The Belgrade human rights campaigner who keeps speaking out.
For many she is a traitor; for others, a defender of justice. Anita Mitic is no stranger to controversy.
As the director of Serbia’s office of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR), her activism hardly makes her top of the Christmas card list for leading Belgrade politicians or their cheerleaders in the pro-government media. But even by her standards, 2017 has got off to an eventful start.
In the first few weeks of the year alone, Mitic has had top government officials insulting her and calling for her arrest, been branded a ‘foreign spy’ in the media, had her car and office door vandalized, while her and eight of her fellow activists have been physically attacked. All this, for daring to speak out against the way in which her country is failing to address the historical crimes committed during the reign of Slobodan Milosevic.
“I hear with interest that on her website and biography Anita Mitic proudly says that everything is not normal in Serbia and says that she experienced enlightenment when she went to Kosovo in 2009,” Dragan Vucicevic, editor-in-chief of one of Serbia’s most read papers, Informer, remarked cynically during TV Pink channel’s ‘TV debata’ program at the end of January. After reinforcing his support for Aleksandar Vucic, Vucicevic went on to tell Mitic that the prime minister’s only mistake was to “allow you and people like you to take funds … in order to make chaos in the country and [to conduct an] anti-Serb campaign.”
The head of the pro-government media outlet was referring to a recent protest held by YIHR Serbia office at a debate organized by the Serbian Progressive Party as part of its election campaign at the town of Beska’s cultural center. “They stopped the gathering in a fascist and Nazi-esque way,” he asserted, referring to the activists who objected to the ruling party having invited convicted war criminal Veselin Sljivancanin to speak at the event. Sljivancanin, a former officer in the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), was convicted on a war crimes indictment by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in 2007 for his role in the 1991 Vukovar massacre, in which Croatian prisoners of war and civilians were tortured and murdered by JNA forces and Serb paramilitaries.
“I believe it is important to have a discussion, but there is no discussion with war criminals.”
When Sljivancanin begun talking at the government party event, Mitic and other activists began blowing whistles and unveiled a banner reading “War criminals should be silent so that victims can be spoken about!” They were immediately attacked by party heavies and forcibly removed from the rally. Two fellow activists were injured and hospitalized, while Mitic got away with a damaged car.
“I believe it is important to have a discussion, but there is no discussion with war criminals,” says Mitic, resolutely. “Because you had your time in court, you had your lawyer, you were sentenced and I am sorry but there is nothing to discuss anymore.”
The following days saw a public lynching of Mitic and other YIHR’s activists, as the prime minister’s party labelled them traitors who should be arrested, and pro-government media painted her as a mercenary paid by foreign funds to “create chaos across Serbia” and to cause “dark, fascist terror.”
In the fallout, Mitic was sent numerous insults and threats, including death threats, but despite this she has no regrets. “I am disappointed and I am absolutely furious,” she says. “But I am glad we did this because finally we made people talk about two important things.”
For Mitic it is important that with the widespread media coverage that followed the attack, Serbian society talked about war crimes that have been committed and the role of their perpetrators in public, and also got to see the “true face” of Vucic and his political party.
“You cannot pretend to be a pro-European and then beat activists and promote war criminals — it doesn’t work that way,” she says. “And the important message is that obviously we don’t live in a very democratic society when you have political opponents and you just go and beat them up. You don’t do that to human rights activists in a democracy.”
Anita Mitic has made it her mission to speak out against human rights abuses, a decision that has seen her targeted by Serbia’s authorities and pro-government media. Photo courtesy of Anita Mitic.
Human rights organizations repeatedly highlight that Serbia needs to deal with its role in the wars in former Yugoslavia, including prosecuting senior officials involved in war crimes. President Tomislav Nikolic and Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic are particularly criticized for protecting and praising suspected and convicted war criminals.
Mitic is aware that the prize of opening the discussion on war crimes orchestrated by Milosevic in the ’90s might put her safety, and that of her colleagues, at risk. Days after the attack in Beska, she arrived at work to find stickers plastered across the front door reading “For a handful of [foreign] money they sold their, fatherland, their mother and father.”
But she is determined not to take a step back or to stop fighting for what she believes is right. “I still believe it is worth it, because we live in this society and this country that is full of fear and the greatest obstacle to change is fear,” she says. “I kind of feel that we inspire people to fight back and every time there is something wrong, just stand up and say it is wrong. You can’t have a criminal in the public space and it was in a cultural centre that is a public institution funded by the public.”
I am the heart of Serbia — take care of me!
Mitic, now aged 26, was born and raised in Belgrade. While she was growing up as a kid, she was aware that her city had a lot of focus on it, with regular protests on the capital’s streets against Milosevic. However she had no idea that she was living in the heart of a region that was being torn apart in bloody wars.
Looking back, two memories from her childhood stand out in her mind. The first is the day her mother, a dentist, came home and told the story of one of her patients saying that “people in Sarajevo are growing tomatoes on their balconies.” It was during the four-year siege of Sarajevo, in which citizens in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital were trapped by the Bosnian Serb army and cut off from outside supplies — as a small child, such context was lost on her.
Then in 1999 — when she was aged 8 — she recalls hearing about a refrigerated truck transporting bodies that fell into the River Danube. Later it was revealed that the truck contained the bodies of Kosovar Albanians that had been taken from their initial graves to be transported and plunged into the river near Serbia’s border with Romania; two years later the bodies were amongst 700 Kosovo war victims uncovered in a mass grave on Serbian Ministry of Interior land at Batajnica, near Belgrade.
Although she didn’t realize it at the time, these events would later influence the course of her life.
