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The Burden of Being Serbia 

Caught between patriotism and their homeland ties, Cleveland Serbs are waging an anguished war against the U.S. government, the media, and their own troubled past.

The atmosphere is electric at St. Sava Church in Broadview Heights, where, on a recent Tuesday night, nearly two hundred members of Cleveland's Serbian Orthodox community have flooded a small reception hall. Large families, single young adults, and church elders fill the seats, forcing latecomers to stand along the back wall. Some are wearing buttons that read "NATO TARGET" and "Stop the Big Lie." Others display a simple white peace ribbon.

Normally, Serbs are at the affluent church's sprawling ninety-acre campus, which includes several buildings, soccer fields, a playground and picnic area, and a cemetery, for services or weddings or sports banquets. But the purpose of tonight's meeting is to discuss politics--specifically, the United States's involvement in the war raging throughout Yugoslavia.

Many of the people in the room immigrated to the United States from Yugoslavia after World War II, some as recently as the mid-1980s. They have maintained strong cultural ties to their homeland and still have family living in Yugoslavia.

While much of the world's media have focused on the Serbs' deadly violence against and expulsion of ethnic Albanians from the Serbian province of Kosovo, the local Serbian community has been preoccupied with NATO bombs dropping on its people. Tonight, Serbs will hear a firsthand account, not filtered through government officials, but from one of their own--Rev. Irinej Dobrijevic.

A Serbian Orthodox priest from Cleveland, Dobrijevic accompanied Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. on his recent trip to Belgrade, where his delegation secured the release of three American soldiers captured by Yugoslav forces shortly after NATO began its bombing campaign on March 24. Dobrijevic visited families living amid the raids who have witnessed the destruction of churches, schools, and other landmarks familiar to many local Serbs.

Waiting for Dobrijevic to speak, people trade gossip in both English and Serbian. Laughter and backslapping ripples through the crowd. But people's thoughts are never far from Yugoslavia. When the tall and thin 44-year-old Dobrijevic takes the podium, the room quickly goes silent.

The son of a Ford automotive worker, Dobrijevic begins by detailing how he met Jackson during the taping of a CNN talk show, where the two first discussed the idea of a peace mission to Yugoslavia. He tells how officials from the White House tried to hinder Jackson's trip with disruptive news leaks and repeated requests to delay the delegation's departure. "[National Security Adviser] Sandy Berger summoned us to the White House and asked us to wait," he explains.

Dobrijevic talks of his six-hour bus ride with the newly freed American soldiers, who told him that their Serbian captors treated them decently. He notes that U.S. officials later claimed the soldiers were routinely abused.

But it is Dobrijevic's stories about Serbian people living under the constant threat of air raids that draws the most emotional response from the group. "Bombs," he explains, "do not distinguish between the Yugoslav army and Serbian people." As he describes the bombed-out churches and popular landmarks in Belgrade, eyes around the room fill with tears. "We will never be able to rebuild them," he says.

Dobrijevic--who will soon move to Washington, D.C., to head the Serbian Orthodox Church's first beltway PR office--openly criticizes the White House's policy toward Yugoslavia, describing the NATO bombings as a "thoroughly amoral action." Of the recent accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia, he says incredulously, "One wonders. It is in the middle of nowhere in new Belgrade. It's hard to believe it was an accident."

As he talks, another priest seated at a table near the front chuckles as he examines a computer-generated photo illustration of an ape morphing into President Clinton.

Serbs also feel strong contempt for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Although she plays a supporting role to Sandy Berger and Defense Secretary Bill Cohen, she is viewed as the individual most responsible for pushing NATO into war with Yugoslavia. A recent Time magazine cover story went so far as to dub the conflict "Madeleine's War."

This notion strikes a deep chord of betrayal among Serbs, because Albright herself speaks Serbian and credits Serbs with helping her Jewish family escape the Nazis. Just how extreme she is viewed is reflected in a question raised during the forum by a Serbian physician: "Could Madeleine Albright be the Antichrist?"

