Two decades after the Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo, where over 11,000 civilians were killed, Serbia still has not officially reconciled with its past. Serbian women from different ends of the social and political spectrum have made headlines in the last week, the Women in Black and Jadranka Seselj. The focus on these women provides a vivid snapshot of Serbia’s present national psyche; it highlights more than what the main political parties may portray.
ABC News reports that Women in Black are essentially the only public voice in favor of confronting the atrocities of the past and moving onto a brighter future in peace. This group is just one of 25 chapters in various countries around the world; the idea of it stretches back to 1988 when a small group of Israeli women gathered to silently oppose Israel’s occupation at the start of the Palestinian uprising. The Associated Press writes that these women in Belgrade “…hold signs demanding an end to war, advocating human rights or reminding people of the bloody ethnic clashes in the former Yugoslavia that Serbia itself had triggered in the 1990s.” Their actions go largely unnoticed, although in the past they have been beaten, and occasional passersby will spit or curse at them.
As Serbia prepares for early elections in May, the Women in Black think that standing on the streets of their capital to remind people of the Milosevic government’s fairly recent war on various former Yugoslav Republic citizens is a step in the right direction. The current government has not been forthcoming in placing responsibility on the former establishment for the ugly atrocities of the 1990’s, exemplified by having Milosevic’s former spokesman serve as minister of interior. While reconciliation is the goal, a participant of the Women in Black protests says “We have to talk about the crimes which were committed in our name. We will show that what had happened was bad, and that we are honestly fighting that it never happens again.” This may be tough in a country where the wife of a suspected war criminal held in The Hague, Vojislav Seselj, is running for president. Jadranka Seselj is the Serbian Radical Party’s candidate in the May elections, although she is not in the group of main contenders. Ms. Seselj does not have previous political experience but was often present during the rallies in the 1990’s, where her husband gave hyper-nationalist speeches. Her political slogan “Faithful to Serbia” certainly does not portray her or her supporters, as individuals prepared to face their country’s past.
As Serbia approaches its municipal, parliamentary and presidential election on May 6th, it is likely that voters will need to do some soul searching for what is important to them. At the moment Serbian citizens regard the high level of unemployment, poverty and corruption as the main issues for election day, which is not a promising starting point for a national movement ready to face its nation’s role in a war that killed thousands. The Women in Black are not a political party but they are a visible minority within Serbia’s greater, public political landscape just as Ms. Seselj, the unlikely presidential contender. Regardless of how the May election goes, the nation may be better equipped to face the past and look toward the future than would seem on the surface.
A film by Serbian Srdjan Dragojevic, released in the Balkans last autumn provides insight into the mentality of populations in the various Yugoslav republics. The Parade, about a gay pride event in Belgrade, confronts a range of uncomfortable subjects in the region including homophobia, nationalism and unhealed war wounds, with a moral of general tolerance. The Seattle Gay News reports “It has been equally acclaimed in Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia – something no local film has managed since the 1990s wars between the ex-Yugoslav republics.” So in acknowledging everyone’s humanity, the darker and brighter sides of it, perhaps there can be a dialogue about what most people think about but don’t always voice. Serbia’s position in the war may require it to begin that dialogue with its neighbors and ethnic minorities, something that no doubt the Women in Black could help facilitate. Their anti-militaristic feminism could be just the right remedy for a couple decades of festering resentment by all parties involved in the war.