to smuggling drugs and cigarettes.
Memories of Slobodan Milosevic and his family abound here in the city of his birth. And few are good, as they come pouring out of relieved residents two weeks after the downfall of the strongman-president.
``Their demise was a relief to all of us,'' says Miroslav Milovanovic. ``Now we can stop whispering and finally speak out.''
During his rule, this run-down factory town, birthplace not only of Milosevic but also his wife and two children, used to be known as the ``Forbidden City'' after the secluded Beijing enclave where China's emperors once lived.
Some residents of this city of 90,000 people, 60 miles east of Belgrade, used to take off their car license plates when they journeyed elsewhere to prevent Milosevic opponents from slashing their tires.
Milosevic's tough police minister, Veljko Stojiljkovic, was also from Pozarevac, and dissent here was not tolerated. In the past few years, residents spoke of beatings by toughs working for Milosevic's son Marko.
Repression reached its height during the last days of the campaign for the Sept. 24 vote election, which Milosevic lost to Vojislav Kostunica. Posters of Milosevic rivals were torn down as soon as they appeared. Those who plastered them on walls were questioned and sometimes beaten.
``This place had a bad name elsewhere in Serbia,'' Milovanovic says. ``What the others didn't realize was that of all places under Milosevic, this was the toughest town to live in.''
Milosevic himself paid little attention to the collection of shabby one family homes and Communist-era concrete tenements after he left in his teens to attend school in Belgrade, according to residents who grew up with him.
Ratibor _ a former Milosevic classmate until both were 15 _ remembers the future president as a loner who spurned childhood pranks in favor of his books.
``We called him 'Silky,''' said Ratibor, who asked that his surname not be printed in return for talking about Milosevic. ``His mother dressed him funny and kept him soft. He had nothing in common with us.
``We could never get him to join in when we raided orchards or did other things that boys of that age do.''
Ratibor, puffing on a cigarette and gulping coffee in an outdoor cafe, chuckled as he recalled how schoolmates once made Milosevic a bow and arrows from branches and string when they were about 12. American Westerns were popular back then.
``We had to show him how to use it,'' said Ratibor.
Memories of Marko, 28, Milosevic's son, are more sinister.
By the mid-1990s, he had changed from a relatively harmless car fanatic and womanizer to a dealer in drugs, smuggled cigarettes, alcohol and gasoline, residents say. Trade sanctions imposed to punish Milosevic fomenting Balkan wars gave smugglers huge opportunities to get rich.
``I remember having a drink with him in the early days. He was fun, a guy you could joke with,'' recalled Momcilo Veljkovic. ``Later, his character changed _ he demanded respect, he demanded everyone bow deep before him.''
Residents recall Marko's bodyguards pistol-whipping the local public prosecutor's son last year in a public square, as people looked on. Shortly before the elections, his thugs severely beat several opposition figures. Marko's thugs then pressured authorities to charge one of their victims with attempted murder _ accusations later dismissed by a court.
Branching out in 1999, Marko helped finance Bambiland, a 150-acre Disney-style theme park, _ estimated to be worth $325,000.
It opened during last year's NATO bombardment and closed less than a year later. With residents earning an average $25 a month, few could afford entry tickets priced at nearly a dollar each.
Other ventures included the high-tech Madonna disco, an appliances store and a bakery, which Marko took over a few months before the elections. Residents say Marko ordered out the previous owner at gunpoint.
All Marko's businesses were looted as he fled to Russia with his wife and son just after the Oct. 5 pro-democracy revolts forced his father to concede electoral defeat.
Some nastiness continues even past Marko's escape. His thugs reportedly beat pro-democracy activist Vojica Stokic on Friday, leaving him unconscious in an alley, and sporting cuts and bruises Sunday.
But unlike before, Pozarevac residents are fighting back.
``We have their names, and we will get them, one by one,'' says Momcilo Veljkovic, Stokic's buddy. ``They're hoping for Marko's return, but that will not happen.
``And without Marko, they're nothing.''