“I always recall Borka Pavićević saying: It is not a street, a boulevard, for one to simply rename genocide. Those people are truly unworthy, they bargain. On the other hand, they keep saying – let’s turn over a new leaf looking to the future. Wait, what future? The future of corpses, the dead, the killed, the future of war profiteers?”, says Staša Zajović, one of the founders of Women in Black who have been taking to the streets of Belgrade for 30 years, opposing everything that cannot be labelled as feminism, antimilitarism or antifascism.
In this interview for our portal, she spoke about the three decades of struggle, the conformism that surrounds us, the blackness that upsets, fascism which should not be called the right wing, murals of war criminals the removal of which she opposes because we need to be aware of where we are living, and about how trust cannot be measured by project-based criteria.
Interviewed by: Nikolina Todorović
The motive for this talk is the thirty years of resistance and dignified struggle of the feminist and antimilitarist women’s peace group – Women in Black – who took to the streets of Belgrade first time on 9 October 1991. You are one of its founders and an active member. So, three decades of disobedience – to patriarchy, politics and regimes that wage wars, trivialise crimes, glorify convicted war criminals, relativise, politicise and distort historical facts, three decades of resistance to nationalism, violence, but also homophobia and all other kinds of inequality and marginalisation on gender, sexual, racial, class or ethnic grounds. Thirty years of consistency, incorruptibility, courage and fearlessness, as evidence by around 2500 street actions you have organised to date. But, despite all that, it seems that the most major and grave challenges lie ahead of us and are unfolding now under current political regimes in Serbia and the region. Do you share this feeling?
I don’t think those things are comparable. Armed conflict is the most horrible thing. But, yes, you are right, we can talk about a continuation of the war by different means. That is a consequence of Serbia not having any mechanism of transitional justice implemented, either at the level of society or the state. On the other hand, the courts and trials at the national level are not regulated. This leads to extremely brutal and cruel humiliation of victims, to mockery of justice… We spent a thousand days in trials and we know how important they are for the victims’ families. However, some proceedings last for ten years and then appellate courts remand cases, harassing and humiliating the victims, and deriding them. The problem, among others, is that the international community allowed those ethno-leaders, the war profiteers, to take justice into their hands and assume the reconciliation mission. It is not them who should lead the reconciliation mission, they must first deal with individual, personal liability. Secondly, the Serbian public never found out about anything from those trials. They were neither interested nor did they know what was going on. I must say that it is disastrous that Serbia is the only country in the region that has not recognised the crime of rape. We know that men bearing Serbian names committed rape in Bosnia and Croatia. We kept raising this issue, hoping that reparations will be provided for all the women victims of wartime rape.
One cannot look to the future if there is no common position on the past. But never, never, never did a representative of the state of Serbia utter the word genocide when talking about Srebrenica.
I always recall Borka Pavićević saying: It is not a street, a boulevard, for one to simply rename genocide. Those people are truly unworthy, they bargain. On the other hand, they keep saying – let’s turn over a new leaf looking to the future. Wait, what future? The future of corpses, the dead, the killed, the future of war profiteers?
That is why such people came to power. Wartime evildoers. That is why, even thirty years later, we speak of a continued war. We are not surprised by any of this – as we have been living it for thirty years – we are just desperate.
I can’t resist bringing into this conversation something of my own intimate relationship with Women in Black. I belong to the generation that from the earliest childhood, from primary school, watched Women in Black on TV and listened about them every July 11 – perhaps the most painful date for my country. Women dressed in black, in Belgrade, take to the streets to mark the anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. I watched and listened as a little girl with a great interest that I could not explain to myself. But I felt it was very important. I felt that it was an exception, a group of people taking to the streets to say: Not in our name… That you did not allow anyone to speak on your behalf, that you were disobedient, that there are no others for you when it comes to victims, certainly placed you in a difficult and ungrateful position, but at the same time suggested that you are on the right side – socially, historically and morally?
For me, the primary thing in my work has always been addressing the victims. Followed by the society, and then the state, which I do not believe in. The nice democrats often tell us – Oh, you will save our face. I will not save your face nor am I interested in your face. I address you as human beings. Let’s talk about what happened in Srebrenica, in Vukovar… But they can’t, you have to understand, they say – it upsets them. Yes, I do understand, they get upset by the fact that they never looked into each other’s eyes and said – innocent people were killed. Have you ever looked into the eyes of a mother from Srebrenica, a woman from Vukovar? Please do.
