Blood, money, bricks and mortar

Slobodan Pavlovic has a dream: to create a gleaming new city amid the killing fields of the Bosnian war - and he's got the cash to pay for it. Rose George visits the multimillionaire philanthropist as he watches his utopian vision take shape
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I see him from a distance, talking intently in the corridor, a figure with shoulder-length white hair in a style that defies fashion. His profile is familiar, because I've seen his portrait in a Belgrade photo studio, which shows his picture in its window along with other Serbian celebrities. He must sit oddly with the politicians and dreadful folk-singers, because Slobodan Pavlovic, a 62-year-old Serbian-American property multimillionaire, is the only one famous for building things. For free.

I see him from a distance, talking intently in the corridor, a figure with shoulder-length white hair in a style that defies fashion. His profile is familiar, because I've seen his portrait in a Belgrade photo studio, which shows his picture in its window along with other Serbian celebrities. He must sit oddly with the politicians and dreadful folk-singers, because Slobodan Pavlovic, a 62-year-old Serbian-American property multimillionaire, is the only one famous for building things. For free.

In the past 15 years, in this corner of north-eastern Bosnia, Pavlovic has built a few churches, one belltower, one synagogue, one university, one bridge and several statues. He has bought a few factories that would otherwise have closed, and 44 banks. Now he's building a city. Slobomir - "freedom and peace", and a contraction of the names of Slobodan and Mira, his wife - is rising from the rich agricultural plains of Semberia, on the banks of the river Drina.

This is Republika Srpska, the Serb entity carved out of Bosnia after the war. From here came the men and women who besieged Sarajevo, killed 7,500 Muslim men in Srebrenica, and set up concentration camps in Prijedor. Bijeljina, the closest city to Slobomir, has a 76-page Human Rights Watch report dedicated to it, so nasty was its brief war. This was where Arkan and his Tigers, the most vicious and evil of the Bosnian Serb militias, first came. It's where the ethnic cleansing began.

Today, the last 20 minutes of the drive from Belgrade passes through unremarkable towns. They end at the Drina, the international border between Serbia and Bosnia. Here, we are waved through with a quick glance at my passport, because this is Pavlovic's car, and Pavlovic built the checkpoint, the road and the Pavlovic bridge that now, for the first time in history at this point in the border, connects Serbia with Republika Srpska. Anyone in Pavlovic's car gets an untroubled passage.

Slobomir gleams in the sun. Two white low buildings, an empty car-park, not much else. But in the air-conditioned lobby of the Pavlovic Bank, there's a model of the future. Slobomir already has a bank, a university building, a bakery, café and restaurant, a dozen empty retail units and a large, empty hospital clinic. It has a nearly-completed radio tower, and a huge space is fenced off for the Free Trade Zone. The model fills in the gaps with houses, more retail, a bigger everything. It looks ambitious, mad and expensive, the vision of a big kid who can build his own very expensive toyshop.

Pavlovic stands up to greet me. I am arriving with prejudices. I haven't met many very rich men, especially not rich men who choose to build cities in the morally suspect territories of Republika Srpska, the land of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the best-known Bosnian Serbs and the best-known uncaptured indicted war criminals.

There isn't much to be found on Slobodan Pavlovic, but what there is includes a brief reference to federal charges filed against him for arson in the early 1980s in Chicago. I'm inclined to be wary.

But he is disarming. His child-like enthusiasm is as expansive as the shoulders of his well-cut double-breasted suit. He seems to be, simply, a nice man. His accent remains, even after 25 years in the United States. He is often lost for a word, and mangles the ones he does know. "I was a shepherd here as a boy," he says. "I had many sheeps." He waves a hand towards the window. "This was my father, my grandfather land. When the Communists took over, and I watching the cows and sheeps and swim in Drina and seeing how Drina flow. And I say: if ever in my life I am able to do something, I want to build a bridge." Not the long cement bridge that's there now, but "a bridge same as in Tarzan movies. Many, many times people go by ferry and the Drina is a very wild river, and they capsize and drown. So that was my dream. A bridge."

In the early 1990s, 47 years later, he had the chance to build it. Yugoslavia still existed, but not for long. Communism was under assault, war was brewing, Slobodan Milosevic was still firmly in power. Pavlovic went to the Yugoslavian minister of the economy. "I said, 'I'll build a bridge, but I want to see how much it costs.' So I calculated, 160 metres across the river, a little on either side; I calculated about $1.25m, something like that. I said, 'OK.'" The calculation was a little off, as it turned out: though getting numbers out of Pavlovic is like pulling teeth, his business partner, a smooth American lawyer called James Nagel, offers up the final cost of $5m.

The first phase was finished in 1995, just as war broke out when Slovenia seceded from Yugoslavia, followed by Croatia and Bosnia. The bridge came in handy, because its first users were Serb refugees from the Krajina, kicked out by the Croats. "Some people say 450,000 were expelled," says Pavlovic. "Some say 650,000. All I know is that 68,000 people crossed the bridge." His brother phoned him in Chicago from Popovi, the home village of the Pavlovic family, a kilometre from Slobomir, to say that the refugees were cold and hungry. Pavlovic sent $25,000 for food. He says this off-handedly, as if it was the natural thing to do. Just as it is natural to want to pay for a "multi-faith centre" in Brcko, where a mosque, Catholic church, orthodox church and synagogue would face each other. It is natural to buy up 47 privatised banks, and to step in to save a wheat factory and encourage the bosses to start a chain of bakeries. It's natural, it seems, as I drink a beer, for Pavlovic to glance at the label and say: "I'm thinking of buying that brewery."