There are a few snickers from the audience--but not many. Dobrijevic himself handles the question sincerely, refusing to demonize Albright, but willing to agree that we live in "apocalyptic" times.

War is familiar to the Serbian people. For centuries they have battled for territory with other ethnic groups, from the Turkish armies to neighboring Bosnian Muslims and Croats earlier in this decade. At times, they have even fought among themselves.

But since NATO began dropping bombs on their homeland, local Serbian Americans have been waging a new war in their adopted country.

Serbs are openly criticizing U.S. foreign policy, challenging the mainstream media, organizing public meetings and marches, raising cash to send to the homeland, and developing their own network of news sources. They are fighting to change their public image as brutes bent on wiping out ethnic Albanians, most of whom are Muslims, in the Serbs' holy land of Kosovo. But in doing so, they are caught in a difficult position.

If they defend their homeland and its boundaries too strongly, Serbian Americans are viewed as supporting Slobodan Milosevic, a tyrant few people can defend. In opposing official U.S. policy, Serbs--many of whom fought for this country in World War II--risk being labeled unpatriotic. But watching the nightly news and reading the daily papers, local Serbs cannot help but feel that Americans are not getting the full story.

At this moment in history, it's tough being Serbian.

Targets of Abuse
Not long after the first NATO bombs exploded in Kosovo, local Serbs began marching around Public Square each night, carrying American and Serbian flags, and waving anti-NATO banners. More than a gesture of solidarity with relatives in Yugoslavia, the daily demonstrations are a passionate expression of defiance and growing Serbian animosity toward American public policy.

"Hey! Hey! U-S-A! How many babies did you kill today?" they shout into an amplified bullhorn, walking in a counterclockwise direction around the square's southwest quadrant. They also chant variations on the same theme: "Clinton! Albright! Shea! How many people did you kill today?" (The latter name refers to NATO spokesman Jamie Shea.)

Typically, fifteen to twenty protesters gather each night. Though some come from sympathetic church groups, these are not campus radicals looking for a cause du jour. They are Serbian Americans who poured their blood and sweat into this city--ironworkers, steelworkers, and autoworkers. They are veterans who landed on the beaches of Normandy. They are educated businessmen and women, computer specialists, doctors, and members of the media.

"I'm 200 percent Serb," boasts Stanka Vuletic-Savic, who immigrated here forty years ago and eventually married another native Serb. Now widowed, she travels every day from her Clark-Fulton neighborhood to City Hall to pick up the permits needed to assemble on Public Square. Vuletic-Savic usually arrives at the square just before 7 p.m.--as she did on a recent weeknight--carrying a bundle of miniature Serbian flags, a silver whistle dangling around her neck.

With a few puffs on the whistle, the demonstration is in progress, with Vuletic-Savic leading the way. After making a half-dozen laps, Vuletic-Savic and other marchers assemble in the center of the square for a short prayer service led by Serbian Orthodox Deacon Ljubisa Mitrovic, a steel warehouse manager, who has donned a black robe for the event.

In a native language, Mitrovic prays aloud through a microphone linked to the bullhorn slung over his shoulder. Vuletic-Savic translates: "Christ has left the grave and gave to all of us life. God save us. Bring mercy to us. Come and help us and those thinking badly of us."

Who would be thinking badly of them? The government, for one. Men who appear to be FBI agents sit nearby in a silver-and-black Ford Taurus sedan every night, keeping an eye on the protesters marching around the square. The surveillance is actually less pronounced now than it was during the first protest following the bombing, when more than fifty people gathered and law-enforcement agents openly photographed the crowd. (Calls to the local FBI office were not returned.)

The chants and slogans bouncing around the square strike their targets with unpredictable results. Some drivers lay on their horns in support of the "Stop the Bombing" and anti-NATO messages. Others fire back.

"Hey! Hey! How many Albanians did you rape today?" baited one Public Square bystander, alluding to the reports that Serbian forces have raped large numbers of Albanian women.

During a recent weekend march, one driver reacted to the demonstration by slowing his blue Honda, raising his hand through the sunroof, and waving his middle finger at the protesters before peeling away.

