I read further into the book, magnificently titled ‘It’s about Požarevac…’. A fairly humdrum section detailed the various important positions that the town holds in the Braničevo district, which essentially amount to being the capital of the region. It waxed lyrically in broken English about the geographical importance of Požarevac, being the intersection of roads between Belgrade, Zaječar, Kladovo and other places. It regaled me with tales of the town’s relatively well-developed economy, of the various things the town is famous for, of the long history and the origins of the town’s name.
The explanation of the latter was a little disappointing. Požarevac essentially translates as ‘fire town’, and not in the good way. Despite this, the book told me nothing about a massive fire or a town-wide interest in arson. It mentioned that there might have been a fire or two, but that the town more than likely took its name from a guy with the surname ‘Požaru’. The section ended with the wonderfully despondent statement that ‘Požarevac had a miserable time period during the Turkish Empire. It didn’t grow or develop’, following that up on the next page with the next line of ‘Požarevac has a rough history’. You’re telling me.
I continued through the tome, learning about the flourishing of the town under Miloš Obrenović and working my way through a list of important personalities that originated from Požarevac. Among them was Nikola Hadži-Nikolić, a hirsute physician who became the first specialist gynaecologist in the country. The pleasant looking fellow was lucky enough to study in Istanbul on the insistence of his mother, returning in Serbia to specialise in vaginas before opening the first Gynaecology Department in Belgrade. Hadži-Nikolić eventually returned to Požarevac, succumbing to typhus in 1915.
Another name among the many was Petar Dobrnjac, a Serbian bandit who fought in the First Serbian Uprising after a stint trading farm animals. This stern fellow wasn’t alone in the fight when it came to chaps from his hometown, being joined by Milenko Stojković, a duke famous for initiating the fight back against the Turks by executing a number of janissaries after the Slaughter of the Knezes so uncomfortably detailed back in Valjevo. Požarevac was famous for many people it seemed, from political leaders to painters via actors and scientists.
One name was conspicuous by its absence from the list. Nowhere in the book could the words ‘Slobodan’ and ‘Milošević’ be found together, despite the former tyrant being the most well-known name to emanate from this somewhat forgotten town just east of Belgrade. I searched the book high and low, but no mention of the so-called ‘Butcher of the Balkans’ could be found. Milošević is buried in the garden of his family residence in Požarevac, but you wouldn’t know that from reading the official tourist literature of the town.
It wasn’t particularly surprising. Milošević retains some minute popularity among older citizens in the country, but any state hoping to clean up its image isn’t going to feature its most notorious war criminal front and centre of its tourist brochures. The grave of the man they knew as ‘Slobo’ could be found in Požarevac, but the city wasn’t about to go out of its way in helping you find the way. I wasn’t particularly interested either way.
Milošević was born in Požarevac just four months after the Nazis had moved into Yugoslavia, and his formative years were spent under Axis occupation, formative years that were far too well stocked with personal tragedy. His father shot himself in 1962, his mother also committing suicide a decade later, nine years after Slobo’s uncle had done the same. The aura of death was around him from a young age.
Slobodan Milošević met a guy by the name of Ivan Stambolić during university, and the two were thick as thieves, or whatever that saying is. Stambolić rose through the ranks of the Yugoslav political system, and he dragged Milošević along with him at every point. The two were politically inseparable, but socialism wasn’t a system built for the evolution of trust. Stambolić himself famously said that if someone looks at your back long enough they might become tempted to thrust a dagger deep within it, and that is exactly what Slobo did. Milošević usurped his longtime friend at the head of the Serbian Communist Party, setting in motion the real end of Yugoslavia as we know it. Things got worse for their relationship in 2000 when Stambolić mysteriously disappeared in the lush greenery of Fruška Gora. He would never return to the world of the living, as his corpse was found days later. Milošević was eventually found responsible for the murder of his long-time ally.
As grim as it was, the murder of Ivan Stambolić wasn’t among the most heinous of the crimes of Slobodan Milošević. His lack of presence in Požarevac today was less surprising as it was necessary. Serbia already has a difficult reputation to try and clean up, especially when it comes to supporting those convicted of pretty terrible things. ‘Come visit the grave of Slobodan Milošević!’ would be a terrible idea for a tourist angle, to say the least. I thought better of digging further with the people of Požarevac, especially considering how bloody friendly they had been so far.
John Bills writes books about Eastern and Central Europe, tomes covering history, travel, booze and the rest. These magical pieces of literary competency can be purchased at this link, so get yourself over there and do the right thing. Pay attention to the discounts.