On International Criminal Justice Day Guest-blogger Dr Catherine Baker examines the ways the Women in Black have remembered genocide in the former Yugoslavia.
Every July since 1996, one year since the Army of the Bosnian Serb Republic began the organised killing of 8,000 Bosniak men and boys in Srebrenica on 11 July 1995, women from the feminist, anti-nationalist campaign group Women in Black have stood silently in the centre of Belgrade to force Serbian passers-by to remember that the genocide occurred.
In 1996, Slobodan Milošević – the president of Serbia who had armed, equipped and encouraged the Army of the Bosnian Serb Republic in its campaign to create a purely Serb nation-state (‘Republika Srpska’) and eliminate or expel non-Serbs – was still in power, soon to face a winter of public protest against his rule when he refused to recognise local election results.
Milošević, in 2016, has been dead for ten years, and spent the last five years of his life in custody at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which had charged him with war crimes across the conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, including responsibility for genocide against Bosniaks during the Bosnian war.
Despite public hopes for a more democratic and less corrupt politics after Milošević fell from power in 2000, the elites who grew rich on the proceeds of the Yugoslav wars still exert political influence, and today’s Serbian government (led since 2014 by Aleksandar Vučić) continues not to recognise the Srebrenica atrocities as genocide.
In July 2015, Vučić nevertheless attended the annual ceremony at the Srebrenica–Potočari Memorial Centre, a cemetery built in 2001–3 to bury the victims of the genocide, whose bodies continue to be discovered in new mass graves. Serbia, with Russian support, had prevented the United Nations adopting a resolution on the Srebrenica genocide in June, and the government had banned commemorations of the victims in Belgrade. A small group of mourners in the Potočari crowd threw stones at Vučić and, in 2016, he and other politicians from Serbia and the Republika Srpska entity of Bosnia were asked not to return.
This year’s Women in Black vigil, named ‘Srebrenica 8372’ in recognition of the number of victims that forensic scientists from the International Commission for Missing Persons have been able to count, used the protestors’ silent presence – with a line of women at the centre of the protest holding the letters ‘SREBRENICA’ – asked the public to remember Serbian complicity in the genocide.
Just as importantly, it called on the state to recognise the genocide officially, declare 11 July an annual day of commemoration and criminalise genocide denial. Their statement drew direct continuities between the ideology of Serbian nationalism and the ideology that motivated Serbian troops and political institutions to participate in the killing and expulsion of non-Serbs in Bosnia.
New remains continue to be discovered and identified; another 127 victims were interred at Potočari this year. What most holds back investigators’ work and prevents survivors from finding out their disappeared relatives’ fate is not even the passage of time but the fact that, after the genocide, graves were disturbed and remains moved on an organised scale to stop the victims being identified and to wipe out evidence. Many of the people who must have ordered and carried out the removals are still alive but have not revealed what they know.
Women in Black’s annual commemoration and political intervention takes what is now a well-established form but is far from a static ritual. Rather, as each new anniversary comes around, it has to be re-produced, in the face of threats and in response to a political context which changes on the surface but, the protest argues, never underneath.
The silence of their vigils is not a withdrawal from public space but an active tactic of non-violent resistance, as the group’s founder Staša Zajović has written: ‘Silence is important for learning non-violence. You do not wage wars which they want to draw you into, you do not react to provocations. That is a deconstruction, you are silent, you do not want to repeat what they ask from you.’
Their vigils’ message is supported by alternative media and other civic initiatives such as the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, which on 11 July lit candles outside the Serbian parliament building in front of a wall of photographs of the dead, and placed 8,372 numbered sheets of paper on the ground to visualise how many lives had been taken at the same time.
The Srebrenica anniversary is Women in Black’s most prominent form of commemoration; after their Belgrade vigils, they also take part in commemorations at Srebrenica–Potočari itself. However, commemoration for Women in Black is a year-round process, and the group’s calendar of significant dates reveals a lot about how they perceive the causes of violence and war.
In a list spanning January to December, Women in Black’s calendar of ‘Important Dates We Remember’ connects war crimes committed by Serbs in the 1990s with international struggles against patriarchy and militarism. On 27 February, they commemorate the far less well-known Štrpci massacre in 1993, when Serb paramilitaries abducted and killed 19 Bosniak and Croat passengers from a Belgrade–Bar train as it passed through the RS.
They mark international days of action for human rights, women’s activism and disarmament, Europe Day on 9 May, Pride Day on 27 June, and an international day of struggle against the occupation of Palestine on 9 June, the anniversary of Israel’s offensive on the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War.
Part of an international network of Women in Black groups, they take their name from the first group of Women in Black who – themselves inspired by earlier women’s vigil movements in South Africa and Argentina, and international feminist peace activism – started organising vigils in Israel in 1988 to protest against the occupation of Palestine. Founded in October 1991, when the Yugoslav National Army’s offensives in Croatia were at their height, the Serbian group protested every week in Belgrade until the end of the war in Bosnia.
As one Women in Black member, who started joining vigils in memory of Srebrenica in 1997, told the researcher Orli Fridman in 2004: ‘I joined the vigils for my political views […] That was the first time I exposed myself in the street, which was a great difference from only knowing and recognizing that something happened … the decision to go out onto the street meant to try and send a message to others … even though it was not always pleasant to be out there in the streets.’
Resisting war and militarism, for Women in Black, is not just a matter of holding individuals accountable for crimes but also exposing and dismantling the structures that enable violence, from the state-directed violence of the Yugoslav wars to the everyday and intimate violence that still occurs on the street and inside the home.
Success would come when commemoration becomes a mainstream political and social responsibility, not an act of protest.
Dr Catherine Baker is lecturer in 20th Century History at the University of Hull. She is a specialist in post-Cold War history, international relations and cultural studies, working primarily but not solely on the post-Yugoslav region. Her research projects are connected by an overarching interest in the politics of representing, narrating and knowing about the past. After studying the construction of national identity in Croatia through popular music, and subsequently the role of translation and interpreting in peacekeeping and peacebuilding in Bosnia-Herzegovina, her current research emphasises the circulation of representations, people, texts and images from, into and through south-east Europe, including the reproduction of militarised masculinities after the Yugoslav Wars. Her research on the cultural politics of international events, including the Eurovision Song Contest and the Olympic Games, has expanded into an interest in international LGBT politics after the Cold War. Her next projects, on grassroots British aid convoys during the Yugoslav Wars and on discourses of race in the post-Yugoslav region, will continue her effort to globalise and historicise the cultural politics of the post-Cold-War period.
Catherine’s latest book, The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), offers an introduction to interpretations of the conflict that invites its readers to question how far the concepts ethnicity and nationalism help to understand the Yugoslav Wars. It is available here: https://he.palgrave.com/page/detail/?sf1=barcode&st1=9781137398987
Catherine also has her own WordPress blog:
https://bakercatherine.wordpress.com/ where she regularly posts about her research.
Photographs used in this blog were taken by Dr Laura McLeod, lecturer in International Politics at the University of Manchester, taken during fieldwork conducted in 2008. Used with her kind permission.