BELGRADE, Serbia—Milica Djurdjevic and Anita Mitic used to celebrate birthdays together, but that was a long time ago. Though they still live in the same city, today they meet only at protests, where they find themselves on opposing sides. The former friends, whose childhoods were marked by years of conflict, have starkly different views of that violent past—and starkly different hopes for their country’s future.
Djurdjevic and Mitic were both born in 1990, the year that the first multiparty elections were held in Yugoslavia, a communist federation that had been ruled by Marshal Josip Broz Tito in the decades after World War II. In the wake of Tito’s death in 1980, ethnic nationalists had come to prominence in the states that made up the federation. The girls were mere toddlers when Yugoslav forces attempted to carve out a “Greater Serbia,” which would expand the existing boundaries of Serbia to include all the areas in the region where Serbs lived.
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War broke out in the region in 1991—first in Slovenia and Croatia when those countries declared independence. The war in Bosnia began the following year. Though the Slovenia conflict lasted just 10 days, and the conflicts in Bosnia and Croatia ended in 1995, they were followed by the war in Kosovo, which began in 1998. All told, the decade of fighting resulted in the deaths of more than 130,000 people and the displacement of millions throughout the Western Balkans.
When Djurdjevic and Mitic met in 2009, as students at the prestigious Faculty of Political Sciences at the University of Belgrade, the war was long over, and Serbia was trying to recover from a decade of Western sanctions as well as the transition from socialism to capitalism. The pair bonded even though they knew they disagreed on fundamental political issues. But by the summer of 2010, these differences of opinion, especially on the thorny issue of Kosovo, had torpedoed their friendship.
Now in their late 20s, Mitic and Djurdjevic are prominent rivals in the struggle to shape the views of Serbia’s postwar generation, and the connections and differences between them have become a story itself.
Mitic leads the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, an organization that she estimates has taken 15,000 young Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks (Slavic Muslims from Bosnia), Montenegrins, Macedonians and Albanians on tours of the region to meet each other and share their experiences. For many of these young people, the trips are a first opportunity to visit another country in the Balkans, and they are nothing short of life-changing.
They have been similarly transformative for Mitic herself. “I live a beautiful life,” she says in the lobby of a luxury hotel in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, where she is overseeing a summit for young people and human rights activists. Despite a long day of heady panel discussions with topics like “global democracy in crisis,” she is effervescent, wearing her signature colors, hot pink and black. “I go everywhere in the region, and I have friends in all the countries. I think everyone should be able to live like that.”
Mitic tells me about her imminent plans to travel to Kosovo with a group of young Serbs, a trip that will give them a chance to learn about the politics and culture of a country their political leaders don’t recognize.
Kosovo, whose population is overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian, spent the 1990s under an effective apartheid system after Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic revoked the autonomy the province had enjoyed since 1974 and removed all ethnic Albanians from state jobs and factories. In 1998, Yugoslav forces committed several massacres in response to attacks on Serb officials perpetrated by the guerilla Kosovo Liberation Army, tipping Serbia into conflict. Hoping to prevent a repeat of the atrocities of Rwanda and Bosnia, the United States and Britain spurred NATO airstrikes on Serbia, which lasted for 78 days. The bombing campaign is one of the main reasons many Serbs remain skeptical of the West and opposed to membership in NATO. Many Serbs continue to see Kosovo as the cradle of their Serbian Orthodox culture and faith because of the many medieval monasteries there.
Mitic recalls that when she first traveled to Kosovo, in 2009, she came to see all the negative things she’d been told about the place and its people as rooted in ignorance and “pure hate.” “I was shocked that Albanians are normal,” she says.
Djurdjevic, for her part, is unable to make such a trip. The authorities in Kosovo have barred her from entering the country because of her political activities. She is the spokesperson of the Srpski Sabor Zavetnici, or “Oath Keepers,” a group that advocates against Serbia’s accession to the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia. Perhaps the most important part of its platform is reclaiming control over Kosovo. Djurdjevic says the organization, which is currently in the process of being registered as a political party, has 20,000 members.
Serbia is again confronting questions about justice, reconciliation and whether criminal wartime conduct should be honored or condemned.
Over tea one recent evening in Belgrade, Djurdjevic describes the mission of the Oath Keepers as defending Serbians’ national identity. “America has its myth, which says that America is a symbol of freedom in the world, human rights, democracy, etc.,” she says. “Serbia, too, has its myth of freedom, of the unity of all Serbs in a joint country, and that Serbia cannot be a full and independent country as long as Kosovo and Metohija is not a part of us.” Metohija is the ancient Serbian name for a region that today makes up the western half of Kosovo.
