In the course of just several days, two women were murdered in the centers for social care in Belgrade. As usual, almost everyone had an opinion on who bore the brunt of guilt and why, and what was the real cause of the death that occurred in broad daylight in the Serbian capital.
Theories ran aplenty: that one man was a returnee from war; that there were certain ties with local political strongmen, or that the family was poor and thus poverty became a justified reason for the ‘micro-violence’ within our four walls; yet others ruminated about the guilt of the dead women themselves, because according to them there are women who somehow choose unwisely, who in fact love violent men. The balance sheet of all these sorry stories, in which gossip, sensationalism, and truth become inextricable, are two dead women, one dead child, three children left without both caretakers. Not so long ago, there was a public crusade against education about gender-based violence in schools and kindergartens, because all our families are, simply by being ‘ours’, normal. Perhaps it is time to re-think this normality. And then rethink it again, and again. Since families and the individuals who compose them do not live outside of society, but are in fact fundamentally shaped by it.
Much has been said about femicide lately. Even though that remains the primary topic of discussion in this case as well, I would like to concentrate on a different phenomenon closely intertwined with this act that feeds the ‘black chronicles’ (articles on murders in the yellow press) which run side by side with continuous appeals to spoiled Serbian women to give birth and fight the shrinking population – the so-called white plague. I speak, of course, of the omnipresent violence which permeates our lives and informs our worldviews, our feelings, our everyday actions on public transport, on the streets, in waiting rooms, in schools and maternity wards. Everywhere.
The first form of violence we have to start talking about is war-related. Serbia participated in wars of horrific proportions. A number of men who still live in this country were in the police, military or paramilitary forces – because they wanted to, or because they had to, they killed, or were present at the scenes of killings, torture, rape, and plunder. Upon their return to Serbia, a state which was officially “never took part in the war” (except during the NATO bombings in 1999), they remained publicly non-existent as men who survived a war. However, the fact that the laws of this state have not recognized this violence, that the Serbian public has almost unanimously agreed to conceal its most public secret, that the failed “revolution” of October 5th 2000 produced a social consensus that the wars were over, as if they actually never happened – that fact cannot diminish the violence that spills fractally through the lives of those who committed it, and the lives of those who were close to them, either then or much later. PTSD is here, and the trauma has never been recognized, nor acknowledged.
The second form of violence we are living in is the violence of rising structural inequality. This used to be a country in which generations grew and lived in the spirit of equality and with the promise of prosperity. Today, this is a country in which the gap between the extremely and relatively poor shrinks day by day, while the gap between this large and growing group and the extremely rich widens enormously. Serbia is now a country in which some can fly over to Cuba on a whim, while others do not have even the 300 Dinars they need to take a bus from their village to the nearby town to collect their meagre pension. Serbia is now a country in which only the amount of money one possesses defines the type of care available in the hospital, the type of treatment during childbirth, the conduct in schools. This, of course, does not mean that there are no honorable and good-hearted people around. However, structural inequality and the legally justified rights of the strong over the weak have an impact on our emotions, on our sense of justice, on our notions of what is allowed, desirable, and even possible.
The third form of violence, intertwined with the previous two, is that of appearances, violence against common sense. We constantly hear that we’ve never had it better, that our institutions function better than ever, that the world has never loved us more, that ‘European values’ have never been as widely adopted as they are now. But what we hear, what we are told, has never been more grossly disproportionate to what we actually see and experience. Our common sense is turned inside-out, like a glove: it is the starving workers on strike who are to blame because they produce bad appearances for the investors, those almost magical creatures of contemporary Serbian politics; it is women who are to blame because they made bad choices, in spite of the beautiful laws that we have and wonderful institutions that enact them; all those who lost their lives, real or symbolic, are guilty – those buried in mass graves, not by us, but who somehow magically found themselves there on their own.
Serbia is a country where violence is constantly on the rise. ‘Panic buttons’ in the Centres for Social Work – an immediate measure recommended by UN Women – are certainly a good solution, since they may prevent the proliferation of lost lives. However, the problems this society faces, the problems that we have to deal with daily, are so thorough, broad and deep that a gigantic panic button would not suffice. Any future political force in this country will have to wrestle with the residue of a long-lasting state of emergency that structurally shapes us as violent – melancholic, unequal and devoid of common sense.
Balkans in Europe policy blog, 31.07.2017.