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Interview 25 Apr 17

Savamala Witness Recalls Fearful Night in Belgrade

As the anniversary of the mysterious nighttime demolitions in Belgrade approaches, a witness, Milos Djordjevic, recalls how masked men in Savamala grabbed him and told him ‘to put his head down’. 

Maja Zivanovic

Activists are preparing a widescale protest for April 25th, to mark the one year anniversary of the Savamala demolitions in Belgrade. Photo: Facebook/Let's not Drown Belgrade Initiative.

Almost a year since a group of masked men demolished buildings overnight in Belgrade’s Savamala district, one of the witnesses, Milos Djordjevic, told BIRN that the incident reminded him of a movie because he could not have believed that something like that could happen in the 21st century.

“I had a gig with a band … at a nearby club in Karadjordjeva Street, finished the gig, packed up the equipment and went to the parking lot to put the equipment in the car in Hercegovacka Street, where I usually park when we play in Savamala,” he recalled.

“Unknown people literally pulled me out of the car, threatened me and told me to give them all my personal documents and mobile phone,” Djordjevic said, adding that they wore masks so he could not see their faces.

Djordjevic, a 29-year-old teacher of Physical Education and Sport, was referring to events that occurred on the night of April 24 to 25, 2016, hours after polling stations for the general elections had closed.

That night a group of masked men blocked Hercegovacka Street, seized mobile phones from eyewitnesses, tied some of them up and then demolished with bulldozers several buildings in the street where the huge complex Belgrade Waterfront is to be built.

“They told me to put my head down, not to ask anything and to go with them behind the fence of the parking lot,”Djordjevic explained.

As he remembers, around 20 masked people were running around the building site and searching for potential witnesses, while the bulldozers were busy demolishing buildings.

Behind the fence, the masked men lined up the people they had found, with outstretched arms and legs, Djordjevic said adding that they also wrecked his musical equipment because they threw it out in the rain.

The nocturnal action was widely seen as a move by the authorities to clear the ground quickly for the government-backed construction project.

Djordjevic said it was shocking “to be deprived of your own liberty, not to know what is going on, and no one to be held responsible for this”.

Residents and workers in the street called the police for help, but according to a report by the then Ombudsman, Sasa Jankovic, the police declined to take any action.

After conducting an internal investigation, Jankovic’s report in May 2016 accused Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic of being complicit in the Savamala events and also urged him to apologise for the official failure to react appropriately in the matter. 

Jankovic also confirmed that the police did not want to react on the night when citizens tried to call for help.

“Instead of urgently taking all the measures … the Belgrade Police, after consulting their superiors, told citizens to call the Communal police [which is part of the City administration] and the Secretariat for Inspections of the City of Belgrade, even though they knew these institutions were not tasked with reacting to citizens’ calls of that kind,” the Ombudsman’s report said.

Since then, the Serbian authorities have maintained that they do not know the identity of the masked men who razed the sites on the riverbank.

Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, now Serbia’s President-elect, has repeated only that “a few illegal huts” were demolished, and has stated that his only objection was that the work took place at night.

“I did not know about the operation, but if I had done, I would have told them: tear them down in the middle of the day, and give me bulldozer, too, to tear them down,” Vucic told journalists last June in the northern city of Subotica.

Vucic hinted that he knew who might be involved in the case, stating that those responsible were from the “top city management” of Belgrade, but added he would only deal with the issue when the competent state institutions had finished their work.

Serbia’s Minister of Interior, Nebojsa Stefanovic, on March 20 said the prosecution should solve the Savamala case, adding that while he was not always “satisfied with the efficiency of state institutions, the job should be well done”.

Earlier, the prosecutor’s office on January 25 told the investigative network KRIK that it had learned “nothing new in this case”, although last October this same institution announced told Insajder that the police had not worked according to the prosecutor’s requirements in terms of collecting information about the case.

Meanwhile, Serbia’s Commissioner for Public Information, Rodoljub Sabic, criticised prosecutors in February for inactivity in this case and nontransparent work and warned of penalties because the prosecutor’s office had not given all the information it had to journalists.

Djordjevic said he went to Ombudsman Jankovic’s office a few days after the incident to file his complaint and was summoned to give a statement to the police one month after the night between April 24 and 25.

“I do not know anything about the statement [given to the police] because no one responded afterwards,” he added.

“The whole case was covered up because it is obvious that the authorities were clearly involved,” Djordjevic said.

The Savamala case sparked a series of large demonstrations led by a campaign group called “Let’s Not Drown Belgrade” whose activists organised several big rallies in front of the Belgrade assembly building, as well as marches past other institutions in charge of the case.

After the ex-wife of the Mayor Sinisa Mali in February accused him of admitting that he had organised the controversial demolitions, campaigners urged Mali to resign.

Marija Mali gave a statement to the prosecutor about her accusations last week but refused to speak to journalists.

Sinisa Mali, on the other hand, has refused to quit, saying he does not know who from the city management was involved in the Savamala demolitions.

He was accused of shoving a journalist from Istinomer web portal when she tried to ask him about ex-wife accusations, but Mali has since denied that incident as well.

On April 25, the activists are preparing a large protest in Belgrade to mark one-year anniversary since the event.

Meanwhile, Djordjevic says that he is glad that young people raised their voices and are still protesting.

“It’s still difficult to change the consciousness of young people in Serbia; all of us fell into a kind of lethargy and have been thinking that things cannot change. Well, this all is wrong, I think that things in the coming years will change drastically.

“The dictatorship cannot be eternal … we are slowly waking up from the dream and launching our … fight for a better tomorrow for all of us,” he concluded.

This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy. 



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