Interview 10 Oct 16

Serbian Peace Women Mark 25 Years of Defiance

Belgrade-based peace group Women in Black is marking 25 years of staging peaceful demonstrations against militarism and standing up against threats of violence from Serbian nationalists.

Natalia Zaba BIRN Belgrade
Women in Black commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacres. Photo: Zene u crnom.

For the past 25 years, campaign group Women in Black have sought to be Belgrade’s social conscience in times of war and violence, organising more than 700 protests, demonstrations and commemorations to show their opposition to militarism and repression.

They held their first rally on October 9, 1991, in front of the Student Culture Centre in the Serbian capital, just as the wars in the former Yugoslavia began.

“I was completely desperate,” Women in Black founder Stasa Zajovic told BIRN as she remembered the peace group’s first public display of resistance.

“I come from an anti-fascist family, and I was taught to immediately react, we call despair activation, so we do not even think about isolating ourselves and whining,” she said.

Women in Black have also remained silent during all their protests over the years because there are no words to describe the tragedy of war, Zajovic said.

The activists chose to wear black because it’s a symbol of death and grief but is also worn by some of the fighters and politicians who provoke conflicts, she added.

Stasa Zajovic.

“We kidnap their symbols and convert them into ours. We occupy their squares, which serve their nationalistic discourses, for our activities, and that’s why we have so many problems,” she explained.

Initially, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic’s regime didn’t pay a lot of attention to their activities. “But after some time, they understood,” Zajovic said.

Since then, Women in Black have faced almost every kind of intimidation and threat, including police interrogations, hate speech, unlawful detention, arrest warrants, confiscations of passports, administrative problems and death threats.

These have continued long after the end of the wars and the fall of Milosevic in 2000.

Earlier this year, former anti-terrorist police spokesperson Radomir Pocuca went on trial for allegedly endangering the peace women’s safety after he described them as anti-Serbian and called on football hooligans to unite and attack them.

Pocuca made his allegation after Women in Black staged a commemoration in Belgrade marking the 15th anniversary of war crimes committed by Serbian forces against Kosovo Albanians.

Women in Black activist Violeta Djikanovic told the court that the group received “an avalanche of threats” after Pocuca’s statement, and said she had never felt so much fear since the organisation was founded.

Zajovic told BIRN at the time that Pocuca’s threats were particularly serious because they came from a civil servant at an institution in charge of law enforcement, although he was sacked for his comments.

“The state is showing that it does not have the intention of protecting human rights activists,” she said.

An anniversary without celebrations

Women in Black commemorate victims of the Kosovo war at an event in 2014. Photo: BIRN/Marija Ristic.

To mark their 25th anniversary at the weekend, Women in Black staged a three-day series of meetings, film projections and debates in Belgrade about the militarisation of Europe, the refugee crisis and the rise of right-wing political forces, which was attended by feminist activists from across the former Yugoslavia, but also from Italy, Spain, Greece, Germany and Russia.

Zajovic however said that she is angry that the current Serbian government is not being held to account by its international allies for the country’s past misdeeds.

“How can I listen at conferences [to talk about] about the geostrategic interests of states? It’s enough to see the crime scene, it will tell you everything about geostrategic interests,” she said.

She argued that people responsible for committing crimes during the Yugoslav wars haven’t been punished and that current government policy prioritises stability over responsibility and therefore betrays justice.

Zajovic believes that her role now is to go and meet the victims of wars who have suffered because of Serbia’s actions in places like Srebrenica.

“My obligation is to go from the aggressor state to visit the people who have suffered the evil caused by this state,” she said.

She also said that what bothers her in Serbia today is the feeling of demoralisation in the face of social problems, as well as the desperation and fear that prevents people from taking action to change things.

The current government creates ‘enemies’ and uses this fear to ensure that people remain silent, she argued - just as the former regime did in the Milosevic years.

“The strategy of fear, which we know so well, is created to keep every living being quiet, to kill its vital powers and to distract us from issues that we should fight against like poverty and misery,” she said.

Despite this, Zajovic does feel that Women in Black have achieved a lot over the past 25 years, partly by making connections with like-minded people outside Serbia who have helped to sustain their campaigns against militarism and violence.

“We managed to create a big, solid human network and I have to admit that there is another ‘world’ in Europe with an unbelievable energy level, full of solidarity,” she said.

“We wouldn’t have managed to survive without this solidarity. That’s why the concept of Europe is so important to me, because of this solidarity.”

VIDEO: Women in Black commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacres at an event in Belgrade in 2015:

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