Reaction: The demonstrators, mostly Serbian Americans, demand an end to the assaults on their ancestral land.


Nikola Cuk said he is tired of running because he is a Serb. When he was a youth, he and his family escaped Nazi occupiers. Five years ago, he said, he fled Croatian soldiers in his native Krajina, now part of Croatia.

Now, Cuk said he wants to be with his wife and family in the Yugoslav republic of Serbia, never mind that U.S. bombs and missiles are falling there and that people are scurrying to take shelter in basements and fearing for their lives.

“Can someone please open up the border so I can go home and die with my people?” Cuk, 62, asked as tears welled in his eyes. “I’m ashamed that people are dying over there and I’m walking in sunny Southern California.”

The Serbian visitor’s anguish was shared by many among the estimated 1,000 protesters, mostly Serbian Americans, who staged a boisterous but peaceful antiwar demonstration Saturday outside the Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles. Even as NATO was staging a fourth day of fierce air raids on Yugoslavia, the protesters demanded an end to attacks on their ancestral land.

Their viewpoint is one diametrically at odds with the way the current conflict has been depicted in the U.S. and Western media. The protesters see the Serbs as the victims of international aggression, not as the principal proponents of atrocities in the Serbian province of Kosovo and in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Many marchers hoisted the traditional Serbian flag–red, blue and white with a double-headed eagle and golden crown. They chanted at passing motorists, many of whom honked their horns in support.

Handwritten placards compared the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to Nazi Germany and excoriated President Clinton as the next Hitler. Protesters dismissed NATO’s avowed humanitarian mission, contending that territorial expansion or other sinister motives are at play.

“Bombing Serbs Is the Worst Mistake, Bill,” read one sign.

Many in the crowd worried about the fate of relatives in Yugoslavia.

“They talk about precision bombing, but I have heard that a bomb fell in the middle of my city,” said Don Radovich, an aerospace engineer from Long Beach who has lived in the United States for 37 years.

Blue balloons declared that the disputed province of Kosovo is Serbia’s “Jerusalem” and will never be given away. Just about everyone seemed to want to cite the historic Battle of Kosovo in 1389, when Serbian Christians were defeated by a Turkish Muslim force, thus beginning centuries of Ottoman domination.

Bearded Serbian Orthodox priests prayed for peace and for the victims of the NATO assault. Similar protests were scheduled in New York, Boston and elsewhere.

About 50,000 Serbian Americans reside in Southern California, according to community estimates. But the largest concentrations of Serbian Americans are in Chicago, Cleveland and elsewhere in the Midwest.

Participants in Saturday’s local rally, including many U.S. citizens and longtime residents here, spoke of an extraordinary sense of betrayal by the leaders of a nation they love. Over and over, they pointed to Serbian assistance to the Allies during two world wars, of Serbian resistance to communism.

“I’m totally ashamed about this,” said Melanie Karan, 24, an elementary school teacher and U.S.-born Serbian American who lives in Brentwood. “We want the world to know this is not OK with us.”

Many protesters said they have been fervent opponents of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, whom the Clinton administration has singled out as the greatest obstacle to peace in Kosovo. But all seemed to agree that the bombing can only help Milosevic, allowing him to present himself as the latest in a historical line of Serbian heroes resisting foreign occupation.

“This has made Milosevic into a saint,” noted Serb Topalski, a hotel owner from Santa Barbara who said the Serbian president was his law school classmate years ago in Belgrade, the Serbian and Yugoslav capital.

The Serbian community is fractured on many issues, including Milosevic’s leadership, protesters acknowledged.

“But on this issue, we all agree,” said Vladimir Cuk, a 26-year-old 7-footer and former member of Yugoslavia’s gold-medal-winning junior national basketball team. “Kosovo is part of Serbia.”

His father, Nikola Cuk, who is here visiting his son–from whom he was separated during fighting in the Balkans earlier this decade–appeared shattered to be away from his homeland at this time. He said his view of the United States has been torn asunder.

“As a child, I was singing songs about Roosevelt,” the elder Cuk said. “I taught my son how America is a democratic country. Now my dream is destroyed.”