People were killed, that is what I want to say to everyone! Not just on one day, but all these thirty years. Remember the poet Desanka Maksimović – I sympathise with man, I sympathise with man, I sympathise with man… There is nothing more to say.
We did contaminate the Belgrade square with otherness. With the unsuitable. With the redundant. With those you don’t want to see. Not in the least because we have any intention of saving Serbian, Montenegrin or anyone else’s face. No. We did it because it is a universal human preference.
We are offenders. Our presence in the square disturbs them. Because they are haunted by the demon of otherness. They know very well what that is. It irritates them astonishingly – the fact that we fill the square of national mythomania with victims unworthy of remorse.
A major problem that Women in Black continuously face – one that must not be kept in silence, must not be normalised – is the verbal and physical violence against the activists of this organisation. It is shocking that such verbal and physical violence goes unpunished. How difficult is it for Women in Black to fight the systematic practice of not punishing violence and the complete ignoring of violence by competent institutions and individuals in Serbia?
We are exposed to many attacks. There have been three recently. I cannot count how many there were in the thirty years. In the most recent attacks – we were the first target, i.e., the Ratko Mladić message was intended for us. The public completely failed to react to the much more severe attacks of nazi-fascist groups. They are all one category, one group, the death squads, the mercenaries, the state servants. It seems to me that, at some point, they are competing who will contribute more to their creative criminal inventions. There you have it. Those are the people on payroll.
Complete lack of interest, true, you got that right. However, what angered me the most was that some media, allegedly independent, said – Ah, the rightists attacked Women in Black. We tell them nicely – shame on you, where do you see rightists, they are nazis! They are paramilitary organisations, squadrons. How can you call them rightists; there are people among the rightists that you can have a conversation with.
As if nothing had ever happened. No charges have ever been filed. In addition, you have the conformism of the so-called decent people who say: Another attack on Women in Black, it’s so terrible… You know how they start with terrible terrible terrible over and over again. Flabbergasted. It’s actually the same as when a husband beats his wife a hundred times, and the police tell her – contact us when something happens, then we can respond. And then it happens. Husband kills wife. There you go. We have three decades of experience with that.
From the start of this conversation, it seems to me that you are particularly angered and insulted by hypocrisy, double standards, alleged support that is not sincere, petty bourgeoisie, which, as you say, is flabbergasted as if everything that is happening to Women in Black does not concern them, i.e., all of us?
Yes, it concerns us all. First of all, violence is not just our problem. It seems that people cannot understand in their conformism that if violence is normalised it becomes everyone’s problem. Today they may have come for us, but tomorrow they will move on to others…
Yes, fake flabbergasting makes me angry. I am particularly angry with the pseudo-intellectual group and cultural institutions grouped as patrons who made genocide and all other crimes possible. There is an entire network of such people, they are all famous, they are all clean, they all have deep pockets. Just keep being conformist. The conformism of that pseudo-intellectual sphere, of the corpus, the pure fake flabbergasting – I am sick and tired of them. Genocidal culture, moral patterns, cultural patrons – these are not issues of a single regime, these are issues of cultural employees. How many such alternative spaces exist in Serbia that convey the sufferings from Peru, from Papua, and they never dared address the suffering of Srebrenica. Is that the case? Well, it is always convenient to talk about some distant sufferings. Shame on them!
It’s shutting one’s eyes to things. A hypocritical petty-bourgeois provincial culture that cannot step forward and say – people were killed.
You know what the cultural institutions’ people tell us – What are Women in Black asking for again? Hasn’t it been enough, haven’t we already proven ourselves. False petty-bourgeois flabbergasting.
They think the polis/city is theirs. For me, this is not a city. This city has lost its polis character. Polis means relations to others. To otherness.
What is the face of Serbia at this moment? At a moment in which war criminals are being glorified and their murals are being defended as sacred, in which horrific crimes are being normalised, public media are becoming political apparatuses to incite hatred, violence is being used against dissidents, and relations to or empathy for otherness are almost non-existent, as you say.
Those are all tools of nationalism. While they wave around with their Belgrade waterfronts, shopping malls, the people are gaslighted, hypnotised, impoverished. I am an activist working on the ground and am very well aware of all this.
