I was asked to say a few words today, as we bid a final farewell to Srdja Popovic, as one of the editors of the Hourglass, the platform from which in the last decade Srdja publicly spoke. This is how the two of us got into his life and he in ours. We spent the wars of the 1990s, the madness for two between the leader and his people, on opposite sides of the ocean. When he came back after 5 October he said: “I came to see if I can live here and if I am needed.” We needed him and, as it seems, he needed us. Our first interview with him looked more like him putting us to a test, and the test came down to two unspoken questions: whether what happened in Srebrenica was genocide and who broke up Yugoslavia. What followed was an inevitable conclusion – 1991 was the year we first died.
Srdja enjoyed company when he ate out at Madera so he put us into his weekly schedule. We talked for hours and almost exclusively about Serbia. When we were abroad, we became each other’s reason for returning. When we stayed longer we received text messages: “It’s time to come back,” lovely words from a friend. As you know, when you step out of Serbia, no matter where, you feel a strong urge never to return. This is how in a way we set up our lives with Srdja: someone was always home waiting.
A few years ago he said it was time to form a new Yugoslavia: we concluded that it would be inappropriate for the initiative to come from Serbia, that is, from the three of us. “Croats would get annoyed,” he said, “they’d think we want Greater Serbia again, we’ll have to wait a bit longer.” The dream of a new Yugoslavia was like dreaming we could fly, that we could rise above the lairs in which we cornered ourselves, from which we then either snarled or whimpered.
Srdja was interested almost exclusively in people, human relations, human ideas. When Svetlana was telling him about redwood trees and dunes on the Pacific coast, and I about the latest Hubble images of the universe or the Higgs boson, to Svetlana he’d reply with descriptions of Belgrade from his youth and my remark would be politely brushed aside.
We did not always agree with him, because he was thinking too fast for us. He was the first to realize that October 5 was not a revolution but a coup, and we were angry with him like children. Sometimes he was too slow and too cautious for us: he didn’t want to speak publicly about the Djindjic assassination trial before the trial ended; it was hard for us to accept his tactics and legal reasons. As the trial drew to a close, he grew lonelier, in the courtroom and in the Serbian public. He was so alone that even he was surprised. He could not comprehend how after the May Overthrow our forefathers, unlike us, were able to form the Society for a Legal Resolution of the Conspirator Problem. Srdja devoted several years of his life to this trial, and not just any years, knowing that it was to be his last great achievement.
He loved the story of the German philosopher Fichte, who once in Berlin came before his audience and said he was taking them hostage. The listeners needed to know, Fichte told them, that from that moment – because they were listening to him – they were his hostages, and they that from that moment on they could never say they knew nothing or heard nothing. This is what I remembered the other night while I was editing a selection of interviews with Srdja Popovic for the Hourglass. What he says is binding and after that no one can pretend they didn’t know or didn’t hear.
Unlike many people who were also intelligent he did not care if his conclusions often threw his listeners into despair; he would not break the barometer only because it predicted a storm. Srdja also mastered the indispensable, almost magical asset of the human voice: it can convey the truth which by its utterance becomes undeniable. We often had this exceptional feeling that what he was saying was a stark truth.
This brings me to a personal problem that his departure opens. How do I know what is left of me now that he is gone? How do I connect with myself of 10 years ago, before I met Srdja Popovic? This is a problem of personal desolation after his departure.
Of course, his ideas will live on forever; we remember the resoluteness of those ideas, the things which were not open for debate. We feel very strongly about them: a crime is a crime, a disaster is a disaster, a lie is a lie, 1 plus 1 equals 2. He used to say: I say something and then I wait 10 years for people to agree with me. We found this waiting on Serbia equally hard to cope with. Our meetings at Madera were often utopian and cheerful, because we began our conversations and projections of reality from the point at which those ten years of waiting have passed. And the time to act has come, the time for Serbia to flourish. Then he used to said, “We just get upset about Serbia, we are the true nationalists, not them.”