And last Friday, angry Muslims clashed with Serbs on the square, accusing their people of ethnic cleansing.

Such abuse is negligible in comparison to the attacks being made on American Serbs' friends and relatives overseas. For them,it's as if family members in Chicago or Buffalo were being bombed, a fear even a child understands. That point was made recently by seven-year-old Andrew Tomich, who stood with his mother and father on the square waving a sign that read: "Hey NATO: Don't Kill My Cousins."

Even before the actual bombing started, members of the local Serbian community were following the escalating tensions, meeting informally to discuss the "what if" scenario related to a potential NATO attack. If Serbs can say anything good about NATO's bombing campaign, it is that the action has galvanized their community. Caught in the emotional sweep of war, they were not going to sit back.

"The calls just started going around [the community] on the first night," says 23-year-old Milos Rakic of Parma, who, with friends, quickly mounted protests against the bombing. "The whole thing just brought us together."

A computer science student at Cleveland State University, Rakic had been thinking about creating a web page dedicated to Cleveland-area Serbs, featuring information on Serbian social and sporting events as well as links to other Serbian organizations. The bombing spurred him into action. Within a week, he launched his site (www.clevelandserbs.com). Still under construction, it features daily Kosovo news summaries culled from national and international sources, information on upcoming demonstrations, a NATO target sign (to wear at demonstrations) that can be downloaded, soccer schedules, and links to other Serbian organizations and news sources.

The bombing has also given 32-year-old Predrag Milenkovich a stronger sense of mission. He is president of the local chapter of the Serbian Unity Congress (SUC), an international organization that acts as a repository of Serbian heritage and culture. Created in 1990 in response to the breakup of Yugoslavia, the group has taken on a decidedly more political thrust, vigorously battling Serbian stereotypes and inaccuracies in news coverage of conflicts among the Balkan states, and lobbying policymakers on Serbian issues.

"I love being Orthodox. I love being Serbian," says the married Lakewood resident, who is quick to add his allegiance to the U.S. "I am American, and I'd serve for this country."

That being said, Milenkovich readily admits that, when he is not working as an engineer at a Mentor aviation company, he is fighting U.S. involvement in the war in Kosovo. He organized and promoted the meeting at St. Sava that featured Irinej Dobrijevic, and arranged a meeting between Serbian leaders and local Congressman Dennis Kucinich.

In short order, Milenkovich has become a key player in the community--like his father, Milosh Milenkovich, a prominent Serbian leader who immigrated to Cleveland at the age of thirteen, not knowing a word of English. The elder Milenkovich is now a lawyer and president of the Serbian Unity Congress's board of directors.

"I hate the [Clinton] Administration," Predrag says. "It is doing more harm than good. We are hoping that, if we all do our part, we can bring about peace."

Legacy of the Balkans
Nearly four thousand Serbian Americans live in Cuyahoga County, according to 1990 Census data, with the majority in the southwest suburbs, particularly Parma, Parma Heights, Broadview Heights, and North Royalton. About 850 families belong to the area's two Serbian Orthodox churches, St. Sava on Wallings Road in Broadview Heights and St. Sava on Broadview Road in Parma.

While most Serbian Americans live in the suburbs, Cleveland proper is still home to nearly one thousand Serbian Americans, who immigrated to the city in two waves.

The first Serbian immigrants moved here in the early part of the century, before World War I. They lived in small enclaves from East 26th Street to East 40th Street on Hamilton, St. Clair, and Payne avenues. Their first neighbors: Croats and Slovenians. Some Serbs migrated east, to work at the Collinwood Railroad Yards and Fisher Body.

The second wave of immigration began after World War II, when thousands of Serbs fled the atheistic communist-controlled Yugoslavia. More than seven hundred Serbs immigrated here immediately following the war, bringing with them strong political and cultural ties to the old Yugoslavia. They settled in the Broadway neighborhood, close to Republic Steel.

While the second wave of immigrants strengthened the Serbian presence in Cleveland, it also strained the resources of the original St. Sava parish, at 36th Street and Payne Avenue. Furthermore, the new wave's political and cultural views clashed with the first wave of Serbian immigrants.

