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Mirjana Markovic seems oblivious to the fact that her book makes her appear as culpable as her late husband, Slobodan Milosevic, himself for the crimes of the regime.

Finally, we have it from the horse's mouth: the 1990s retold -- or reimagined -- by Mirjana Markovic, the widow of former Serbian leader and indicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic.

The title of her new book, This Is How It Was (Bilo Je To Ovako, in Serbian), assures us that we might as well forget everything we know about that tragic period as Markovic presents her version of Serbia's recent history over roughly 1,000 self-indulgent pages.

Its revisionism is almost certain to foment Serbian nationalism, particularly given Markovic's enormous influence near the center of events in Belgrade at the time and the official support the book is receiving.

Immediately after her husband's extradition to The Hague in 2001 over war crimes charges, Markovic remained in the Serbian capital. Two years later, however, facing charges of corruption herself, she sought sanctuary in Moscow. (Milosevic died of a heart attack in his prison cell in The Hague in 2006, before the conclusion of his trial by the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.)

The book covers her childhood, marriage, and her husband's rise and fall. But make no mistake about it, it is all about Mirjana Markovic.

I recall a time in the early 1990s when she shared her musings with the Serbian public through columns in the magazine Duga, in which she rambled pseudo-philosophically on the horrors of war, socialism, her love of the Croatian resort of Dubrovnik (which her husband's army bombed), the manliness of her "wild mustang" of a son, Marko, and the apparently slightly less admirable high-spiritedness of her daughter.

In her new book, she describes a deal she had struck with the editor of Duga: Instead of paying for her columns, she writes, the magazine promised to avoid criticism of Milosevic. She says the editor accepted the deal because he was confident that circulation would rise with her as a contributor.

Alas, that proved to be the case. Duga's readership grew, since by reading Markovic's articles one could predict whose political fortunes were about to improve or which prominent figure was slated to lose his or her job. In the same vein, in her book she purports to have made ministerial promotions and other major political decisions -- whispered over the pillow to her obedient husband.

She seems oblivious to the fact that her book makes her appear as culpable as Milosevic himself for the crimes of the regime. But it is not written for people, like me, who remember the war and the horrors of the 1990s, when Milosevic was the master of our destinies.

Officially, Markovic headed the neo-communist Yugoslav left -- comprising high-ranking military and secret police officers and businessmen who were integrated into the Milosevic regime, enjoying huge behind-the-scenes influence during her husband's rule.

In her book, she blames the West for starting the war in the former Yugoslavia. Milosevic, as his widow tells it, was merely looking after the interests of all Serbs.

Her Serbian publisher says: "After 15 years of silence in exile, in a bid to fulfill her late husband, Slobodan's, last wish, Mira Markovic shares with the public the previously unknown story of her life and family."

The book, which ends with Milosevic's death and Mirjana's life in exile, will benefit from official support. The Serbian Culture Ministry each year recommends titles to be added to the country's public-library collections, and this time around taxpayer money will be used to ensure that each and every library in Serbia has a copy of Markovic's memoirs.

Historian Milos Kovic, the president of the Culture Ministry's commission in charge of book acquisitions, told RFE/RL in Belgrade that the decision was not politically motivated but was based on the belief that the book provides valuable documentation of a period in Serbian history.

The commission apparently chose to ignore the fact that Markovic is currently the subject of two ongoing investigations in Serbia, or that the book is a brazen attempt to vindicate the policies and actions of the Serbian regime in the 1990s. (Riding a wave of Serbian nationalism, Milosevic first became president of Serbia, then in 1997 became president of rump Yugoslavia. He led the country into disastrous wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and finally Kosovo, which ended with the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999.)

Apart from the wars that Milosevic conducted, it has been established in courts of law that he ordered the murder of Ivan Stambolic, a prominent Serbian political figure, and an attempt on the life of Vuk Draskovic, who was then a leader of Serbia's opposition.

Draskovic, who later served as foreign minister, said of the decision to supply a copy of Markovic's book to every library in Serbia: "It is a political decision, in line with current trends. A new past is being tailored, very different to how we remember it, or as we survived it during the terrible 1990s. It is being fabricated for new generations who were not born at the time when Mirjana Markovic and her husband occupied the top of an evil pyramid of power."

One could add that Markovic's choice of Moscow for her exile was no accident. Indeed, her book is very much in line with official Russian views and policies in the Balkans. As an inflammatory, revisionist account of the 1990s, it might contribute to stoking nationalist fervor and anti-Western sentiment in Serbia, which is very much in Moscow's interest.

But above all, the book reveals an unrepentant, even mockingly defiant, Lady Macbeth, reveling in her declared role as the power behind the throne.

Stana Cerovic is shown as social workers help her to move from her village to a home for the elderly in late May. (Photo courtesy of Radio and Television of Montenegro)

An unusual medieval practice has stubbornly endured until the present day in remote villages in Montenegro (and a few other places in the Balkans). Traditionally, if the head of a household in this strongly patriarchal society died without a male heir, one of his daughters could choose to become a man.

She would dress like a man. She was permitted to smoke and mingle with men in the village cafe. She could even carry a weapon.

But these privileges came at a price. She had to become a “sworn virgin.”

Her vow of celibacy and her promise to look after her mother, any sisters, and the family property were lifetime commitments. In many cases, it was the only way by which a woman could inherit her family’s wealth.

At the end of May, the last sworn virgin of Montenegro was moved from her village near Savnik to a home for the elderly in the coastal town of Risan. Stana Cerovic was born in 1936, the youngest child in a family of five girls and two boys, both of whom died young.

While still a child, she promised her father she would never marry and would, instead, take care of the family. All her life, she socialized with men. She started smoking at the age of 5. She began working in her father’s fields at the age of 7. Her father taught her how to shoot.

Stana has never dressed as a woman. Traditional “women’s tasks” like laundry and cleaning were always done by her sisters. Stana has always been “the man of the family.”

All her life, Stana saw herself as privileged rather than deprived of her female identity and her life as a woman. In fact, the belief that it is an honor for a woman to assume the role of a man has been the foundation of the sworn-virgin custom over the centuries.

But now, at the age of 80, Stana is slowing down. She was forced to sell off most of her cows. The remaining one injured her a year ago.

Recently, a television feature about Stana touched the hearts of many people in Montenegro. Offers of help came from throughout the country. The local authorities arranged a place for her in the nursing home, turning back offers of financial help from the public.

“It is our duty to take care of Stana,” a Savnik social worker told Montenegrin television.

This archaic set of social rules originated in the mountain villages of Montenegro, southern Kosovo, and northern Albania in the 15th century. Some Dalmatian coast islands also had their sworn virgins. Such women cut their hair short, dressed as men, and often even changed their names. Many adopted male mannerisms and gestures so completely that they became second nature.

A few years back, U.S. photographer Jill Peters traveled to northern Albania and took a unique collection of portraits of sworn virgins in order to document this dying phenomenon.

PHOTO GALLERY: Albania's Sworn Virgins (2013)

The custom survives in Albania but has already died out in Dalmatia and Bosnia and now it is in its final days in Montenegro.

The 2007 novel Sworn Virgin by Albanian novelist Elvira Dones traces the life of one such woman who, with the help of her sister, manages to reconnect with her female identity. Italian filmmaker Laura Bispuri made a movie based on that novel in 2015.

WATCH: The trailer for Sworn Virgin

Unlike the heroine of Dones’s novel, Stana seems to have no regrets. Her last wish, she says, is to be remembered in her family graveyard as her father’s only surviving son.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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