Accessibility links

Breaking News

World: A Look Back At Notable Personalities Who Died In 2004

President Boris Trajkovski, who died in a plane crash The worlds of politics, medicine, entertainment, and culture lost a number of bright -- and controversial -- lights in 2004. In this report, RFE/RL takes a look back at some of the personalities who died in 2004.

Prague, 30 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In February, Macedonians mourned the death of President Boris Trajkovski, who was killed in a plane crash in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He was 47.

European and Balkan leaders hailed Trajkovski as a courageous leader whose moderate voice helped avert civil war. In his last public speech, Trajkovski said joining the European Union was Macedonia's most important goal:

"We ourselves have to be guarantors that the Republic of Macedonia will soon become a member of the European Union. I would like to point out one fact which very much pleased me and encouraged me today -- the representatives of all the political parties and the Macedonian people, regardless of any ethnic or political belongings, regardless of any religious or political preferences, stand behind [Macedonia's] application [for EU membership]," Trajkovski said.

Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski succeeded Trajkovski in a runoff vote held in April and vowed to pursue Trajkovski's goal of taking Macedonia into the European Union and NATO.

In March, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin -- the spiritual leader of the Hamas militant Islamic organization -- was the victim of a targeted assassination by Israel. Armed fighters of the Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, carried Yassin's body through the crowded streets of Gaza City.

A few weeks later, Yassin's successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, was also killed by an Israeli missile strike.

In May, pro-Moscow Chechen President Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov was assassinated when a bomb exploded at ceremony in Grozny to mark the 59th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Kadyrov contributions.

"For the last four years, the president of the Chechen Republic, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, fulfilled his duty with dignity and courage. He was a really heroic man, and he proved that the Chechen people, as a whole, have nothing in common with bandits and terrorists," Putin said.

The Kremlin's handpicked candidate, former Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov, was sworn in as Chechnya's new president in October after winning election in late August.

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan -- one of the last of the Cold War warriors -- died in June. He was 93 and had been battling the effects of Alzheimer's disease for 10 years.

In one of Reagan's most memorable speeches -- delivered at the Berlin Wall in 1987 -- he challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to remove what had become an international symbol of the division between East and West.

"There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General-Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Reagan said.

Singer and pianist Ray Charles was simply called "the Genius" for combining blues and gospel music into a new genre -- soul. He died in June at the age of 73 from complications of liver disease.

Marlon Brando, one of the most acclaimed stage and screen actors of his generation, died in July at the age of 80. The two-time Oscar winner gave legendary performances in such films as "A Streetcar Named Desire," "The Wild One," and "The Godfather."

The career of journalist Paul Klebnikov was cut short by an assassin's bullet in July. The 41-year-old Klebnikov, a U.S. citizen of Russian origin, was best known for a book he wrote critical of oligarch Boris Berezovskii. In April, Klebnikov became the editor of the Russian edition of the U.S. business magazine "Forbes."

Shortly afterward, he said he believed the era of so-called "bandit capitalism" was over and that Russian business was moving into a new stage.

"It's a stage moving away from the shadow economy, moving away from, let's say, a black-market type of mentality, towards a more civilized, transparent, open form of capitalism," Klebnikov said.

American actor Christopher Reeve died of heart failure in October at the age of 52. He first achieved global fame as the star of the "Superman" movies in the late 1970s, and later achieved worldwide respect for his efforts to promote research into spinal cord injuries. He was paralyzed from the neck down in a horse-riding accident in 1995.

Although he played the character four times, Reeve often worried about being typecast as an action hero. He spoke about his "Superman" roles after his accident.

Reeve's activism helped voters in California pass a proposition in November committing the state to spend $3 billion on stem-cell research. Scientists believe stem cells hold great promise to treat or even cure such conditions as spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases and diabetes.

Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority and the longtime symbol of Palestinian resistance, died in November at the age of 75. Arafat left a complex legacy. He created the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which Israel eventually had to accept and negotiate with. But he failed in his ultimate aim to create an independent Palestinian state in his lifetime.

Arafat declared how he sees himself in an interview in 2003.

"I am a Palestinian soldier. I will use my gun to defend not only myself, but also to defend every Palestinian child, man, and woman, and to defend the Palestinian existence," Arafat said.

Palestinian interim leader Mahmud Abbas has vowed to follow in Arafat's footsteps, saying Palestinians will not rest until they have an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with east Jerusalem as its capital. Abbas is widely considered to be the frontrunner in the Palestinian presidential election due on 9 January.

Controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered in November, apparently by an Islamic militant angered over a film that criticized the way women are treated under Islam.

Dana Linnsen, a film critic and magazine editor, remembered Van Gogh as a man who stood for freedom of expression -- no matter how controversial.

"He was a fighter for freedom of speech. So he was totally politically incorrect in all sayings, because he was against hypocrisy; he was against religious fundamentalism whether it came from, like, an Islamic or a Christian background," Linnsen said.

Van Gogh's murder sparked intense debate in the Netherlands about multiculturalism.

Social critic, intellectual, and prize-winning author Susan Sontag died on 28 December after a long battle with cancer. Known as a fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy, she developed a special attachment to the people of Sarajevo during the Balkan wars of the early 1990s. She lived for a time in the besieged city and directed a production of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot."

Bosnian theater personality Haris Pasovic recalls Sontag's visits to Sarajevo with her journalist son, David Rieff.

Other personalities who died in 2004 include Oscar-winning British actor Peter Ustinov; Nobel prize winner Francis Crick, who helped discover the structure of DNA; Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize for literature; and French philosopher Jacques Derrida, whose deconstruction theory heavily influenced modern thinking.