A split eventually developed in the parish here--as in many parishes across the United States and Canada--over the politics of a church reorganization. On one side stood church members loyal to the Mother Church in communist-controlled Belgrade. On the other were newer Serbian immigrants, who believed the Mother Church was not free, and therefore its decisions should be challenged.

The tensions were exacerbated when a new St. Sava church was built in Parma in 1963, soon becoming the center of legal, religious, and political battles between the groups. The two factions battled for control of St. Sava for more than a decade. In 1975, a settlement was reached. The faction loyal to the Mother Church took ownership of St. Sava in Parma. The breakaway group was given the church's picnic grounds on Wallings Road, where a new church was built in 1982. The two sides ended their feuding for good in the mid-'80s, when the church patriarch from Belgrade came to Cleveland and presided over a reconciliation service.

Although Cleveland, like many Rust Belt cities, is said to be a melting pot of nationalities, many ethnic immigrants retain their customs and language--and enemies. No two groups better exemplify those transplanted loyalties than the Serbs and Croats.

As a result of historic and bitter fighting between the two groups in Europe, especially during both world wars, Croats and Serbs could barely pass each other on Cleveland streets without fighting. Their hate for each other persists today, heightened as a result of the ethnic fighting created by the breakup of Yugoslavia. This has been most evident in the wars that would erupt on the playing field, during soccer games between the Serbian Karadjordje club (Named after the Serbian duke, who helped free Serbs from the Ottoman Empire) and the Rebels Croatia.

"The games never made it past halftime," says Predrag Milenkovich, a former goalkeeper. "There were always police with shotguns on both ends of the field."

Rakic, whose website posts the soccer schedules, says games were canceled altogether during the height of the Balkan wars. And there is no longer such a thing as a home game. "Games are now always played on a neutral field," he says.

Such hatred is taught, passed from generation to generation. "That is the problem in Kosovo," says 34-year-old Mick Perisic, an English teacher at Rocky River High School, whose father was the architect of St. Sava Church on Wallings Road. "For any reasonable Serb to deny the atrocities is ridiculous. I'm proud of my heritage, but I'm not proud of that.

"I've been blasted by my mom and others for this admission. I've heard my mother say things that surprise me. She spews hate and says the atrocities are justified by history. It is just shocking."

The Serbian Spin
Spend any time talking to local Serbian Americans, and it is clear they dispute much of the media's portrayal of the Kosovo crisis and surrounding history. Some of their opinions are well-informed, some are largely rants, and others are outright denials. What they have in common is a disquieting shift in perspective, a participant's (or victim's) view of events that adds shades of gray to the black-and-white American news reports.

Serbs believe that the press focuses unfairly on the atrocities committed by Milosevic, whom neither the majority of Serbs in this country nor the Orthodox Church in Belgrade support.

They say the conflict is always portrayed as ethnic cleansing--and rarely as a war to protect Serbian borders, something Americans would be more likely to understand.

They say they have been unfairly cast as habitual aggressors, and they point to the Albanian rebels who formed the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and their brutal attacks on Serbs.

They argue that the media ignore the Serbian people being killed or displaced by NATO's bombs, and they dispute the actual numbers of Albanian refugees cited in press accounts.

They contend that, during the earlier conflict between Serbs and Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbs were falsely blamed for raping some 60,000 Muslim women, making it easier for the press to believe now that they are raping Albanians on a mass scale.

They question reports of mass murders and gravesites, arguing that the real numbers are smaller.

They want, if nothing else, one point to be crystal clear: Serbian Americans want peace through diplomatic means, not through bombs.

"I feel bad for the Albanian refugees. War has them," says Rakic, whose father immigrated here in the early 1960s and is an autoworker.

Rakic, who socializes largely with fellow Serbs, dismisses much of the news out of Yugoslavia as either biased or just plain wrong. "The atrocities on the scale the media say is going on--no way," he insists. "First they said a Pristina [Kosovo's capital] soccer stadium was being used as a concentration camp for Albanians. Those claims were not true! Journalists found there was no one there."