He spent a good part of his life in New York, but he loved this damn city and his native Palilula. He especially loved Belgrade in the summer, when it’s deserted, when he could walk about like he was taking a stroll through his life, all the way to that moment when he was small and barefoot and Sava was clear and when with other boys he stole watermelons from the barges. Then they would swim to shore pushing those watermelons that spun in the water and smash them on the beach and eat them until they make a mess of themselves. Then they would jump into the water to wash up. He described this as a scene of pure joy.
“There’s this cloud that comes and just hovers over Belgrade,” he said, “hanging over our heads from November to April.” Since he told us about his illness two weeks ago, right up till today, blue and yellow days of Indian summer have been passing. Right at this moment, one of our listeners from Krakow is climbing mount Turbacz with his son in Srdja’s honor. Then Sunday and Monday will come and, I’m afraid, that gray and heavy cloud of his.
I stand before you not only as one of the two Cecas who Srdja, I hope, considered his friends, but also as one of the editors of the Hourglass which for all these years has been serving those who did not use freedom of speech as a compensation for freedom of thought. I asked four of our contributors to help me write this speech:
Vesna Pesic said that “the emptiness that is spreading after his death is not caused by the loss of a great lawyer, but the loss of a man who had something to say and whose words had weight, they were listened to and waited for. The political, that which affects the community and each individual, is what was most important to him and what interested him the most. Srdja loved politics in the best sense of the word: as a sense of community and reflection on the community that cannot be separated from moral values. At the time of the country’s breakup, of wars and mass atrocities, Srdja set the highest standards of accountability and justice. He was not worried that he was in the minority. On the contrary, he constantly repeated the majority is misguided and that the majority is not and cannot be the moral arbiter of what is good or bad.
His perfect sense of our meanderings and disasters, as well as those almost flawless analyses he communicated on the Hourglasss in a calm voice and well-grounded sentences will be sorely missed. His every public appearance was notable because he was a touchstone. We always wondered – what will Srdja say.”
Vesna Rakic-Vodinelic said that “he was the ultimate level of civil courage, of common sense and intellectual curiosity. Whatever he spoke or written about, the listener had to feel embarrassed by their own cynicism and conformity.
Srdja Popovic’s professional legal heritage was immense and fortunately it is preserved. One part of it can be summarized in an important lesson: We must act as if we are living in a legal state, although we are aware that it is nowhere to be found.”
“In the final period of his life, Srdja Popovic finally started writing books,” says Svetlana Slapsak, “His writing is a great example of precise thinking and a great example of what in the history of literature is known as – the Belgrade style.
What he did in life could be considered an example of the ideal citizen. He genuinely detested all kinds of control and every restriction of liberty. In the case of Srdja Popovic, this huge effort to perfect oneself was also marked by something that many people today do not even know how to recognize – a perfect style.”
Branka Prpa sent us the following last night from Hvar, “How can we summarize someone’s life without pathos and explain why they were important for us? When Srdja is concerned, it is doubly challenging. His presence or omnipresence was very discreet. Initiating and supporting independent media, but never interfering, even when he disagreed with them. He always spoke out from his own individuality, never looking for supporters of applause.
Why was he important for us, even though he never tried to be? We were never united, but we always shared unity. The beauty of unity, you could say. Srdja was always around, just in case, if things become unthinkable and inextricable.
He was like a beacon that always shed a cruel on the darkness that surrounded us. Why cruel? Because it was impossible to hide anything on this horrific picture that emerged from the darkness.
Death is a sentimental category. How does this sentiment work in Srdja’s case? Through sympathy, maybe. Through the loss of Man. Through the lost decades which add up to a 100 years of solitude? Maybe that is the misfortune of this place: that the best among us leave so quickly that we never get the chance to tell them how much they mean to us. We never manage to say goodbye.”
Translated by Ivica Pavlovic