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Crisis 1999
News Archive 1999

Women in Black against the war in Yugoslavia

By Donna Hughes, holder of the Carlson Endowed Chair in Women's Studies and Director of Women's Studies Program at the University of Rhode Island

The news reports from Belgrade show men and women, with targets pinned to their clothes, cheering for Milosevic. One might get the impression that all citizens of Serbia support the regime and its actions in Kosovo, but for seven and half years, the feminist group Women in Black has boldly and visibly stated their opposition to war, rape and ethnic cleansing in all of former Yugoslavia. All feminist organizations in Serbia have supported democracy and opposed nationalism and militarism for over a decade. As socialism came to an end in Europe, the Communist leadership in Yugoslavia feared loosing power through democratization, so they used ethnic nationalism to manipulate people and create a popular base for their continuing control. Ethnic nationalism was constructed on a highly imagined communities inhabited by people whose identities that had little to do with accurate history, geography or real attributes. Over several years, old unresolved ethnic and national conflicts were given new life. They succeeded in pulling Serbs toward Serbia and pushing others toward their own nationalist groups, who then chose independence to escape growing Serbian nationalism and repression. Largely through mass rallies and state controlled media people were taught to hate those who were different. While all the nationalist leaders engaged in words of hatred, and supported ethnically defined national identities and statuses, militarism and killing, the feminist women1s groups worked against war and violence of all kinds.

One woman told me that at the beginning of the ethnic conflicts she was paralyzed. "For one year I woke up as if someone had grabbed me. I didn't know what to do. It was like I was having a heart attack." She recalled the multi-ethnic values she had learned in her family.

"My grandmother lived under the Austro-Hungarian rule and out of the experience of her youth she despised inter-ethnic conflicts which were provoked by rulers who had vested interests in creating animosity. My grandmother remembered the enthusiasm of the time when Yugoslavia was founded as a multi-ethnic country after World War I. She lived near the Italian border in the early years of fascism and openly opposed it. At the beginning of World War II she lived in Zagreb and was forced to leave because she was Serb. She came to live in Belgrade and her house was bombed in 1941 by the Germans and again in 1944 by the Americans. Until her death, a few years ago, at age 90, she called herself OYugoslav.' It was her political choice. I was raised with these ideas."

Women with values and political commitments to democracy, peace and multi-ethnic states came together and organized. In the fall of 1991 in Belgrade, they founded an anti war organization, called Women in Black, based on the Israeli group Women in Black, who wore black and protested in silence their country's treatment of the Palestinians. In their first public statement the activists defined themselves as an anti-nationalist, anti-militarist, feminist, pacifist group.

"We wanted it to be clearly understood that what we were doing was our political choice, a radical criticism of the patriarchal, militarist regime and a non-violent act of resistance to policies that destroy cities, kill people, and annihilate human relations."

Almost every week for seven and half years, Women in Black protested the wars in the Republic Square in Belgrade.

"We are the group of women who stand in silence and black every week to express our disapproval against war. Women wear black in our countries to show the grief for death of the loved ones. We wear black for the death of all the victims of war. We wear black because the people have been thrown out of their homes, because women have been raped, because cities and villages have been burned and destroyed."

Women in Black saw that Serbian nationalism was a motivating force behind the wars and named the Serbian government as the aggressor.

"We say that the Serbian regime and its repressive structures, the Federal Army and paramilitary groups, are responsible for all warsS.. The Serbian regime leads wars in the name of all citizens of Serbia. This way all the citizens become the hostages of their imperialistic politics."

Long before the atrocities of the Serbs in other parts of former Yugoslavia came to international attention Women in Black issued a statement calling for an end to war crimes. In 1992 Women in Black called for the naming of war crimes and the prosecution of perpetrators.