Stark divisions are perhaps inevitable in Serbia. As human rights activist Izabela Kisic notes, it is the only country in the former Yugoslavia “which still does not see its borders defined precisely,” meaning that some Serbs still aspire to reclaim Kosovo and annex parts of Bosnia. The chasm separating Mitic and Djurdjevic has been on vivid display in recent months, as Serbia has again confronted questions about justice, reconciliation and whether criminal wartime conduct should be honored or condemned.
While these questions are rooted in the past, they have implications for what the country will become. Most immediately, the competing visions for Serbia held by Mitic and Djurdjevic go to the heart of one of the principal dilemmas the country faces: to pursue deeper ties with Russia, or nurture its nascent democracy and join the European Union, which would require rebuilding relations with Croatia and making unpopular compromises over Kosovo.
Monsters, or Heroes?
Serbian nationalism swelled in the 1980s, following the death of Tito, who is credited with holding Yugoslavia’s ethnically and confessionally diverse population together with a strong if not brutal hand, encouraging his people to embody the patriotic slogan of “brotherhood and unity.” After he died, Slobodan Milosevic came to power, beating the drum of Serbian nationalism while the economy crashed and inflation soared.
Most Western historians and scholars agree that Serbia was the aggressor in the wars that started in 1990 and that Serbians committed crimes on a larger scale than the other actors. But in Serbia, this is up for debate. Persistent differences on this point have been projected onto the international court in The Hague charged with prosecuting criminals of the war.
November was a dramatic month at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, known as the ICTY, which was preparing to close its doors nearly 25 years after being established by the United Nations. On Nov. 29, Bosnian Croat Gen. Slobodan Praljak took a fatal drink of poison in court rather than have his conviction as a war criminal upheld. An investigation determined that he had somehow managed to get a bottle of potassium cynanide past security. A week earlier, Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic let loose with a disruptive outburst as his conviction on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes was to be read out, forcing officials to remove him from the courtroom.
Ratko Mladic prays in a church as part of ceremonies to celebrate a banned Serb holiday,
Banja Luka, Bosnia, Jan. 9, 2018 (AP photo by Radivoje Pavicic).
The reaction to the Mladic verdict within Serbia was generally hostile. The justice minister, Nela Kuburovic, focused on discrediting the ICTY, accusing it of having an anti-Serb bias. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who served as minister of information during the Kosovo war, called the verdict “unjustified.”
To Djurdjevic as well, Mladic is a hero, not a war criminal. “When it comes to the wars of the 1990s, I am proud of every Serb who went to defend their homeland,” she says. She tells me that while there may have been “some bad examples,” they were nonetheless part of the military and should be honored.
The tribunal, she continues, is nothing but an effort to cast judgment on all Serbians. “Gen. Mladic, and all who were at the top of the military of Serbia, are being tried not as individuals but as all of Serbia, with the goal of putting the blame on us,” she says.
Unlike Mladic, who received a life sentence, several other prominent ethnic Serb convicts have been able to return home, usually to a hero’s welcome, and re-enter public life. Djurdjevic tells me she was pleased by the news that another former general and convicted war criminal, Vladimir Lazarevic, who was released after serving two-thirds of his 14-year sentence for war crimes, had recently been invited to speak at the Serbian military academy in October. He titled his lecture, “The heroism and humanity of Serbian soldiers in their defense against the NATO aggression.”
Lazarevic, who led the Third Battalion of the Yugoslav Army, which was active in Kosovo, was convicted in 2009 for crimes related to the forced deportation of more than 700,000 ethnic Albanians and the murder of more than 11,000 people from Kosovo. Many of the bodies wound up in mass graves; some surfaced in refrigerator trucks outside Belgrade. Thousands are still missing.
Naturally, in light of this rap sheet, the lecture invitation did not go down well with everyone. “People in Serbia don’t realize how wrong it is that we have a criminal teaching young people,” says Marija Ristic, a Serbian journalist focused on post-conflict justice and the editor of Balkan Transitional Justice, which reports on war crimes trials and related issues. “Imagine if a criminal who killed someone on the street were teaching at the police academy. People would be outraged. But society in Serbia doesn’t see this as criminality.”
“There is no real political commitment for dealing with the past or telling the truth about the war.”
Indeed, the government has tended to celebrate figures like Lazarevic. At a gathering of Third Battalion veterans in October, as Lazarevic and another convicted war criminal, Nikola Sainovic, sat in the front row, Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin said that “no one will ever be ashamed” of them. “The time of shame has passed,” he said. “This is the time to be quietly proud.”
Honoring the Victims
Mitic and her organization have called on Prime Minister Ana Brnabic to dismiss Vulin because of his statements, and they want the state to show that it rejects “the criminal policy led during the 1990s.” Since May 2016 they have been staging an ongoing protest against the glorification of convicted war criminals, standing in front of the parliament with posters that read, “They are not our heroes.”