In February 2008, Mitic was watching the celebrations in Prishtina on TV as Kosovo declared independence. “‘Oh, I want to see this monument once, but it will never happen,’” Mitic remembers telling her sister after seeing the ‘Newborn’ independence monument being unveiled in Kosovo’s capital. “I thought that because [I thought] you could not go to Kosovo.”
"I was questioning my entire life, my education, my parents, and everything to come to something that was closest to the truth.”
Then months later she was walking along the street in her home city and she saw a young man with a sticker on his arm with the slogan: “I am the heart of Serbia. Take care of me.” Those simple words expressed how Mitic felt; she would find herself getting frustrated every time she heard the well versed mantra, ‘Kosovo is the heart of Serbia,’ although she did not understand why at the time. “I just felt that there was something wrong with it,” she says.
Mitic noticed that the young man with the slogan was a YIHR activist. She looked up the organization, wrote to them and soon was going along to volunteer. During this time, she heard a lecture about the breakup of former Yugoslavia and the events that followed; she was 18 and studying political science at the University of Belgrade but it was the first time she had learnt about atrocities committed by the Serbian state in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo.
“I felt manipulated by everyone, for not speaking about it, because all you hear are some rumors and some people,” she says. “My grandfather was Croatian, my mom, and I have half of my family [in Croatia], and I still didn’t know about the war. I knew my mom couldn’t go to Croatia [when I was younger] but I didn’t know why not.”
But it was her first visit to Kosovo that made the biggest impact on her. Just one year after she had told her sister that she would probably never have a chance to see the Newborn monument, she found herself hanging out with Kosovar Albanians in Prishtina’s bars and cafes. The trip had been arranged by YIHR offices in the region, one of the dozens of visiting programs organized for young people by the organization since its establishment in 2003, with the aim of increasing communication between divided societies.
“Kosovo was my strongest prejudice — prejudice against Albanians. You hear stories about the seaside in Croatia and how they went to the Olympic Games in Sarajevo, but no one talks about going to Prishtina,” says Mitic, pointing out how media coverage of Kosovo within Serbia had influenced her perceptions. “And when I went to Prishtina for the first time I met activists from the YIHR in Kosovo who are now very close friends of mine. This is the first time in my life that I [thought]: ‘OK, if this is such a big lie that you were telling me my whole life, what else did you lie about?’”
Mitic had little idea about Kosovo before she visited on a YIHR trip as a young adult. It was an experience that she said made her question everything she had been told. Photo courtesy of Anita Mitic.
In Kosovo she heard stories of the full decade of segregation during the ’90s, homeschools, experiences of ethnic cleansing and deportation, and of those who escaped massacres orchestrated by Serbian forces.
“And that is literally when I started questioning everything I was taught because I fell in love with Prishtina from that first time,” she says. “And I was like, ‘If you kept Prishtina away from us, what else is there to find out?’ I was questioning my entire life, my education, my parents, and everything to come to something that was closest to the truth.”
Determined not to forget
In early 2016 Mitic was charged with breaking Serbia’s public gatherings law. The previous summer, ahead of the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, Mitic had been one of the activists involved with an event that had been planned to commemorate the victims. In a symbolic display called #sedamhiljada (#SevenThousand), activists had aimed to gather 7,000 people — representing the approximate number of Srebrenica victims that had been identified — outside the parliament building in Belgrade. But then a day before the scheduled event, Serbia’s minister of interior, Nebojsa Stefanovic, banned rallies in Belgrade, citing security risks.
“They cannot ban us from commemorating genocide, we will not remain silent about that,” she wrote on Facebook in response to the minister’s ban, while also calling her friends to mark the anniversary regardless. On the basis of her post, police identified her as the sole organizer of a small gathering that was held with candles and printed numbers later that same day. Her case is currently in legal limbo, since she has never been called back to appear before the court.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide in 2015, Mitic and other activists lit candles in Belgrade to commemorate the victims, defying a ban on gatherings. Photo courtesy of Anita Mitic.
Despite the legal threat, Mitic’s organization has continued to lead efforts to open a discussion about the past. In March last year, on the 17th anniversary of the Suhareka massacre in which 48 Kosovar Albanian civilians were murdered by Serbian police officers, YIHR Serbia organized a march by human rights activists from downtown Belgrade to the suburb of Batajnica where many of the victims’ bodies were dumped. Their aim was to raise awareness of the existence of the mass graves and the failure to prosecute the perpetrators.
“It is important to talk about the legacy of the ’90s because people do not remember and people born later don’t know anything,” Mitic says. “This is why our slogan of dealing with the past is: ‘Too young to remember, determined not to forget.’”
For Mitic, it is the knowledge that she has gained over the past decade, and the responsibility she feels to the memory of war victims — as well as to the futures of other young people — that drives her on. “I would feel ashamed if I just knew everything that happened and turned my back on that,” she says.
YIHR’s motto when it comes to dealing with the past is “Too young to remember, determined not to forget.” Photo courtesy of Anita Mitic.
Today, when Mitic accompanies young people from Serbia during visiting programs to Prishtina, she is always reminded of the impact of her first visit. After they reach the bus station she notices the fear on their faces, but still she wants them to create their own impressions.
“They are frightened and we just leave it — we don’t ask questions, we just go with the flow,” she says. “And then we end up in Prishtina having beers and drinks and you can see how that fear disappears. How beautiful is our job when you see people changing in half an hour?”
Although her activism has been full of struggles and an “emotional rollercoaster,” it is these moments that remind her the value of going against the flow and speaking out.
“Changing education, politics, changing narratives … I know you cannot change it all at once but you have to start somewhere, at least you need to start the discussion about it,” Mitic says. “There is this quote: ‘As long there is darkness, there will be a sunrise.’ And I see it that way — I love sunrises, especially after parties!”K