Women in Black: The voice of peace in Serbia
BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — They have been beaten, spat at and cursed. Jeered, mocked and ignored.
But a few dozen women dressed in black regularly stand silently on Belgrade's main streets. They hold signs demanding an end to war, advocating human rights or reminding people of the bloody ethnic clashes in the former Yugoslavia that Serbia itself had triggered in the 1990s.
The are the Women in Black.
This week they will be the only Serb group to publicly mark the 20th anniversary of the start of the 44-month Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo, part of the bloody 1991-95 Bosnian war.
Serbian officials have largely refused to acknowledge the role of the former regime in fomenting the war, which left more than 100,000 dead and hundreds of thousands wounded.
The siege itself went on for 11,825 days — longer than the World War II siege of Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg). Over 11,500 civilians were killed from April 1992 until March 1996 in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, including some 1,600 children.
"Violence against Bosniaks," read one of the banners being prepared by the Women in Black for a planned protest Friday in the Serbian capital of Belgrade.
One member explained why the protest was necessary.
"It is important that we will be in Belgrade, because everything started from Belgrade," said activist Natasa Lambic.
Serbia's late President Slobodan Milosevic, who died while in custody during his U.N. war crimes trial in 2006, was accused of triggering the wars in the Balkans to create a "Greater Serbia" out of Bosnia and the other former Yugoslav republics.
Bosnian Serb troops were accused of "ethnic cleansing" — violently forcing Muslim Bosnians and Catholic Croats out of territory they coveted.
"Sadly, not so many things have changed in the past 20 years (in Serbia) regarding the process of facing the past," Lambic said. "That was an aggression against Bosnia. Responsibility has to be taken for what had happened."
Belgraders largely ignore the protests by Women in Black, except for scattered shouts of "Traitors!" or "Whores!" or some who spit in their direction.
Members were, however, often attacked, beaten and even tear gassed when they took their protests to the Serb-controlled parts of Bosnia.
Still, the attacks have not deterred the peace group that has branches in 25 countries.
Women in Black began in January 1988, at the start of the Palestinian uprising, when about 30 Israeli women gathered in the center of Jerusalem in silent protest, each with a sign saying "Stop the Occupation."
By the 1990-1991 Gulf War, there were 30 vigils all over Israel.
In Serbia, some 100 Women in Black are working with about 15 other anti-war and women's groups to promote tolerance and reconciliation among Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims.
"Now there is this trend of reconciliation," Lambic said.
"But more has to be done," she said. "We have to talk about the crimes which were committed in our name. We will show that what had happened was bad, and that we are honestly fighting that it never happens again."
Dusan Stojanovic contributed.