It’s nearing dusk and the police are spread across the center of Loznica, in eastern Serbia, as if preparing for a derby football match. But there’s no game. It’s the Women in Black.
Silently, the fifty or so women and men, under the protection of a police force just as strong, file off the bus and onto the pedestrian street to unfurl their banners: “Denial, Negation, Forgetting = Genocide.” Another, longer one says “Solidarity. Let us not forget the genocide in Srebrenica. Responsibility.”
Before the banners have been unfurled, a man starts to shout. “These women are whores.”
Women in Black activist Stasa Zajovic starts handing out fliers about the Srebrenica genocide, in which 8,100 mostly men and boys perished almost exactly twenty years ago.
Serbs from the local community approach and ask why the Women in Black are honoring Bosnian Muslim victims instead of Serb victims.
“Don’t take these fliers. This is Loznica. People three kilometers away were slaughtering Serbs,” said Monika Ilic, a 42-year-old woman in cammo pants and a shirt that reads “Army of Republika Srpska.”
For more than twenty years the Women in Black have taken to the streets in silent, peaceful actions encouraging society to confront its difficult past. The Women in Black started in Serbia in 1991, following the example of a group of women in Israel who held signs saying "Stop the Occupation" in 1988.
They have protested against the denial of the Srebrenica genocide, which is pervasive in Serbia (and where the government banned a planned remembrance action from taking place). More recently, the Women in Black have stood in silent protest against the war in Ukraine and the detention of Pussy Riot.
And every year they attend the collective burial of the victims from Srebrenica found and identified in the past year by the International Commission for Missing Persons: 136 this year. Among those to be buried are 18 minors: the youngest victim was 16 years old and the oldest 75.
The Women in Black combat a culture of genocide denial that is pervasive – if not rising – Serbia and in Republika Srpska, the predominantly Serb entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Women in Black protest. Photo by Valerie Hopkins.
Ilic asks why there is such a heavy police presence and Zajovic replies “Because there are people who deny the existence of Serbian victims, and because the sad truth in today’s Serbia is that you need protection if your opinion is different from the majority.”
Almost twenty years since the Bosnian war ended, mainstream opinion remains strikingly divided over the extent and nature of the war crimes that were committed, and the ICTY’s designation of genocide, led by their politicians. Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, said recently that Srebrenica was “the greatest deception of the 20th century.”
Serbian premier Aleksandar Vucic controversially attended the commemoration in Potocari Memorial Center on Saturday, but planned gatherings in Serbia’s capital Belgrade for citizens to commemorate the victims were banned by the interior ministry due to a threat of right-wing violence.
Yet in spite of this, activists in Belgrade held a small vigil in front of the president’s office, including the Women in Black. A group of twenty women assembled to hold mirrors in front of the Serbian presidency, twenty mirrors for twenty years since the grave crimes were committed.
“In the mirror, Serbia sees Srebrenica.” They called, once again, on the
Serbian government to declare July 11 a day of remembrance for the victims. The women began their relationship with
female activists from Srebrenica more than fifteen years ago.
“We went to Srebrenica as a group for the first time in 2000, and we continue to return regularly,” said Violeta Djikanovic, one of the organization’s founders. These women have become like family to us.”
In their own country however, the women continue to face abuse. A peaceful cycling trip last year was interrupted in the Western Serbian city of Valjevo, when a group of hooligans clashed violently with the police. Though some of them were arrested, no one was charged.
Women in Black activists. Photo by Valerie Hopkins.
This year they held the third cycling trip, called “Dealing with the crimes committed in our name,” in the hopes that it is a way of building confidence between neighbors in the region.
“I don’t need Vucic to apologize in my
name, I want him to apologize for what he personally did,” said Mirko Medenica,
who participated in the cycle for the second time.
“By cycling across Serbia for three days it helps to spread the message. A lot of people see us, and they know what we are riding for.”
On the first night of this year’s cycling trip, in the city of Sabac, the Women in Black experienced something new: being completely ignored.
“It was fascinating and shocking,” said Djikanovic. “I’m used to being called a traitor and a whore, but the way they ignored us was a new level of ignorance. It was like they looked through us. “
In Loznica the reaction was as expected. “They disgust me,” said Aleksandar Blazic, who was having a beer at Café GTA on the square where the women were assembled. “The war started, just across the river, when I was fifteen and rapes, murders and displacement were happening regularly. If we want to talk about crimes, we need to remember that crimes in Bratunac happened first,” he said.
In Bratunac, just after crossing the Drina river, a pedestrian tells the group, “They should just bury you.” At a car wash several hundred meters later, a group of men give the peleton the finger.
In the center of town, though, a small group of people applauded, with more and more people showing support as the group grew closer to the Potocari Memorial center.
“When you hear about 8,000 victims you know
it is a lot, said Giuilia Buttirini, who came from Verona, Italy to participate
in the cycle.
“But when you go to the cemetery, it moves you. It’s important to come and see.”
Djikanovic says the ignorance in Serbia about these events has not changed.
“It was like in 1995 when they didn’t want to see what was happening in Srebrenica. For 20 years we are trying to get them to see.”