One-on-one | Serbia

Staša Zajović: It’s often forgotten that human rights encompass the freedom to dream

By - 29.12.2018

Women in Black group coordinator talks refugees, wars, Kosovo’s independence and human rights.

For more than 30 years Staša Zajović has opposed patriarchy, warmongering policies and nationalism; traits found in societies across the region. While overcoming the obstacles she has faced along the way and there have been many she has refused to hold back in her activist work.

As coordinator and one of the founders of the Serbian branch of international feminist and anti-militaristic group Women in Black, the constant thread in Zajović’s activism over the years has been peaceful protests.

Women in Black has regularly reminded the Serbian public of the war crimes committed in the countries emerging from Yugoslavia. During the 1992-95 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, they stood in the streets of Belgrade and spoke about crimes and murders committed by government supported forces; they did the same during the 1998-99 war in Kosovo. This is why in Serbia, many refer to them as the ‘most hated non-governmental organization’ by those in power and their supporters.

Zajović says that they have been living with such a label since the years of Slobodan Milošević, who systematically worked on demonizing them and other similar organizations in Serbia. According to Zajović, the current Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, has continued the same policy and approach.

That is why, in November this year, Women in Black announced that they would file a case in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg against Vučić.

“The government in Serbia is no longer hiding that they are backing a variety of so-called patriotic, pro-fascist organizations,” said the Women in Black’s press release from November 29 this year. “Aleksandar Vučić, [Minister of Foreign Affairs] Ivica Dačić and [Minister of Defense] Aleksandar Vulin were part of the policies and government that incited, assisted, and inspired the Srebrenica genocide and many other crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. They were part of the government that committed numerous crimes in Kosovo.”

Since 2015, when a large number of refugees headed for the European Union through the Balkans, Women in Black and Zajović have expressed solidarity by standing up for them, emphasizing again and again that war brings calamity to all, except for those who cause the people to leave and profit from them.

Zajović’s work has influenced many feminist groups around the globe, but it has also brought her multiple problems in Serbia, including physical assaults. One such example was the 2014 attack on Zajović and other Women in Black activists in Valjevo, Serbia, when they were en route to the annual genocide commemoration in Srebrenica.

This November, Zajović — along with other international activists — was presented with an award by the Sharia, Segregation and Secularism conference in London for her “immense contributions to the cause of women’s rights and secularism.” The conference marked 10 years of the One Law for All campaign that advocates “for equality irrespective of background, beliefs and religions.”

K2.0 spoke to Staša Zajović on World Human Rights Day, December 10, in Belgrade, where we touched upon some of the most important issues of 2018.

Photo: Lazara Marinkovic / K2.0.

K2.0: How difficult is it to be an activist and feminist in Serbia today?

Staša Zajović: In Serbia, it is generally difficult to be a free-thinking person. It is especially difficult to talk critically, clearly and publicly about this regime. One of the most painful topics in Serbia is the attitude toward war crimes and the government’s accountability, which is why the Women in Black are often targeted. Our feminist activism is, of course, part of this topic of dealing with the past.

To me, I must say, feminism is not connected to gender issues only, but the feminist approach is something I feel connected to. This means that arms export policies and attitudes toward war are two topics that concern me as a responsible citizen, because weapons produced in Serbia are used to kill other people in the Middle East and Africa.

For a quarter of a century, Women in Black have insisted on facing the past, above all in Serbia. Have we, in that sense, reached that day, bearing in mind that the same people are in power in Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, or at least people with the same ideas that brought about the wars of the 1990s?

It has become somewhat commonplace that those who have been part of the very axis of the crime production machinery have returned to power, and that there was a misconception in the year 2000 that we could start building something new without a radical rupture.

Those of us that work with people on the ground with the people who have gone through the terrors of war we know that the past is the present to them, and the future to a large extent as well. I work with women from Vukovar and Srebrenica [cities in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina respectively that underwent massive war destruction and crimes against civilians], and their yearning for justice has strengthened as the years pass. This is a great drama, since there are so many unprocessed war crimes and so many unacknowledged sufferings and deep traumas.

This is the present of the victims, but not only theirs; it is the present of all of us living in this country. Wherever you turn, those who exploit and those being exploited are part of the same grindstone, of the same cultural model.

Photo: Lazara Marinkovic / K2.0.

It was necessary not only to extradite those suspected of committing war crimes as a commercial package that we sent to the Hague, while we stayed as we were but to perform basic institutional reforms, for which it is too late now, such as lustration, opening up of criminal files, educational programs. There have been well-known models that could have been copied, but they weren’t. What we now have is a nexus of oligarchical connections between warprofeeters and criminal mafia.

Look at Vučić — he was the information minister, a sports fan, he was a [‘man of the people’] with plural identities. Whoever had any illusion that he could wash the blood off his hands has been proved terribly wrong. Some European officials thought so, too. A wolf can change his coat but not his character.

These days, again, there is noticeable disharmony between Prishtina and Belgrade. Kosovo had increased taxes on goods from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Do you think there is political will to solve the problems between the two governments?

We may only speculate about the political games played and in which manner human needs and safety are being cared for, as well as the issue of self-determination. There are always civilians present, on both sides, victims who are used for the sake of achieving so-called national interests.