Such efforts have, more often than not, been met with contempt. Last January, for example, activists from the Youth Initiative went to protest a campaign event in the village of Beska featuring Veselin Sljivancanin, a former army officer convicted by the ICTY of war crimes for his role in the deaths of more than 250 Croat and non-Serb civilians near the Croatian city of Vukovar in 1991. After serving his sentence, Sljivancanin re-entered political life, and he now regularly appears at campaign events for the country’s largest political party, the Serbian Progressive Party.
Before the Youth Initiative activists in the front of the auditorium could unfurl their banner—which read, “May the war criminals be silent in order for the voice of victims to be heard”—they were violently shoved out of the way, beaten and forcibly ejected as attendees accused them of being “traitors.” Two people went to the emergency room, and Mitic’s car was damaged.
Even worse than the physical violence, Mitic says, was the lingering public vilification. “Beska was difficult for everything that happened after: beatings, mud from the whole country put on our backs,” she says. “We were worried about our security. There were guys coming to our office, and our staff went through a lot even with their own families.”
A lawsuit filed by the Youth Initiative against the organizers of the campaign event went nowhere. Instead, the state has sued nine of the activists for two counts of “disturbing the public order.” If they are found guilty, some could face between 30 and 60 days in jail along with between 240 and 360 hours of community service.
“All of this shows that the government is supporting war criminals both politically and symbolically,” Mitic says. “There is no real political commitment for dealing with the past or telling the truth about the war.”
the presidency building, Belgrade, April 8, 2013 (AP photo by Darko Vojinovic).
This is not the first time Mitic has faced prosecution for trying to raise awareness about Serbian culpability for war crimes. Every year in Belgrade, Mitic partners with a small group of NGOs to mark the anniversary of the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in which more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed, most of them men and boys. In 2013, former Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic apologized for the massacre but refused to call it a genocide, even though it has been recognized as one by the International Court of Justice and the ICTY.
Mitic says the word genocide matters. “If we don’t honor victims of the war, we have no chance of a peaceful future,” she says. “I think that we become better people if we recognize our mistakes. Dealing with the past for me is finding out what not to do in the future.”
In 2015, the 20th anniversary of Srebrenica, a group of NGOs, including the Youth Initiative, organized an event to honor the victims. The idea was to gather around 7,000 people in front of the parliament, with each person being assigned a number in advance to represent one of the victims. The interior minister, however, banned all rallies planned for that evening, saying he could not guarantee the security of those participating.
In response, Mitic wrote a Facebook post inviting people to silently light candles for victims in front of the parliament; some 200 people heeded her call. But outside parliament, they encountered members of the Oath Keepers, Djurdjevic’s group, which rejects descriptions of Srebrenica as a genocide. The Oath Keepers threw bottles and jeered at Mitic and her supporters.
Because of her Facebook post, Mitic was charged with convening an unlawful gathering, though the case was dropped on a legal technicality. She was the only person disciplined in connection with the incident.
Pursuing Justice at Home
The roots of Serbia’s inability to have a genuine reckoning with its past were planted in the first years after the NATO bombing. As the country dealt with its own domestic problems, lingering antagonism toward the West steadily undermined public support for justice initiatives promoted by the United States and the EU, whose interests in Serbia were a point of skepticism if not suspicion for many Serbs.
The postwar years were an unsettling time in Belgrade and throughout the country. Milosevic was finally ousted by a popular protest movement in October 2000 and was extradited to The Hague in 2001; he died in 2006 before his trial ended. Longtime opposition activist Zoran Djindjic became Serbia’s first democratically elected prime minister after Milosevic’s removal, but he was assassinated in March 2003 in the parking lot outside his office. The bullet came from a sniper who was part of an ultranationalist group with close ties to organized crime.
All this time, money from the West was pouring into Serbia, which had been badly damaged by a decade of economic sanctions. Tremendous effort was expended to set up war crimes chambers in local courts in the former Yugoslav countries, and Serbia was no exception. This was a tall order given that there had been no process of purging Milosevic’s allies from the government, no reforms to the police or military and limited cooperation with the ICTY. Nevertheless, a Serbian chamber was set up in 2003, and it managed to prosecute major cases concerning war crimes committed in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.
Most of these cases were brought against foot soldiers, but prosecutors might have started to go after middle-ranking perpetrators if the outside world had remained invested in the process, says Ristic, the journalist. Instead, beginning around 2012, rising donor fatigue contributed to a significant drop in pressure coming from the EU and the United States.
In Serbia, too, officials began to believe that prosecutions were no longer a priority. “At that point, no one had an interest in these prosecutions,” Ristic says. One sign of the lack of urgency around the issue is the fact that, beginning in late 2015, the post of chief war crimes prosecutor was left vacant for a year and a half.
