Slobodan Milosevic was buried beside his provincial family home on Saturday after tens of thousands of Serbs rallied to hail the man who presided over years of bloodshed and was ousted by his own people.
The pro-Western politicians who now run Serbia refused him a state funeral, but leading officials of his Socialist Party and ultranationalists paid tribute to their hero.
Some 3,000 local mourners waving Serbian flags and holding red roses gathered to praise Milosevic, indicted by the U.N. over the Balkan wars of the 1990s, before his burial in the town of Pozarevac, 50 miles east of the capital Belgrade.
He came home not in a cortege of black cars, but in a private hearse with advertising on the sides. Instead of a military honor guard, black-clad security men threw back the unwelcome, like bouncers at a nightclub.
Only 100 witnesses
Only 100 invited guests saw his coffin lowered into a grave in the garden of the family home as darkness fell and a brass band played somber music. Earlier, supporters read messages from his wife Mira and son Marko, both too frightened to return from self-imposed exile in Russia.
“He had the courage of a statesman at times of the greatest trouble for the people and he was never a coward,” Milorad Vucelic, a senior Socialist Party official, declared to thousands of people in the town center before the burial.
“He was a hero both in life and death, a great man.”
A crowd estimated by police at around 80,000 massed in central Belgrade to begin the proceedings. The coffin was draped in the red, blue and white Serbian flag and flanked by former military officers in ceremonial uniforms.
Party organizers gave lapel buttons to the thousands of followers bussed in to the capital, and communists and ultranationalists made lengthy speeches.
Milosevic died of heart failure in his cell at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague last Saturday, only months before a verdict was expected in his marathon trial covering the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo which killed at least 150,000 people.
Widely seen in neighboring countries and the West as the leader most responsible for those wars, Milosevic faced charges including genocide and crimes against humanity.
But feelings in Serbia were more divided. He had dominated politics for more than a decade before a huge crowd of protesters chanting the slogan “He’s finished!” at the federal parliament forced him from power in October 2000.
His supporters, mainly middle-aged and elderly, chose to gather at the same spot on Saturday before the coffin was taken on to Pozarevac.
Biljana Krneta, a state airline employee, said she had come to the rally because Milosevic deserved respect. “It’s very sad what happened to us in the last 15 years. He tried to do what he could and I don’t blame him for anything,” she said.
About 2,000 generally younger anti-Milosevic protesters waving colourful balloons and blowing whistles gathered nearby later in the day to denounce his rule.
A banner featuring a death notice with Milosevic’s picture declared: “He’s finished forever!”
Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic, target of failed assassination bids under Milosevic, had his own view of the former president.
“All the squares in the city would be too small to hold all the victims of Milosevic and his rule, those who were killed or handicapped, made homeless or refugees,” he said in Belgrade.
Milosevic was laid to rest under an old lime tree where he is said to have first kissed Mira Markovic, the childhood sweetheart who became his wife and partner in power.
“We two, we have always been on the same side of the world,” said Mira’s letter, read out at side of the grave in which she also plans to be buried.
“I’ll fight on for our ideals.”