As for the reported rape of Albanian women by Serbian soldiers, Rakic has a hard time believing the severity of such reports. "Rape camps? Both sides are spinning propaganda," he says.

"Our media are either arrogant or have an agenda," says 75-year-old Serb Nick Zunich, a retired ironworker from Lorain who marches every night on the square and often wears a cap with an American flag design. Along with his four brothers, Zunich enlisted and fought in World War II, and he follows the current crisis closely. "I speak four languages and read other papers. There is not one American journalist who can ask intelligent questions."

"The American press glorifies the atrocities committed by the Serbs," says Vladimir Petkovic, a dentist who marches regularly on Public Square with his brother--a member of the mainstream media. John Petkovic is a Plain Dealer arts-and-entertainment reporter and the host of the local Serbian radio show on WCPN.

Despite his American press credentials, John Petkovic (who also sings in a rock band) is unhappy with the media's portrayal of the crisis. "The mainstream media [miss] so many things," he says. "The Serbs are blamed for everything. You won't be able to blame the Serbs for this five years from now."

Like many Serbs, Petkovic believes the crisis in Kosovo only worsened after NATO got involved. The Albanian people were not leaving the region en masse, they say, until NATO started dropping bombs on their heads.

In a recent op-ed article in The Plain Dealer, Petkovic wrote: "Not to minimize the suffering of Albanian refugees: It has been a humanitarian tragedy. But does it help to level Pristina, where Albanians, Serbs, Turks, and Gypsies are all, together, taking shelter? . . . [The Clinton Administration and NATO] deny everything. It's part of the policy: deny, blame the Serbs, manipulate a catastrophe that was precipitated by the bombings, and bomb some more."

Petkovic, whose family is from Cuprija, a small town south of Belgrade, received a death threat on his voice mail following the publication of his piece.

"You can't believe the press," insists 36-year-old Suzanne Zec, who sings in the choir at St. Sava's in Parma. "When was the last time you saw a refugee Serbian family? Can you tell me there is not one Serbian refugee family displaced by NATO bombs?

"I do not support Milosevic or his expulsion of Albanians," she says. "But if you are naive enough to believe that the KLA isn't doing the same acts, then you are incredibly stupid."

"It is terribly aggravating to see facts distorted," says physician Bosko Pop-Lazic, who fled Yugoslavia when Tito came into power. "Pictures are given to people without any perspective and history of our country."

Pop-Lazic, who heads a local Serbian cultural educational group, agrees that Milosevic must go--but not necessarily at the expense of Serbs living in Yugoslavia. Like many Serbian Americans, he separates Milosevic from the country's effort to protect its land.

"I agree with anyone who is trying to preserve Kosovo, because it is the cradle of our statehood," he says. "In that respect, Milosevic is right." But Pop-Lazic does have his limits. "I'm against any kind of ethnic cleansing, if it is really true."

Convinced that much of the American press is biased, Cleveland Serbs have in essence mounted their own news-gathering offensive. In this electronic age, when people don't have to rely on network and cable news, they have found it easy to wage war against the media by turning to the Internet for access to newswire services and papers from around the world.

Rakic, for instance, relies on news from Stratfor, a Texas-based private intelligence agency, whose news web page (stratfor.com) offers a dry, Eurocentric analysis of the Kosovo crisis. Rakic has linked this to his own web page, and many Serbs cite Stratfor as their primary source of information.

John Petkovic reviews the London Independent newspaper and two international wire services, Agence France Press and Reuters. He uses these sources, among others, for the news segment of his weekly radio program.

Milenkovich, who says he only listens to National Public Radio coverage of Kosovo during his morning drives to monitor American propaganda, also relies heavily on foreign papers, as well as international news and analysis pieces forwarded in e-mail from overseas friends. One recent article analyzed alleged bias in the British news coverage of Kosovo. The author, Philip Hammond, a senior lecturer in media at the U.K.'s South Bank University, questioned whether the public is getting the full story on Kosovo and reiterated several themes promoted by Serbs in America:

No doubt civilians are being killed and terrorized from their homes by Yugoslav forces in Kosovo, just as Serbian civilians are being killed and terrorized by NATO bombing across Yugoslavia as a whole. That's war.