As for the mural – I wouldn’t touch it. Because it is a trademark of this country. On the one hand, this is the story of – The Emperor having no clothes! Should we hide him? Right. Really? Should we really hide him? Wait, I don’t want to hide him. I don’t have any national face to hide any crime. I don’t feel loyalty to kinship, nation, homeland. There, whoever feels that loyalty, whoever is trying to save Serbian or Montenegrin or whatever face – let them do it. For me, as a feminist, this is one big trap. Are we to keep removing murals until the end of the world or should we let them be everywhere, everyplace…? As a friend of mine says – put them on the flag if need be. Yes, it is a trademark of this country. Are you proud?
Since I started doing what I do, I have always brought to the surface the filthiest stuff. I did that even much earlier. I want things exposed to the core. No illusions. Some would tell me now – Don’t exaggerate. Must you always exaggerate, Staša? Women in Black constantly exaggerate. That is what we are – we overturn, we subvert. We transgress.
Women in Black included men since its inception. Is that also a kind of subversion? Your blackness is also a subversion, right? What seems to me to be the key feature of Women in Black is anti-militarism as the standpoint for all your matrices?
Yes, we are anti-militarists above all! I hate armies terribly. This is probably because I come from a partisan, anti-fascist family, and we all hated militarism. My family has always been and remains – ordinary people, proletarians.
We had men amongst us from the very start. Our allies were all those men who for various reasons refused to go to war. They became deserters. We followed the rebellions of the mothers. We connected with them. They demanded that their sons return from service or not join any army. We were there for them. Our archives still contain fantastic and shocking statements by mothers who said: we are not cannon fodder for generals and future war profiteers. Also, gay anti-militarists have been among us from the very beginning. I always laugh when I remember a gay anti-militarist who was rejected by the army because he was incapable. Yes, I am incapable of killing people – he replied. And they said to him: You are released from the army! Your libido is impaired. – Yes, it is impaired. I am incapable of killing people – he repeated.
I think a lot about these things. About how war affects both women and men. I think about the consequences of forced mobilisation. We worked on that a lot. Because, you see, these regimes are not only criminal against others, but also against their own people. Against the redundant.
On the other hand, you would not believe to what extent our blackness upsets and confuses these pseudo-intellectuals and conformists I mentioned earlier. Staša, you are wearing black again? Why always black? flabbergasted they are once more. Well, I’m into dark wave, I tell them jokingly. I will quote Borka Pavićević again – Do not wear black by any chance, do not put black thread in a needle, because you will immediately upset everyone. When I approach them in black, they get uncomfortable, afraid, do you know why? It is Srebrenica getting a bit closer to them.
After all, I wear black in Srebrenica as well. It never crossed my mind to wear any other colour because I know they accept me as I am.
There are many activities you are working on, which concern not only economic and social empowerment, and social equality, but also the cultural and educational aspects of women’s empowerment. All these segments, in the end, are important to change social awareness and value norms, and to contribute to a peaceful and secure future. Thirty years later, do you continue to pursue the model you have built and created for yourself – act justly, combatively, in solidarity and always in disobedience?
The truth is that we commence, implement and lead many projects and stories that cannot be translated into project-based points. You know why? Because not everything is project-based. There are things that are invisible. We go everywhere. We visit places. That is not something you put on paper. There are relations that have been developed that have nothing to do with donors. The rule is that donors constantly think that it is all about saying and proving what kind of results you have achieved. But, let me ask you, how can I translate the trust I have gained into a result? The trust that people developed in us. Suffering is good for projects. The most important thing is to not empower the victims. That is why feminists, activists, people who help migrants are the force that has saved and will save Europe.
As far as I am concerned, my Europe are my movements.
Nikolina Todorović (1995, Sarajevo) graduated literary comparison. She is a poet and literary critic awarded with the Mak Dizdar Award 2021 for the best first unpublished book of poems by the festival Slovo Gorčina in Stolac. Her poems have been translated into English, French, Russian and Gaelic. She is currently involved in the Women’s Reading Room project: Literary Criticism Factory project, organized by the Women’s Board of the P.E.N. Centre in BiH, in which she writes literary criticism on works by regional and world authors. Nikolina is a researcher on the project History of Queer Life in BiH, organized and implemented by the Sarajevo Open Centre, and writes literary criticism, reviews, comments and analyses for several domestic and regional portals.