Keeping the Candles Alight

“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

  • Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (1978)

I registered for the #sedamhiljada protest* in late April. The number 6,600 was given to me. The protest initiated by former B92 journalist Dusan Masic, was envisioned as a performance — we were to print the numbers assigned to us and lie on the street at 11:07 a.m. on July 11, in front of the Serbian Parliament, with the numbers on our bodies to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide.

On July 10, the Serbian Interior Minister banned the protest, citing security risks. The security risks (read: poor management of public events) were a couple of simultaneous ‘counter-protests,’ called by the neo-fascist groups at the same location.

On Saturday afternoon, via Twitter, Facebook and email, the human rights activists, quickly decided that some symbolic, yet improvised commemoration must be held. Someone came up with idea that we should hold a candle-lit protest later that same evening at, 11:07 p.m.

I met a bit earlier with a couple of friends, including renowned human rights activist Natasa Kandic, in a nearby bistro. Natasa suggested the three of us should go to the plateau between the City Hall and the Presidency, where the commemorative protest was agreed to take place, just before 11 p.m.

As we arrived at the level and started to line up and light the candles, waiting for others to join, several (up to six) police officers approached us. “You must leave immediately, you are a security threat,” one of them said. As we ignored this pretty silly order, a boyish looking police officer in his mid-twenties, who judging by his physical look spends substantial amount of time at the gym, rained down some inconsistent rambling about what’s right and what’s wrong. Then he said something along the lines of: “Madam if you were not the weaker sex, I would show you…”

He then continued with curses, which suddenly became personalized. He packed the insults into the second person singular, uttering a highly offensive (by any standards) curse that hit me down to my trembling calves… I reached for the bench, and sat down in disbelief at what I had come back to after 10 years of absence. After 15 years of international development aid for police reform in Serbia, I was faced with an opinionated police officer with the vocabulary of a fisherman’s wife. They persistently bullied us, kicked the candles around and pushed us, hoping that one of us would make a wrong move. Hoping that we would say an insulting word. Hoping we would give them a reason for arrest.

Hordes of neo-fascists, fenced in by a police cordon to our right, were chanting about Radovan Karadzic and singing nationalist songs. There were no police officers bullying them; the police there were simply facing the angry crowd.

Facing us, some fellow protesters were standing at the entry of the plateau, negotiating access with another police cordon. In the far left corner, a tiny group of right-wing protesters were rather peacefully protesting, holding a banner inscribed with something like ‘the real truth about Srebrenica.’ In the middle of that, surrounded by police cordons, on the level between the City Hall and the Presidency, we were talking sense to the bullies from the police.

But, they were convinced that what we were doing was wrong. To light a candle for 8,372 Muslims slaughtered in Srebrenica was wrong. To show compassion for Bosniak victims was wrong. In the minds of the bullying police officers, an act of mourning had an ethnic insignia to it. As Serbians, we should mourn for Serbs: Why pity Muslims, Albanians, Croats!?

Despite security advice, the Serbian Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vucic, went to the Srebrenica commemoration in Potocari on Saturday. Vucic’s infamous statement to Parliament as an MP in 1995 is still well remembered: “For one Serb, we will kill 100 Muslims.” This is the man who never showed remorse for all of the victims. The man, who never distanced himself from those words that he spoke twenty years ago. He did not go to Potocari to seek forgiveness.

“I regret that some people haven't recognized my sincere intention to build friendship between Serbian and Bosniak people," said Vucic. “I still give my hand to the Bosniak people. I will continue with that… and always be ready to work together to overcome problems.”

A friend asked me recently: “So you say there is no compassion in Serbia for Bosniak victims?”

No, there is no compassion.

Just after midnight, two Roma men from the communal street cleaning service swept the sidewalk, removing items that protesters had left behind: candles, flowers and pieces of paper with numbers, each signifying a victim of the Srebrenica genocide. Once again, the Roma men were forced to clean up the evidence, as they were in Kosovo in 1999.

* #sedamhiljada means #seventhousand in English - it represents the approximate number of Srebrenica victims that have been identified to date. The total number of victims is 8372.

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