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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Yugoslav Soldier's Funeral Puts a Face on Unseen Deaths

Balkans: Burial of 21-year-old attracts big crowd in Belgrade. Regime is now discussing its casualty total.

May 15, 1999|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Bojan Djordumovic's death could hardly go unnoticed.

It happened in the distant hills of Kosovo province, where the 21-year-old soldier was serving near the Albanian border. But it reverberated in Belgrade, where he grew up, went to school, played soccer and was immensely popular.

Grieving relatives, friends and classmates placed eight funeral notices in Friday's issue of the government newspaper Politika, each with a thumbnail photo of the handsome infantryman in a beret. As many as 1,000 people turned out at noon to bury him in the capital's biggest cemetery.

Yugoslavia has buried its combatants nearly every day since NATO began bombing the country March 24. But their deaths were not officially a topic for discussion here until this week.

On Wednesday, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic publicly acknowledged for the first time that the airstrikes have caused significant losses in the ranks of his army and paramilitary police force.

Handing out promotions to police officers on the eve of Security Day, which is celebrated to honor the police, Milosevic said that "during this struggle, many members of police and security forces died courageously. Their sacrifice is a shining example of bravery and devotion to one's people and fatherland. You have suppressed the enemy and disabled it."

NATO officials have seized on the statement as an admission of serious setbacks. "Every day he sees another percentage of his army being stripped away," NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said.

Many Belgraders interviewed this week agreed that military casualties have touched so many families that the country's leaders can no longer ignore them. But Milosevic believes that he has battled NATO to a draw, analysts here say, and may be setting the stage for a face-saving compromise.

By honoring dead soldiers and portraying his war effort as a success, the reasoning goes, Milosevic may be preparing the country's 10 million people for a deal that would allow something he rejected at first--foreign peacekeepers in Kosovo. The state-run media is full of reporting about diplomatic efforts to stop the air assault as well as trumpeting of Yugoslavia's resistance.

At a war hero's funeral with full military honors, Djordumovic was eulogized by an army officer as a victim of "international executioners."

"You defended our borders and our freedoms," he said. "You sacrificed the most valuable thing you had--your life."

The infantryman died Monday, but it is not clear how. Yugoslav media said NATO dropped cluster bombs Monday in the part of Kosovo where his unit serves. Ethnic Albanian guerrillas fighting to separate the province and its Albanian majority from Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic, said they clashed with the army in the same area that day.

NATO is demanding the withdrawal of Yugoslav troops from Kosovo and the return of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians whom Serbian forces expelled in a brutal purge. The government in Belgrade says soldiers like Djordumovic are defending Serbia against foreign assault and ethnic partition.

Djordumovic, the younger of two sons, graduated a year ago from a technical high school and went to work in his brother's construction business. Rather than wait to be drafted when he turned 21, he joined the army in September to get his obligatory service out of the way.

He joked about the war in his last letter home, his friends said. His parents, Pavle and Gordana, were distraught and he wanted to put them at ease.

The day after they read his letter, he was killed.

"He was good and generous . . . he didn't deserve this," said a childhood friend who lingered after the funeral. "It seems impossible to lose someone so young. He was just starting to live."

The funeral procession to Belgrade's New Cemetery began as an air raid siren warned the capital of a possible NATO attack. To a snare drum's slow cadence, the coffin rode on a gun carriage behind a Russian-made jeep.

Near a monument to Yugoslav soldiers killed in World War I and fresh wall posters reading "Stop the bombs," a three-volley salute sent bullets ripping through leaves shading the soldier's grave. Gordana Djordumovic collapsed; an army officer and her surviving son caught her and led her away.

NATO spokesmen have claimed that Yugoslavia's war dead are buried away from public view. But the Djordumovic funeral was one of two announced on obituary pages Friday and held in Belgrade cemeteries.

Neither, however, was covered as a news story or shown on television here. Despite Milosevic's acknowledgment of combat deaths, the military remains sensitive about morale and gives no casualty figures.

"NATO doesn't publish their body counts, so we don't publish ours," said Xenija Djuric, a spokeswoman at the Yugoslav Army Press Center, which claims that Yugoslav gunners have shot down dozens of NATO planes.

Miroslav Lazanski, a respected analyst for two Belgrade publications, said he does not know his side's casualty count, "but it is not so many that our defense will be disabled or our morale will collapse."

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