Always dressed in black and unlike most activists, this organisation, already present all over the world, has used silence to make its opposition to any kind of armed conflict known. Accused of treason and pimping in the former Yugoslavia, the Women in Black have been in Serbia for thirty years with their eternal resistance to the Balkan wars and demanding recognition of the massacres that took place then.
Founded in 1991, Women in Black (Žene u crnom, in Serbian) is a network of women engaged in peace-building activities. It is active in the Balkans, as well as in other areas around the world, and has organised more than 700 different projects in this region, including non-violent mass protests against the Balkan wars and the Milosevic dictatorship at the time. Its aims are to increase the visibility of resistance to all aspects of violence and discrimination against women, and to prevent and resolve conflicts through dialogue by promoting women's participation in the peace-building process.
"We know that despair and pain must be transformed into political action. With our bodies, we declare our bitterness and hostility against all those who want and wage war. During meetings, we remain silent, sometimes whispering encouragement and support to each other when passers-by insult or anger us," stated their Declaration in 1996, when every Wednesday, dressed in black and in silence, dozens of women protested in Belgrade against the Balkan Wars.
The Women in Black movement in Yugoslavia began under Slobodan Milošević's government, thirty years ago this month. Milošević's attempts to strengthen Serb majority rule in multi-ethnic Yugoslavia led instead to its disintegration. As Croats vied for independence from Yugoslavia, Croatian Serbs fought to keep their territory as part of Serbia and a bitter civil war began that spread across the Balkans as Macedonia and then Bosnia and Herzegovina declared their own independence. It was at this time that Serbian women in Belgrade began to meet in silence. Every Wednesday, the women gathered in Republic Square to protest for demilitarisation and an end to the conflict. They supported the cause of conscientious objectors who did not want to fight in a war they did not believe in and organised humanitarian aid for refugees.
Their struggle became even more active in 1995, and they were the first to organise themselves to condemn what is now known as the biggest massacre in the Balkans. In the town of Srebrenica, considered a 'safe zone' for Bosnian refugees, thousands of Bosnian men and boys were killed by the Serb army. News of this event was suppressed and denied by the Serbian government, but the Belgrade Women in Black took to the streets regularly to draw attention to the atrocity and protest the action under the slogan "Not in our name". A decade later, in 2005, a videotape exposed the truth and challenged government denials. "Genocide denial is seen at all levels of society, from the government to the street. In Serbia today, genocide denial can be seen in the refusal to accept the genocide verdicts of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). An almost insignificant number of people in Serbia recognise the Srebrenica genocide, and we are one of those rare groups of people in Serbia who recognise the Srebrenica killings as genocide," explains the organisation for the 'Remembering Srebrenica' initiative.
And being virtually the only ones to silently shout about the atrocities committed by the Serbian government, not only in Srebrenica but throughout the Balkans, is not something that goes unnoticed in a society as nationalistic as this one. During the commemoration of the events in Srebrenica in 2005, "about 25 neo-Nazi nationalist counter-demonstrators started shouting 'Knife, wire, Srebrenica' (words that rhyme in Serbian), 'Serbia for Serbs', with 'Hail Hitler' gestures, insulting us. At one point someone threw tear gas bombs into the middle of our circle," recounted Danish Women in Black who came to Belgrade to accompany their comrades.
Although the Women in Black always plan peaceful and silent protests, they still create controversy and arouse the anger of their opponents. Serbian nationalists believe that Serbs should not promote independence or the rights of any other nationality. This is why the members themselves are harassed when they meet, and the organisation has been repeatedly investigated for accusations that have later been proven false. The founder of the Belgrade association was accused of running a prostitution ring, prompting further police investigations.
These attacks are not a thing of the past. At the end of last week, the headquarters of the Organisation woke up to nationalist whistles and threats drawn on its entrance. Serbian nationalist symbols whose meaning translates as: only the union will save the Serbs, 'Kurve u crnom' (Whores in black) and the name of Ratko Mladic, Serbian war criminal tried for his actions during the Bosnian war were read on the door of the premises. "The current political regime in Serbia, led by Aleksandar Vučić uses fascist groups and individuals to threaten all free-thinking groups and individuals and, above all, those whose opinion and actions demand recognition of past crimes in which the aforementioned was not only a silent observer, but a very active participant" denounced the Organisation on Monday 25 October on social networks.
Women in Black not only condemned the war crimes but also took a stand in support of Kosovo's independence. According to the Belgrade daily Kurir, this would cost her a prison sentence for treason against the constitution. In 2008, Women in Black Belgrade joined with the Kosova Women Network to create the Women's Coalition for Peace, a women's network of activists from Kosovo and Serbia, which seeks to make women's perspectives more visible in the political affairs of Serbia and Kosovo, and which has received ongoing support from the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). It was then that representatives of Women in Black from Belgrade apologised for the crimes committed by their country's regime against Kosovar Albanians. The apology was broadcast on Radio Television Kosova, marking the first public apology made for crimes committed against Albanians during the war.
And although their actions were pioneering, and the focus of attention and criticism in the past, when the Balkan wars were in full swing and to go against the established power was to go against your own, Women in Black are still organised in Serbia. Because even though the Balkans lost their international interest when their wars ended, Women in Black are still fighting for the recognition of what happened. For the recognition of the victims. Year after year, they already have thirty years of non-violent resistance to militarism, war, sexism and nationalism. Their last rally was last February, in memory and denunciation of what happened in 1993 at the Štrpci station near Višegrad, Bosnian territory in Serbia, when 19 civilians (18 Bosnians and one Croat) were killed on the train from Belgrade to Bar by fifteen Serbs, arrested in 2014 and charged with war crimes, not genocide as Women in Black claim. "Our government completely denies any genocide that has ever occurred. The strategy is one of 'interpretive denial', arguing that they were not genocide but war crimes. They reduce the death toll and try to justify the crime on the basis that crimes were committed on all sides: denial by 'moral equivalence'," they told Remembering Srebrenica.
Women in Black in Serbia continue to gather in the streets, using their bodies to, as they emphasise in their Manifesto, "create a physical presence, so that we cannot be ignored. We 'hijack' the public space from the dominant discourse of denial", they continue to fill Belgrade with black "as the colour of mourning. We mourn all the victims of the war, but above all we mourn those who died in our name" and so they endure in silence "because silence is the most powerful form of expressing our opinions. Silence symbolises respect, seriousness and dignity: it is an alien space, a space without violence. Silence, when used deliberately, is the most powerful sound".