Living On The Frontline in Belgrade, Serbi


(Sunday Tribune) 'It is hard to believe you can have such a concentration of evil in such a small place... Every institution is contaminated with war criminals. It's like the Weimar Republic after the second World War'

You must not utter words such as 'Srebrenica or 'genocide' while travelling in a taxi. You do not know the driver. You must not let yourself be heard speaking English near the protests. You might be mistaken for an American. You must remain polite when someone tries selling you a biography of Karadzic in your hotel foyer.

You must not look like a Roma, a Kosovar, a gay or lesbian, or a well-known human-rights defender, all punishable by verbal or physical assault.

These are rules of self-protection in the burgeoning democracy of Serbia. It could be Northern Ireland during the Troubles when your surname or your accent or your car registration or the brand of cigarettes you smoked or the newspaper you read marked you out as the enemy.

Belgrade, on the surface, is lovely. There are boulevard cafes where stylish people lounge in warm winter sunshine to the background music of Top of the Pops hits and Riverdance. New Skodas and Audis dice with battered Fiats on streets with shop names such as Zara, Accessorise, Mango and Benetton. In the park overlooking the junction where the Danube flows into the River Sava, a military museum crammed with tanks and khaki-coloured jeeps gives the impression that war is a thing of the past.

Then you turn a street corner.

There hang the remains of the military headquarters bombed by Nato nine years ago, its shredded floors defying gravity and the citizens' instinct to forget. Turn another corner. Gazing out from the display window of one of Belgrade's ubiquitous book shops is the bronze-carved head of Radovan Karadzic, currently facing 11 war crimes charges, including the Srebrenica massacre, at the The Hague tribinal. Beneath his statue, a lovingly arranged ribbon in the colours of the Serbian flag laments 'the Lion is in the Cage'. A poster in the window encourages passers-by to join the daily protest against his trial, giving the rendezvous details. President Boris Tadic got death threats when, within a fortnight of his ascension to power earlier this year, Karadzic was arrested on a bus in Novi Belgrade, the soulless west-bank suburb built by Slobodan Milosevic for his cronies. But Tadic has lived on.

The vigil protests by 40 or 50 ultra-nationalists emerge into the dusk of Republic Square at five o'clock each evening. Afterwards, they disperse to sell their copies of Karadzic's biography in the city's elegant little bars. And the rest of the world thinks all is well.

On the surface, Serbia is progressive. Since 2006, there has been a new constitution enshrining human rights. The elections last May brought fresh promise of democratisation. There is an ombudsman and a minister for human rights and the government has ratified the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture. But the old guard still rules discreetly. The minister in charge of the police was one of Milosevic's senior apparatchiks before the October 5 revolution in 2000. Judges have repeatedly demonstrated that they are compromised. The head of state television and radio was a Milosevic man. The majority Orthodox Church has a political grip on the public consciousness. Its 94-year-old leader and prolific author, Patriarch Pavle, who supported the war in Croatia and was filmed blessing soldiers departing for the killing fields of Bosnia, has been hospitalised in a military clinic for the last year. The contenders for his succession are virtually indistinguishable from him and from each other. The universities promulgate a largely nationalist point of view. British and other international right-wing movements such as Stormfront, the National Front, Blood and Honour and Combat 18 are active on Serbia's fertile soil. The most dreaded is Obraz, a religio-fascist organisation that grew out of the history department in the University of Belgrade with a vision of a super-Serb state for Serbian people. It holds meetings in church-owned property.

Journalist Dinko Gruhonjic, his economist wife and their two small children live under the threat of death because he stood up to Obraz. Bureau chief for Serbia's independent news agency Beta in the partly self-governing Serbian province of Vojvodina, Dinko lectures in media studies at the faculty of philosophy in the local university in the provincial capital, Novi Sad.

When our guide sees him for the first time in many months, she is shocked at his weight loss and the worry in his face. His crime was to attend an anti-fascist meeting in the faculty in 2005 which was gate-crashed by 25 black-clothed males shouting "zieg hiel" as they punched and kicked those in attendance. Dinko, the only journalist present, reported that "neo-Nazis" had carried out the attack. A campaign ensued on independent radio to have the culprits arrested. They were, eventually. Stormfront's regional leader, Goran Davidovic, was jailed for one year on Dinko's testimony. The sentence appeal is pending. The police gave Dinko protection for two weeks but the threat has not been lifted. "I have thought about getting away," he confesses.