"We are bonded by the patriarchal mentality, because Kosovo is not only Prishtina, and Serbia is not only Belgrade. Kosovo is Ferizaj, and Serbia is Svilajnac."

I have to say that it is meaningless to even talk about whether Kosovo should be recognized. I went to Kosovo, and I am a witness of the horrible terror. This concerns the accountability to find out what happened to the missing persons, who were transported to so many mass graves in Serbia. Not only to mark those graves, but to find the culprits and those responsible. It is a large burden. Both sides must locate and prosecute those responsible.

We are bonded by the patriarchal mentality, because Kosovo is not only Prishtina, and Serbia is not only Belgrade. This is not a [true] image; these are fake shop windows. Kosovo is Ferizaj, and Serbia is Svilajnac. I like to go to Ferizaj and Svilajnac, because it is there that I understand reality the most, rather than Belgrade or Prishtina. With support and the irresponsibility of the European Union, the governments of Serbia and Kosovo are misusing people’s suffering and dissatisfaction, and turning it toward their needs by implementing ethnic hatred.

I do not reduce the issue of self-determination only to the issue of nationhood, but to some other types of needs. The thing is to expand the space of civil liberties and for identities to be defined freely.

Photo: Lazara Marinkovic / K2.0.

You have been helping refugees who started coming to Serbia in 2015, on the so-called Balkan route toward the EU. The Serbian authorities claim that their status here is the best in the whole of Europe. What do you think about this?

We have been prevented from going to refugee camps in Serbia, and then the question arises: What is it that we are not allowed to see? The refugee crisis has been militarized to such a large extent that Europe is turning into a fortress. There is not a single Balkan route country that has not profiteered from the refugee tragedy, in cooperation with state actors.

How does the Commissariat for Refugees [in Serbia] spend money? Why is this a secret? In these territories, it has been easy to develop post-profiteering mafia that flourished even in the 1990s. The refugee tragedy is a challenge for the planet and the whole of humanity. Can global capitalism build a society where there is a free flow of capital and goods, but not people? For example, Afghans from Kabul pay 18,000 euros to arrive in Europe by foot, while we need around 1,000 euros to go to Kabul.

We only cooperate with solidarity movements around Europe that view civic disobedience as its obligation. In the name of fear, cultural racism and apartheid, which was seen in the 1930s, is now being continued. Barbed wire and Auschwitz left a permanent mark on Europe. [But now] civil liberties and the basis on which Europe is built are being undermined. We must reassess those matrices. We must stand up against the crimes against humanity.

We are witnesses of the brutal humiliation of refugees the running away from poverty, hunger, but above all war, and from the invasion and colonial policies of Europe. There is not a single European state that has not embedded itself into the arms export to the Middle East, through Saudi Arabia into Yemen and Syria.

You are very much present in the whole region. How are victims treated in our region? Do families of victims find justice?

We don’t even have a relationship with the victims from our own nations in the postwar period. Look at what happened in 2004 with the guardsmen in Topčider [where the bodies of two Serbian soldiers, murdered under unclear circumstances, were found; as military and independent investigations had different findings, civil society has been demanding a new investigation]. The humiliation of victims is all too present. The state leadership only cares about being acquitted; so they will conduct a repeat of court proceedings, a repeat of the crime, and citizens will pay the costs of those court proceedings.

If we bear all of this in mind, what can we say about the current state of human rights? And what can we hope for in 2019?

This system is unsustainable. [Since 2015], some 15,000 people have gone missing in the [Mediterranean] sea while fleeing from war. A large number of people in Europe are dissatisfied with these occurrences exploitation, violation of the Schengen regime, and the limitation of freedom of movement. This is why migrations are a wheel of history that cannot be undone.

Photo: Lazara Marinkovic / K2.0.

Identity politics are disastrous because they dehumanize people and reduce them to ethnic and religious elements. There is a vast plurality amongst refugees. There is also the issue of some humanitarians believing that the only important thing for refugees is to eat and survive, which is wrong. Humanitarians who think this way are part of the exploitation system.

It’s often forgotten that human rights also encompass the freedom to dream. It’s important for this reason to read [the Sufi philosopher] Rumi; poetry is also important, as well as the cultural heritage that is intertwined between the East and the West.

You have been working in and fighting for equal rights for all for such a long time, while little has changed. The space for individual freedom is still small, while the refugee crisis has seen a reassessment of freedom of movement. What motivates you to keep trying to change things in this society?

It may seem a bit pathetic when I say that this is a moral imperative, but this is the way it is. This is the struggle for personal humanity, fighting for the humanity and dignity of the victims of injustice and crimes committed in our name. I wish to leave behind a community of sensible and responsible people. This is often Sisyphean work, but I don’t find it to be futile.

Everybody carries the burden they choose. I have met so many people from the area of former Yugoslavia who I love and respect. In our small actions, they have seen great messages of humanity. This country is obliged to offer symbolic reparations, as well as the other kind. Some things are less visible, but it is a very interesting political process. It matters to me.K

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted in Serbian.

Feature image: Lazara Marinković / K2.0.

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