War in the Balkans: Serb Dissent: Editor's funeral `a chance for us to protest'

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THEY THREW his newspaper into Slavko Curuvija's grave, a copy of Dnevni Telegraf that flopped into the pit and landed with a soft thump on the editor's coffin. They threw in bunches of carnations that bounced off the lid and came to rest in the soft, dark earth around it. And as the Curuvija family stood together, a frieze of linked arms and tearless shock, a young Serb journalist from the long-banned paper uttered words that should remain printed in the conscience of every newspaperman.

"They claimed ours was a vulgar paper," he said as the birds called in the chestnut trees above us. "But if it was to appear on the streets today, you could not find a single expression to embrace the events that brought us here - even if we sought all the words in a journalist's vocabulary.

"What a terrible irony that we cannot even make a full report of a newspaperman's murder. Let it be said that on Easter Sunday, 1999, between two air raid sirens, Slavko Curuvija was killed."

That is more than it got on the Belgrade evening news. For the government radio and television services last night, Curuvija's funeral - like his murder - was a non-event. While the brave thousand turned up for his last journey - Yugoslav journalists, academics, a social gallery of the intellectual left with an eye on the photographers who might be taking pictures for the state security police - the people of Yugoslavia heard only of the state visit of President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus who came to offer his country's moral (but definitely not military) support for President Milosevic.

Even as we waited outside the memorial chapel of the Zvezdera cemetery, opposite the graveyard of the martyrs of Belgrade's 1944 liberation, the All Clear had sounded, a mournful howl that soon merged into the off-tune trombone and drum funeral march.

Curuvija had been shot on the Orthodox Easter Day, four days ago, and his family, standing round the flower-heaped coffin, were shaking hands as if they didn't understand who was in the wooden box; his son, Rade, crop-haired in a black tie-less shirt and high- collared dark jacket, his mother, Cuke, eyes black with incomprehension, his daughter, Jelena, long brown hair over the shoulders of a smart brown jacket, a beautiful young woman who would stand beside the grave a few minutes later, staring at the mound of flowers without any sign of emotion.

Who killed him? The question was more powerful yesterday than it was the afternoon when two ski-masked gunmen fired 11 bullets into Slavko Curuvija outside his apartment block. Former police agent, ex-friend of the Milosevic family, a man who had suggested that only bombing might bring the president to his senses, he had critics as well as friends at his funeral. "He was a dissident from the Family," a university lecturer muttered to us. "This was sheer revenge. I didn't know him. But his funeral was a chance for us to protest."

So why only a few hundred mourners, I asked? He gave me a look of dark, suppressed fury. "It took a lot of courage to come here," he snapped. "You obviously don't know what it's like to live in a dictatorship." Others were more outspoken. "You died at the hands of Serbs - this was premeditated," an agitated, middle-aged man shouted as the coffin lay on a concrete slab beside the grave.

Then, after five sweating municipal gravediggers in blue overalls and rubber gloves lowered the box into the pit with ropes, another man, in sunglasses, even more frightened, spoke out hurriedly. "Here sleeps a Serb and the honour of Serbia," he cried. "You didn't die by a Serbian hand but by the hand of a traitor."

In the last editorial before his paper was taken off the streets in October, Curuvija - a tough, moneyed, arrogant man according to colleagues, with a doubtful past in the police - had urged President Milosevic to throw out the extreme nationalists in his coalition, the likes of Vojislav Seselj whose White Eagles militia butchered their way through Bosnia in 1992 and who has cemented Yugoslavia into the union of Russia and Belarus. No wonder the mourners yesterday felt they were brave to attend. Who will be next to fill a place in the cemetery?

There was no cross at Curuvija's grave and the five- angled wooden marker that Rade carried in front of his father's funeral cortege bore only the words "Slavko Curuvija 1949-1999" and the symbol of crossed quill pens. There were tulips and daffodils and geraniums and lilies and wreaths from Radio Index (closed by Milosevic) and the old Radio B-92 (closed by Milosevic) and from the staff of his newspapers, Dnevni Telegraf and Europijn (closed by Milosevic).

A lady watching the cortege had her own very personal reasons for turning up to the funeral. Sejenah had sat close to Curuvija the last time he spoke in public - about the need for a free press in Yugoslavia - at Pancevo on 16 March. "He said he couldn't last for a long time, so we asked for his prediction for possible future change. He said to us, `What is needed is a single spark that will stimulate the people in a democratic direction'. We were so sure he would end up going to prison that we gave Mr Curuvija a present of two books - the poetry and prose of young Yugoslav authors - which we said he could read in his prison cell. He seemed fine, he was quite normal. None of us could have imagined what would happen."

For half an hour after the grave had been closed, the Curuvija family sat on a neighbouring tombstone and looked at the flowers. Jelena remained standing in her brown dress, her face expressionless, taking the weight of Cuke's head on her shoulder. Later, she sat with her brother, arms wrapped round her knees, still staring at the grave of her father. There were gestures of sympathy from those who fear for Yugoslavia's political future. The wife of Vuk Draskovic - the federal vice-president and leader of the Serbian Renewal Party - was among the mourners, with the mayor of Belgrade, Dragoslav Mihailovic, grandson of the wartime Chetnik leader executed by Tito.

But it was the university lecturer too frightened to give his name, the man who had understood Curuvija's dangerous predicament as an enemy of the Family, who uttered the most frightening comment.

"In a war, it's usually truth that is the first victim," he said to me as we left the cemetery. "Here, the situation is unusual. Here, the first victim of Nato's bombing was democracy in Serbia."