His colleague, Dejan Anastasijevic, having reported on the Scorpions paramilitary trial for Vreme magazine, was lucky to escape in April last year when a bomb exploded outside his Belgrade flat. He lives in Brussels now.

Three other journalists have already perished. Dada Vujasinovic was a 30-year-old war reporter whose articles about Arkan's ethnic cleansing campaigns were used by the Hague tribunal as evidence. Her death was officially classified as suicide despite contrary evidence from the start. The case is being re-examined as murder. Slavko Curuvija, a newspaper editor, was shot dead by two men who were identified by an eye-witness. Their identities have never been publicly revealed and nobody has been charged with the murder. Milan Pantica of the Daily Vecernje was beaten to death in 2002 after he wrote extensively about the personal wealth accumulated by war heroes. Nobody has been charged.

"It is hard to believe you can have such a concentration of evil in such a small place," says Dinko. "Every institution is contaminated with war criminals profiteering. It's like the Weimar Republic after the second world war. We have incidents almost every week. The day before yesterday in Novi Sad, there was an attack on the memorial to Jews, Serbs and Roma killed in World War II. Swastikas were painted on it and the words 'Combat 18' and 'Heil Hitler'."

As chairman of the Independent Journalists' Association of Vojvodina, Dinko has been pivotal in the organised campaign for a civil post-conflict truth commission. By the end of next year, the organisers will have one million signatures calling on the Balkan parliaments to support their Regional Commission for Finding Facts about Crimes in Former Yugoslavia. "There'll be challenges getting there," agrees lawyer Natasa Kandic, "but the victims need to be listened to. Every society here has its own truth about what happened. Muslims speak about Serbians and Serbians say that is not the full picture. Their truth is different. That is why facts are important."

Truth's flexibility was crudely demonstrated by a judge in the Serbian city of Nis, when Maja Stojanovic from Youth Initiative for Human Rights commemorated the 8,000 victims of the Srebrenica massacre. She got 8,000 people to write the digits from 1 to 8,000 and printed them on posters displayed across the city. "It took us longer to write the numbers than it took them to kill the people." The municipal authority ordered her to remove the posters. She refused and was brought before a judge. "Why did you do it?" he asked. Then he told her the Muslims of Srebrenica deserved to die because his house had been burned by Muslims. The judge's remark was widely reported in the Serbian media. Maja made sure of that, after she was fined 5,000 dinars (about €50). The judge continues in his job administering justice.

The embrace of new values signalled by this year's elections was bolstered when the government banned a planned fascist march in Belgrade last autumn. But since then, the feeling of optimism has evaporated because of the death threats to Sonja Biserko (see panel above) and increasing violent attacks on minorities. One such occurred during the Queer Belgrade Festival in October. "I was standing in the street talking to some people who were going to another venue," remembers Majda Pyaca. "A young, tall guy came up to me and said: 'Where are you from?' I said I was Serbian. Then I see about 10 guys with hoods and surgical masks coming from one side. I look to the other side and see more. I start running and yelling and the police start coming. I see people on the ground and they are being kicked by these Nazi skinheads." Because of the tardiness of the criminal justice system, Pyaca is setting a legal precedent in Serbia by taking the first civil action for damages as a result of the riot. "I want them to learn they cannot do this," she explains.

A recent survey found that 70% of Serbians believe homosexuality is a disease. The country's isolation exacerbates its social problems; most other countries require visas for Serbians to visit. Nearly 75% of younger people do not possess a passport. The average Serbian wage after tax is about €400-a-month and about 200,000 people are regarded as impoverished. Roma children die from malnutrition. It is little wonder that the country is turning away from his historical fidelity to Russia and towards the rest of Europe. About 90% of Serbians support EU membership.

After the EU's most recent audit of Serbia's compliance in handing over indicted war criminals, it noted its disappointment that General Ratko Mladic is still at large. A cabinet minister in Belgrade replied with heavy irony that his government was trying its best but, like the US searching for Osama Bin Laden, they have not found Mladic yet. Many human rights defenders, however, insist that he is living freely in Belgrade. One young woman told us her parents had walked past him in the street.

"The EU checklist of what is expected from us is good, but it does not change public attitudes. We must change ourselves," urges Natasa Kandic.

Justine McCarthy
Publicerad i Sunday Tribune