Women in Black continued to demonstrate until an enforced peace was brought to Bosnia. During 1997, they supported and participated in the grassroots democracy movement in Serbia. The situation looked hopeful for the first time in many years. But Slobodan Milo"eviÁ was not about to be maneuvered out of power by democracy. He refused to accept the results of the election and soon had control of the government again. When Serbia stepped-up the violence in Kosovo in 1998, Women in Black protested. In March 1998, they issued a statement (this is an excerpt):

"War in Kosovo is escalating. The civil population is suffering more and more. The number of dead, wounded, refugees, kidnapped, and expelled is increasing day by day. We Demand: - that all military operations and offensives, Oland cleansing', and terrorization of the civilian population (regardless of their ethnicity) end without delay; - that the special Serbian police force in Kosovo unconditionally retreat. - that Seselj's, Arkan's, and similar paramilitary forces, which participate in the robbery and massacre of the civilian population, be disarmed. We Support: - soldiers and reservists who refused to go to Kosovo, escaped from their bases, or avoided mobilization; - all people and political forces who want and are working towards a peaceful and nonviolent solution to the Kosovo question; - all friends in the world who, according to their abilities, fight against repeating the Bosnian tragedy.

In September they organized a rally against war and violence in Kosovo with other pro-democracy, human rights groups. Ten minutes before the rally began, the government banned it. Women in Black issued a statement:

"Sby banning this protest, the regime in Serbia proves its policy of isolation, xenophobia and confrontation with the world. With this repressive act the regime also shows its determination for war, hatred, destruction and violence against all who think the opposite, even against an indeed small group of citizens, who from 1991 until today raise their voice against all kinds of violence."

Nine days later, threats to Women in Black and other groups that spoke out against the Serbian regime were issued in the Serbian Parliament. At this time, NATO had threatened to bomb Belgrade in order to force the Serbian regime to stop the military aggression in Kosovo. The Deputy Prime Minister of Serbia, Vojislav Seselj, a leader of paramilitary groups who committed war crimes in Croatia and Bosnia, responded with self-annihilating nationalism and threats to retaliate against peace activists, who he referred to as "Serbia's inner enemies."

"We should take the US threats very seriously but we must not be frightened. We will have an enormous number of victims and great material damages, but we don't have a spare fatherland. We must fight at all costs; no matter by whom we are attacked. Our determination to defend ourselves by all means should prove that if they want to attack us they should withdraw their supporters. S[the US should] withdraw their quislings, like S. Women in Black, and not leave them as hostages. Maybe we can not reach every airplane, but we will grab those who are close to us."

In response to these threats, Women in Black issued their annual statement "Seven Years of Women in Black Against War: 9 October 1991 to 9 October 1998." This time the annual report was in the form of a confession of their guilt for seven years of activism for peace, freedom and democracy for all people in former Yugoslavia.

"I confess to my longtime anti-war activity; that I did not agree with the severe beating of people of other ethnicities and nationalities, faiths, race, sexual orientation; that I was not present at the ceremonial act of throwing flowers on the tanks headed for Vukovar, 1991 and Prishtina, 1998; that I fed women and children in the refugee camps, schools, churches, and mosques; that I sent packages for women and men in the basements of occupied Sarajevo in 1993, 1994, and 1995; that for the entire year I crossed the walls of Balkan ethno-states, because solidarity is the politics which interests me; that I understand democracy as support to anti-war activists/friends/sisters - Albanian women, Croat women, Roma women, stateless women; that I first challenged the murderers from the state where I live and then those from other states, because I consider this to be responsible political behavior of a citizen; that throughout all the seasons of the year I insisted that there be an end to the slaughter, destruction, ethnic cleansing, forced evacuation of people and rape; that I took care of others while the patriots took care of themselves"

After the NATO bombings began, fifteen pro-democracy and peace organizations met in Belgrade. All participants in the meeting condemned the use of force by all sides. They noted that "conditions for the NGOs activities are extremely unfavorable, getting worse and worse, in such a way that their own existence is in jeopardy and danger." They agreed to stay in continuous contact.

Source: BalkanPeaceNetwork

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