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Jasmina Tesanovic - THE SQUARE AND THE VICTIMS PDF Print E-mail

It was my daughter’s birthday, her twentieth, an important date for a person who grew up in Milosevic's Serbia. She was born on the birthday of his wife Mira Markovic, who incessantly celebrated that event that made all of us rather miserable, not only politically but in my case, personally too. I felt like this moment in my private life had been snatched away and made a matter of public charade, if not crime:  So why bother to celebrate it? My daughter was born in 1984, Orwell's dark science-fictional year, which turned somewhat true in Serbian history.

This year, as at every beginning of July, there was a ritual standing vigil by Women in Black on Republic Square for the victims of Srebrenica. It took place nine years after the massacre, to mark the burial of 338 newly identified bodies. Now more than a thousand out of the 8,000 that had been disappeared have been found.

We registered our vigil with the authorities and got official permission. Yet once we were there, we realized that the square was already occupied by two very loud and commercial events, so we had to retire under the famous clock. There, in the past few months, we have been collecting signatures for, first, abolition of the law supporting suspected war criminals before The Hague, and second, for our recently elected presidential candidate Boris Tadic.

Before we even managed to spread our banners, a woman from the usual group of onlookers stepped forward and started screaming incessantly, “traitors, whores, CIA agents, AIDS patients,” the usual repertoire.

The police standing by our side were passive; the woman ran into our crowd of fifty, and started hitting at random.  She hit Ljilja, Cica, Stasa and Slavica; she did it fast and strong. The police finally stopped her while our Women in Black were trying to respond. We were not particularly surprised, it had happened before. Only two months ago, two of our activists were beaten repeatedly. Nobody was arrested afterwards. Of course it also happened a number of other times during the Milosevic regime.

We organized ourselves rapidly in the usual circle with our pacifist, antimilitarist and antinationalist banners, asking the former and present regime to take responsibility for the massacre in Srebrenica. That triggered others to join the combative woman—a few more women, and some men. I recognized one of them from the last time our activists were beaten, and another from the famous gay/lesbian pride march back in 2001, when fifteen activists were incessantly persecuted and beaten and spat on by 900 hooligans, as well as members of the Obraz nationalist organization.

We stood for one hour listening to their threats and offences, extremely radical this time. They threatened to skin us next time, to bring weapons, to take us to the court of traitors, to rape us. They sang ‘Ko to kaze ko to laze Srbija je mala’ (a nationalist song) and they shouted the names of their heroes, “Seselj, Mladic, Karadzic and Milosevic.” The police wrote down their ID numbers, as well as those of the attackers of Women in Black, and then stood in silence.

After the vigil we closed our banners and took seats in the nearby Gradska kafana (restaurant). We did not want to leave one by one and we had foreign guests who were visibly upset. We hoped the harassers would leave first, but instead they gathered around us waiting. After some time, we stood up and asked the police to protect us by making the aggressors leave.  Instead, the police asked us to leave because they claimed they could not protect us even though we were more numerous then the hooligans, even though we had all the legal and moral right to be where we were and do what we did. Even though the next day the democratic candidate was to be proclaimed the official president of Serbia, even though...

We were summoned into cabs and denied the right to walk down the street. Some of us were furious, some were scared, but most of us, I guess, were used to it. ‘Srebrenica’ is a bad word for modern Serbia, even worse than ‘feminism,’ and Women in Black put the two together.

The next day, early in the morning, we went to Srebrenica for the ritual vigil in the memorial valley where the victims are buried. Our women friends greeted us and gave us the first row so that our banner ‘Women in Black from Belgrade’ could be visible for the mass auditorium and the press. It never fails to be noticed, because it is important for them and for us. Paradoxically, it became safer and more significant to stand in Srebrenica on the 11th of July, rather than to assist the first democratic president, who we supported with all our might, while he was inaugurated that very same day in Belgrade. Why did we have to choose, and given the choice, how come only a few of us were in Srebrenica? Why is it that eight thousand missing people from Srebrenica, some of whom were found buried in Serbia proper, never ever became a reality in Belgrade? I had a wish for my daughter’s coming-of-age birthday next year: that the 338 wrapped bodies, passed from hand to hand in Bratunac by the surviving relatives of the dead, will be passed here on Republic Square by our so-called decent citizens and policemen, who every year just watch us silently, while the war criminals and their loud supporters make the rules according to which we are all held as their hostages, willingly or not. I know my wish will never come true, but I also know that if we stop wishing we may get what we really want, as an English proverb says. And God forbid what that may be when it comes to Serbia, whose favorite proverb is: ‘one can fool around with everything, but never with the police or the army.’

PS: "I wonder why nature becomes so beautiful wherever war crimes are committed?" said my friend. She was right; I never pay attention to nature unless I am obliged to, but the Srebrenica valley demands attention. The intense green colors, the soothing sounds of the wind and birds, the blazing sun which heats without hurting, the shapes of the clouds, the neat borderlines of the place of the crime. On one side, the abandoned railway tracks, the barracks, the weeds, the barbed wire. Still in the same condition as nine years ago, the male victims were held there after being separated from their families. Later on, they were executed somewhere else, they say. It is an Auschwitz atmosphere on that side of the valley triangle, striking for its organized efficiency. So many people executed in so few days; the technology bothers me. Images of General Mladic throwing chocolates to the children behind the barbed wire haunt me.

The other side is a hill, not very steep, covered with humble, even graves of the identified recovered victims. The third side is a steep hill with a tree or two, where usually we come and stand during the ritual prayers. And in the middle, the memorial erected last year, a construction resembling a tent, a cupola, under which the bodies are assembled in rows, where the priest and speakers address God or the commoners. It is not an even-sided triangle.  It does not resemble justice or beauty. It is even slightly sinister when the shadows start creeping in the late afternoon. It has no running water and has a lot of dust, but somehow every year I have a cathar­sis there, even though I am not a Muslim, I am not a man who prays, and I am not even a foreigner there, not anymore. The place has the cap­tive beauty of a place of a crime: there, where men have done wrong, nature rebels.

July 10th, 2004


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