A Contribution to the Memory of the Black Armband on May 31 1992 – against the forgery of history through oblivion
Serbia is a country in which the past is much more uncertain than the future. (Stojan Cerovic 1949-2005, journalist and peace activist)
Black cardboard squares, about one square meter each, were piled one on top of the other in front of Palace Albanija and hundreds of people would walk up to them and take them, without any order. It was pretty chaotic. People were very excited, like their emotions were running wild or someone had suddenly popped a balloon ready to burst.
“We were emotionally horrified by the footage of the people massacred by grenades while standing in line at the bakery on Vasa Miskin Street, the main street in Sarajevo. We were already past hoping that we could change anything, but we couldn’t keep silent”, remembers Rade Radovanovic, journalist, activist and screenwriter of the last Yugoslav film “The Original of the Forgery”.
It’s doubtful that everyone knew the script for the Black Armband protest, and yet the chaos was easily organized into a long, continuous black line, along the main street in Belgrade, from Terazije to the Slavija Square. Everyone was holding the cardboard squares with discipline, in silence, connected to each other. They carried the 1,300m long armband and proclamation with a message to Sarajevo: “We are with you”, demanding an end to the war and to the siege of Sarajevo, and wearing black in grief for the innocent victims of the senseless shelling by the army of Republika Srpska.
Some 100,000 people came out onto the streets of Belgrade to oppose the war, the crimes and the horrors which had by then already spread through Vukovar, Dubrovnik, and reached the cities of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
You’ll have a hard time finding footage, photos, testimonies, or anything besides dull and lapidary data related to the Black Armband online, even though it was the largest anti-war protest ever organized in Belgrade, and completely one of a kind. There is no systematic data which can convey the energy, the emotion, the idea of peace, the very essence of humanity which brought so many people out on the streets that sunny Sunday, on May 31, 1992. Textbooks, museums and institutions of public memory keep no record of it.
After October 5 and the democratic changes, the new government didn’t understand the importance of preserving and entrenching the public memory of those sparks of civil antimilitarism. Perhaps they were too exhausted, in those first years of reform before the murder of prime minister Zoran Djindjic, to bother preserving the memory of something which most parties did not regard as an honest or a primary goal. Nurturing the memories of peace protests would have certainly gone much more smoothly had there been an honest reckoning with past atrocities after the wars of the 90s, which never happened. It would be futile to expect something like that from today’s government, which in many ways inherited the politics of the 90s.
Regardless of how huge the Black Armband protest was, it must be said that this protest and many other anti-war activities rested on the ideas and the actions of a small number of individuals. The emotional horror, the shame and the opposition to the war would perhaps have remained silent, had it not been for a small but loud and brave group of Belgrade intellectuals, professors, peace activists, actors, directors, journalists… who by 1991 formed numerous NGOs in order to oppose the insanity and set anti-war actions in motion.
This was perhaps best described in an interview from 2005 by Emir Geljo, a participant in the Belgrade peace protests during those first years, and now a world-famous scenographer: “A handful of Serbian intellectuals, who uncompromisingly stood as defenders of morality, truth, and honesty. To name a few: Miladin Zivotic, Nebojsa Popov, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Biljana Jovanovic, Nikola Barovic, Stojan Cerovic, Borka Pavicevic, Zagorka Golubovic, Lula Mikailj, Rade Radovanovic, Corax, the group “Living in Sarajevo” – a small percentage of honest people compared to the whole of Serbia.”
We should also be honest and say that the Black Armband protest owed its scale to the opposition parties. Especially the Serbian Renewal Movement led by Vuk Draskovic, at the time considered the unofficial king of Serbian squares and streets. The opposition parties, even though they mostly did not honestly share the idea behind the Black Armband, came to the protest without party insignia.
Veran Matic, the head of Radio B92, which informed the citizens of Belgrade about the Black Armband protest, stated in the book by Dusan Masic “Talasanje Srbije” (“Making waves in Serbia”): “In order to have 100 000 people on the streets it was important to include Vuk Draskovic and the Serbian Renewal Movement as strong political institutions in the protest… The Black Armband was an important indication of the political mood. Even though I understood that there was no energy, no momentum to make any real change, it was important in that situation when all Serbs were seen as aggressors by the rest of the world… Perhaps it was more important for us to not feel alone, than to actually have an effect on the government.”
Memories of anti-war protests have become dead memories. They are the memories of individuals, and many of them are already dead. It sounds banal, but the facts are relentlessly banal and sad. The memories have not been collected, and even the living participants often confuse events, because time always takes its toll.
Here is a short reminder: the organizer of the Black Armband was the now nearly forgotten Civil Resistance Movement. One of its main activists was the now almost just as forgotten, at least by the general public, great avant-garde writer, Biljana Jovanovic (1953-1996), the good spiritus movens of many anti-war actions. In those years women made up a large part of the anti-war Belgrade circle through which intellectuals connected with each other: Borka Pavicevic (1947-2019), Biljana Kovacevic Vuco (1952-2010), Zagorka Golubovic (1930-2019), Natasa Kandic, Stasa Zajovic, Sonja Liht, Jasminka Hasanbegovic…
The above-mentioned set designer Emir Geljo, who was active in the Belgrade theater “Dusko Radovic”, one of the centers of the anti-war resistance, came up with the idea for creating the black armband effect without using black cloth, which was not available for purchase at the time.
Zoran Djindjic, who was the president of the Executive Board of the Democratic Party, thought up the name for the protest. Rade Radovanovic remembers that the idea for the date of the protest also came from Djindjic. Slobodan Milosevic had scheduled federal and local elections for May 31, and Djindjic said: “Those are their elections, we will have ours. The black armband.”
If the memory of the courage and nobility of the people who opposed the war is suppressed, then the memory of the horrors of war and the destructive hatred becomes in fact a toxic foundation for its continuation. It is difficult to bear only shame for everything that happened, and not be constantly reminded that there were examples of those who opposed the ghettoization and killing of people. Human beings are wired in such a way that their survival instinct makes them forget dark times if they do not have points of light to lean on. Those who forge history plant forged foundations and explanations for the war, and the data on the Black Armband is buried under the infodemic flood of forgeries denying the atrocities.
Suppressing the memory of peace protests and anti-war demonstrations in Belgrade (the Black Armband was the largest, but not the only anti-war protest) and the resistance against mobilization in those years throughout Serbia is a solid basis for forging history, denying crimes and propagating Nazi ideology, all of which we are currently witnessing in Serbia. Perhaps the most shameful example of forgery was seen recently during the celebration of the Day of Victory over Fascism on May 9 in Belgrade.
In the central cultural institution of Serbian – the National Theatre – the state leadership was treated to renditions of the banal marching songs of the Nazi collaborator Dimitrije Ljotic in a live public service broadcast, while the forgers of history shamefully presented them as the poetry of Momcilo Nastasijevic. The article by Tomislav Markovic about that forgery concludes: “The voluntary renunciation of the brightest anti-fascist traditions and siding with the losers in World War II inevitably leads to various forms of moral and every other kind of doom.”
Although the anti-war protests of the 1990s in Serbia, unfortunately, were not on the side of the victors, their renunciation through oblivion leads to the same moral decapitation in which we are now dizzyingly rushing towards the forged past. Because the bearers of the ideas which oppose anti-fascism and anti-militarism have always been the same in Serbia, in 1941, 1991 and now in 2021.
The author is a freelance journalist from Belgrade, contributor to the portal Cenzolovka.
Translated by Luna Djordjevic