It would all be empty rhetoric, if everything around here weren't so concrete. He leads me round the building that houses the clinic and university. "We don't have enough money in this country because no one wants to borrow. I see houses that are falling down; I tell people they should borrow money, but it's hard to persuade them. So I was always thinking about opening a university, to teach the young people." In its first year, the university had 249 students on two campuses at Doboj and Slobomir. All lessons are in English, and the tuition is only €2,000 (£1,400), he says proudly - and that can be waived if the reasons are good enough.

In Bijeljina, I ask two girls whether they want to go to Slobomir university. "You must be joking," they say. "We want to get out of here as soon as possible. If they're sending students abroad, we might be interested."

Pavlovic, one of few diaspora Bosnian Serbs to return home, takes such attitudes as a personal blow. He came back after 25 years in the US, though he never intended to. "I landed in the US in 1965. As the plane landed in New York, I looked down and saw millions of cars! I said, my god, this is the country for me. I'll never go back." He ended up in Chicago, which now has the second-largest Serb diaspora in the world. He had no money, but he soon had a wife. "I met Mira in 1966. I convinced her to marry me after a few weeks. We had our wedding meal in a restaurant, but we could only afford a Coke and a 7-Up."

Pavlovic put himself through college before he realised that he could earn more in property. By all accounts - and his bank accounts - he's a natural. "If you are ambitious," he says, quite firmly, "you never get tired. I would put a very little down-payment, then fix up the place. Then you do refinancing. Sometimes I bought 20 buildings a year." It went from 20 a year to 100, and more. By 1990, he had enough money to put his money where his patriotism was, in a corner of Bosnia known for its radical Serb politics, its peppers, tomatoes and wheat, and not much else.

Pavlovic says "no religion, no politics" often enough for it to be a religious chant But the stance is difficult to maintain when he has built churches and synagogues, and he does business in a country where it's impossible to avoid politics. I read reports, after we met, about how he was sold a bank for $1, having allegedly made a payment to a local Bosnian Serb politician. Pavlovic is quoted as saying he had no choice.

And I read, before we met, that he funds political parties; specifically, according to Oslobodenje, a reputable Bosnian paper, that he supports the Ravnogorski Chetnik Movement, a party that represents the blackest kind of Serb nationalism. Nerma Jelacic, the Sarajevo bureau chief for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, backs this up. "There's no concrete proof, but he's been seen at their meetings. He's also been linked to the Serbian Black Hand movement in Chicago." The Black Hand, a monarchist movement from the early 20th century, has been linked to terrorist acts. Chetnik movements are thought to be behind bombs and the intimidation of returning Bosnian Muslim refugees. Couldn't any such support just be misplaced patriotism in a sentimental man? But Jelacic is clear: "There's no way to justify any involvement with those kinds of movements."

I ask Pavlovic about this. He waves a hand dismissively: "Oh! There are such rumours about me. They make it all up." He pauses. "I had a call from Biljana Plavic [the wartime leader of Republika Srpska, serving an 11-year sentence for war crimes]. She asked for a donation for the Chetnik party, and I said, 'Sure, I'll send you a cheque.' But she only wanted cash! So I said no way." This is either stunning naivety or proof of his dodgy Serb nationalism. I never figure out which, though the fact that his other lawyer, Andrew Spiegel, was brought to Bosnia during the siege of Sarajevo to draw up a constitution for Karadzic's Bosnian Serb administration poses some questions. But they are questions that remain unanswered as we drive back to Belgrade.

The Slobomir office in Belgrade is in a small apartment in a dark building. "No one will pay for the electricity," says Pavlovic, leading me through a pitch-black lobby. This is where he stays when he's in Belgrade, in a room furnished with a bed and TV and not much else, though Belgrade isn't short of five-star hotels. It would be cramped, even if it weren't filled with people wanting to speak to him, including an Israeli Serb who says proudly that he was in the special services of the Yugoslav army, and a dapper young Bosnian Serb, Darko, who comes out with the nationalist resentment I can't imagine doesn't exist in Republika Srpska. "Nato bombed the wrong side," he says. "They should have bombed the Muslims."

Pavlovic shuts him up. There are more important things to talk about, like bridges. He reaches for plans of a footbridge he wants to build over the Drina. There are other projects - a hydroelectric plant, a hotel and golf course. Slobomir's retail units might be unsold, and the free trade zone as yet unpopulated with lucrative foreign manufacturing plants, but Pavlovic is unbowed. "Step by step," he says. "I usually succeed. And if I don't, someone else will."

As I head out the door at 11pm, grateful to escape, he's at the table still, ready for another meeting. Things to do, cities to build, a country to save. No time to waste.