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SANDY BANKS

U.S. Serbs Agonize Over Love of 2 Countries

April 04, 1999|SANDY BANKS

Her father fought for this country in World War II . . . enlisted in the U.S. Army the moment his Merchant Marine fleeter from Yugoslavia dropped anchor in America.

He returned from combat wounded, a disabled vet proud to add his name--Bozo (pronounced BO-zho) Milinovich--to America's growing list of Serbians who fought for the U.S.

He found a Serbian girl to marry at a church dance in Pennsylvania, and they moved west to settle in Southern California. Here, they raised four children, steeped in the immigrants' mix of American patriotism and Serbian culture.

"We learned the [Serbian] language, went to the [Serbian Orthodox] church," recalls daughter Diane Milinovich-Erickson. "We were taught to be proud of being Serbian.

"But we were also raised to believe that this is the greatest country in the world . . . to be Americans, to love this country."

Now, said the Orange County high school teacher, "our father's heart would be broken."

It is a difficult time for Serbian Americans here . . . loyalties divided between their home and their homeland.

Beyond the personal--familial worries about relatives in Yugoslavia--there is a larger, more potent pain . . . a numbing mix of loss and confusion, fear and betrayal, anger and shame over the decision by America and its allies to bomb their native land.

"There is a great sense of disappointment," says Daniel Christy, who came here 30 years ago from Yugoslavia. "We look at the Serbs' tremendous heritage in this country and wonder, 'How did this happen?'

"We all agree that [President Slobodan] Milosevic is no good. He's an assassin, a tyrant, a dictator of the worst kind. But he's sitting in an underground bunker somewhere. . . . The Serbian people are not to blame."

But who is to blame for the death and devastation wrought by Serbia's "ethnic cleansing" campaign? That question dogs Serbian Americans too.

"I see the pictures, hear the news, and it is like part of me is there," said Daniella Seferovich, 23. "And I don't know how to feel."

She was born and raised in Southern California but has deep Serbian roots on both parents' sides. And she struggles now to find her footing in this most personal of political debates.

"It's not something I can talk about with my friends," she says.

How do you defend your homeland when the world is focused on the suffering of Albanians uprooted and driven by the thousands from their homes?

How, after all, do you explain your passion for a people now linked--in the court of world opinion--to a brutal reign?

"It seems you cannot hear the word 'Serbian' without the word 'atrocities,' " a Serbian friend of mine complains. "I am marked for shame from the minute someone hears my [Serbian] name."

"There are times," Diane Milinovich-Erickson confesses, "I remember feeling embarrassed to say I am Serbian."

The admission brings tears to her eyes. Because she is Bozo Milinovich's daughter . . . raised with America in her heart, and Yugoslavia in her soul.

*

Until the bombing stops, Serbian Americans say they plan to rally each night outside the Federal Building in Westwood to protest NATO's military campaign and to pray for Serbia's future.

"There will never be an American flag burned in our protests," promises Dragan Zaric. "We have always had love and respect for this country. But for anybody with Serbian roots, you cannot stand back and watch without pain."

Zaric was born in Kosovo, but his family moved to Belgrade when he was a child, he says, because of threats by Albanians at his father's workplace.

Ten years ago, when he was 29, he came here to pursue an engineering career. He was aiming for the Silicon Valley, but settled for the San Fernando Valley instead.

"Now I am an American citizen . . . and I am very proud of that. I really appreciate the American people for their openness, their flexibility, the way they accept immigrants like me.

"I know the American people are good-hearted, with good intentions. But they don't know a lot about Europe and its history. When they understand the truth, a lot of Americans will be very ashamed of what they've done to the Serbian nation."

And I am prompted to ponder our own brutal legacy. Our nation was built on conquest, after all. Eliminate the Native Americans, enslave the black Africans, exploit the Chinese and Mexicans, intern the Japanese Americans. We suffered through, and survived, our civil war.

"This is a very great country," muses Daniel Christy. "But many Americans of Serbian descent think it is odd that a country with such a short and bloody history would also have such a short memory."

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