Mitic says she thinks both she and Djurdjevic are exceptions—that their strong opinions about how Serbia’s post-conflict transition should play out sets them apart from most people. “The majority in Serbia is just not interested,” she says. Yet that doesn’t mean she and others who care about transitional justice are giving up. For the past 10 years, Natasa Kandic has been trying to build support for a reconciliation initiative calling on the former Yugoslav countries to form a regional commission, known as RECOM, that would establish the facts about war crimes committed between January 1991 and December 2001. “Reconciliation needs to be seen as a security issue—that we won’t be secure unless we build it,” Kandic, one of Mitic’s mentors, says in her office in Belgrade.
The roots of Serbia’s inability to have a genuine reckoning with its past were planted in the first years after the NATO bombing.
Over the past two decades, Kandic and her organization, the Humanitarian Law Center, working with other groups that back a reconciliation commission, have been able to identify the names of some 21,000 victims of the conflict, and how they died. While 2,000 civil society organizations have collected more than half a million signatures from people across the former Yugoslavia who are in favor of a commission, Kandic says government buy-in is essential for true reconciliation. “It is not too late,” she says. Several Western Balkan leaders have pledged their support to sign a memorandum for the creation of a commission at a summit set to take place in London later this year.
Djurdjevic agrees that victims should be counted, but she vehemently opposes a reconciliation commission, in part because she also objects to Kandic’s support for Kosovo’s independence. She says the proposed commission “has a goal to relativize the suffering of Serb victims,” alleging that the coalition has “increased the number of Albanian and other non-Serb victims,” something Kandic denies.
Serbia is not the only place struggling to deal with its wartime past. Bosnia has a backlog of cases involving thousands of suspects. After the courtroom suicide of Slobodan Praljak, Croatian officials mourned him as a hero. And Kosovo officials have indicated a desire to backtrack on a commitment to honor a new court being set up to try crimes committed by the Kosovo Liberation Army during and immediately after the war.
While Western diplomats have said such a move would “isolate” Kosovo from its most important allies, it is unclear whether the international community is well-positioned to put pressure on Serbia. The European Commission last year said reconciliation was “essential for promoting stability,” but Ristic and others criticize European leaders’ slow response to the news about Lazarevic’s military academy appointment and to political developments in Serbia in general—specifically the rise of Serbian nationalists.
For the moment, Western powers seem more concerned with the fact that ties between Belgrade and Moscow are strengthening. Last October, Hoyt Brian Yee, a U.S. diplomat who is deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, said during a visit to Belgrade that “Serbia cannot sit on two chairs, especially if they are far apart.” He was referring to the government’s policy of pursuing both EU accession and closer ties with Russia, which many Serbs see as a historical ally.
Yee’s comment was widely debated in Serbia, where many see Vucic’s foreign policy orientation as reminiscent of Tito’s, which helped give rise to the Non-Aligned Movement. The EU, meanwhile, seems torn about the future of Serbia; a draft enlargement strategy foresees Serbia joining by 2025, yet Serbia has only opened 12 of 35 chapters needed for accession. The chapters concern harmonizing Serbian laws with those of the EU.
In a 2016 Gallup poll, just 40 percent of Serbs said they thought their country would benefit from EU membership. While part of this apprehension is due to the challenges faced by the bloc, including Brexit, a larger part comes from the resentment generated by the NATO bombing, the ICTY and the push to recognize Kosovo.
These poll numbers make it easier for Serbia’s political leadership not to take the EU seriously. This is made clear, Ristic says, by their views on the treatment of convicted war criminals and the subject of the wars in general. “Vulin, as minister of defense, would never have said in 2008 what he said this year about Lazarevic, because he knew that he would be sanctioned,” she says. “But now, that is not possible, and we have people who are, in a way, supporting the politics of the 1990s.”
‘Change Is Very Slow’
Last summer, Djurdjevic and Mitic squared off once again on opposite sides of a protest. At the end of May, for the fourth year in a row, Mitic’s Youth Initiative organized a festival in Belgrade to introduce Kosovo and its culture to the Serbian capital. The festival was intended to feature the former president of Kosovo, Atifete Jahjaga, who was to present a book about wartime rape victims.
But Jahjaga was not able to attend. In the wake of hostile coverage in the Serbian tabloids, the Serbian government refused her entry, saying her safety could not be guaranteed.
On the first night of the festival, Djurdjevic and other members of the Oath Keepers showed up to protest anyway, singing Serbian nationalist songs and chanting “Kosovo is Serbia” as the stunned crowd looked on.
The incident was further proof, if any was needed, that Djurdjevic and Mitic will remain divided. Djurdjevic says that she doesn’t want to talk about reconciliation until the situation in Kosovo changes. “We cannot advocate for peace and reconciliation when a piece of our territory is occupied,” she says.
For her part, Mitic acknowledges that it is going to be a long slog to arrive at any kind of breakthrough. “Sometimes I struggle with myself because the change is very slow,” she says. “There is a good chance that for my lifetime, I won’t see much change.”