But the focus on atrocity stories obscures what little we do know of what is happening: a military campaign against armed separatists. Occasionally, this hidden story leaks though.

The article goes on to question material presented by the U.S. government to the media as evidence of the mass murder perpetrated by the Serbs. Hammond writes:

Every war produces atrocity stories, and it is difficult to chart a course through propaganda and rumor. A useful start would be to discount the obviously ludicrous claims, such as the story of the "mass graves." NATO asked us not only to accept a grainy aerial photograph as evidence of atrocities, but also believe that the Serbs forced ethnic Albanians to dress up in orange uniforms and bury the dead in "neat rows of graves facing Mecca," in the words of NATO General Guiseppe Marani.

In another e-mail, NATO spokesman Shea is ridiculed for his response to the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Shea, a frequent and favorite Serb target, apologized for the bombing, claiming it was accidental and that NATO had intended to hit a building across the street. A simple recasting of the players in that episode supports the Serbian belief that NATO forces have become terrorists.

If they ever catch the terrorists who bombed the U.S. Embassy in Kenya and bring them to trial, could their legal team utilize the Shea Defense, which consists of A) First you say I'm very sorry, and B) Then you say you meant to blow up the building across the street?

Aleksandra Tomich of Shaker Heights relies on e-mails from relatives in Yugoslavia to keep her posted on the impact of NATO's bombing campaign. "It's nice to know there are witnesses to the truth," she says. "We don't feel so isolated."

But Tomich felt the backlash of her political convictions in April, after she went with other Serbians to Washington, D.C., to protest the NATO bombing. Anxious to get her point of view out to the world, she agreed to an interview with Reuters news service. By the time she returned home, there was already an angry message on her voice mail, telling her to leave the country if she didn't like U.S. policy.

It was not the first such incident. Weeks earlier, after posing for a Plain Dealer picture of protesters with her son, Andrew, and husband, David, she received hate mail. But Tomich remains undaunted, gathering her family for another photographer one recent night on Public Square.

"It astonishes me how people hate," she says.

Cash for Goulash
On a warm Sunday afternoon one week after Rev. Dobrijevic's speech, the parking lot at St. Sava on Wallings Road is once again packed, despite the fact that church services are over. Families spill out of minivans, the children running off to the nearby playground. Adults stroll down the sidewalk, stepping aside politely for the many seniors also headed toward the reception hall.

This time, the atmosphere inside is lighter. Parishioners dressed for a picnic sit at tables, passing large bowls of chicken soup, mashed potatoes, and beef goulash. The meal is a fund-raiser for Serbian families whose homes and churches and schools have been destroyed by NATO's bombs, so no one minds paying $25 a plate. The money raised will be sent to Yugoslavia through the International Orthodox Christian Charities.

Although everybody looks relaxed, smoking and drinking and playing with children, the purpose of the meal is not lost. Many people are wearing anti-NATO buttons and peace ribbons. And the talk is all about the latest bombings, which have damaged or destroyed power plants, hospitals, churches, and homes.

At one point a priest and several organizers step up to a microphone and read off a list of the families in attendance and their donations. Applause drowns out their voices when the larger sums are called off. Deacon Ljubisa Mitrovic confides to one table that $10,000 has been raised today.

The money, of course, can hardly begin to reach enough refugees, much less rebuild the parts of Belgrade and other cities hit by bombs. And as Dobrijevic said, many pieces of Serbian heritage are lost forever.

But there is no quelling the ethnic pride of these people. When NATO stops its bombing campaign and a resolution is found to end Milosevic's reign of terror on the Albanians, the media and public will move on to the next world trouble spot. But for Serbian Americans--faced with rebuilding their families, their homeland, and their image--the war will go on.

Mark Naymik may be reached at mnaymik@clevescene.com.

More by Mark Naymik

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