I wanted to join the protests straight from the airport. Despite the trip from Segovia to Belgrade being long, cold and made harder by a rather heavy duffle bag (why did I not pack a suitcase?!), I found it most cumbersome that by the time I landed, I would be three hours behind on what was happening in the city center.
I ran to hug my mom, who texted me just two nights prior to let me know she was “on the way to protests, will probably drink some tear gas”. Some 15 minutes later, while huddled up in a familiar vehicle, I was informed the protest was done for the day. My disappointment was immense. So much for getting an evening flight.
Following the extraordinary parliamentary and local elections on December 17th, the Serbian National Center for Monitoring (CRTA) held a press conference in which they detailed numerous irregularities in the electoral process, especially in the local elections for Belgrade. Television cameras recorded buses with citizens from Bosnia and Herzegovina being driven to Serbia’s capital to vote in local elections, with the opposition accusing the ruling party of importing as many as 40,000 illegal voters. Observers and controllers say many of these people could not state their alleged addresses in Belgrade, yet were allowed to vote.
Protests broke out the following day, with thousands of people gathering in front of the National Commission for Elections and two opposition politicians starting a hunger strike. Violent responses did not escalate until December 24th, when the protesters broke the glass door and attempted to enter City Council. They were greeted with tear gas and excessive force of armed members of the police.
Mere four days after my return home, the masses barked at the City Council in Belgrade. Woof woof, or its Serbian onomatopoeic equivalent, AV AV, mocked the president’s initials. The glass doors of the Council were broken hours ago, almost to the minute a week from the closing of the ballots, and the only barrier between opposition politicians and the office they claimed was rightfully theirs were police cordons, “the hounds”.
The president’s address to the public sounded from a nearby stranger’s mobile phone, “Rogues were on the streets of Belgrade”. He remarked that less than 2,000 people were responsible for the unrest, while the National Archive of Public Gatherings later confirmed the number was closer to 7,000.
People around me were anything but rogues. I saw University professors, agriculture workers I met during ecological protests two years ago, students, and parents with children. I saw the most fierce and honest reflection of Serbia, and it was in no part due to the flags flying above my head.
At some point, an older man with a camera bumped into me, pushed by crowds towards the door. No accreditation visible, probably not a journalist. I asked which lens he was using to shoot this late in the evening, and he spent the next 15 minutes going into great detail about both the lens and the camera.
“Try it for yourself”, he told me.
I tried to refuse, there were too many people, too much pushing, too much noise, and that lens probably cost more than my kidney. He wouldn’t budge, and I ended up taking a few shots from where I stood in the crowd. I doubt they were any good, considering I was the shortest non-toddler around.
Sometime later, just as I was starting to lose my voice from calling out “thieves, thieves”, my mom grabbed my sleeve and dragged me towards an empty street. A veteran from the demonstrations against the socialist regime in the 90s, she sensed something was off.
We barely rounded the corner when the police threw tear gas and attacked the crowd with batons.
A good friend of mine was close to the City Council entrance. In panic, I called him from a nearby McDonald’s, to no avail. I heard others making similar calls, some getting responses, others not. It wasn’t until hours later that I got a selfie, swollen face in the foreground, and a short “all good” from my friend.
The police arrested 38 students that night, and their families were not given information about where their children were being held until over 24 hours later. Most of them were charged with a forceful attempt to overthrow constitutional order.
A viral video captured an 18 year old, having his jacket and shirt torn and being beaten across the back with a baton, despite being unarmed. According to the Serbian Law On Police, the usage of a baton is permitted only if the person presents an active threat to the officer or others, and may only be used to hit extremities.
Those “rogues” he mentioned also included a group of academics and intellectuals gathered under the name ProGlas, whose protest was organized days later, with over 17,000 citizens in attendance. Students came straight from the main Knez Miloševa street, which they blocked for a day by setting up camp.
That crowd was full of regular people, too. My friend’s mom, my mom’s classmate from high school, my friends of various ages studying Journalism and Political Science in Belgrade, an 84 year old man who stood on wobbly legs, but stood proud nonetheless.
While Marinika Tepić, the opposition leader that went on a 14-day hunger strike, was locked out of the Republic Commission for Elections on the night of the City Council protest, and could not get her IV fluids with electrolytes that were left inside, while a government supporter said “he trusted her to remain true to herself and her strike until (her) very end” on national television, while students spent their blockades playing card games, volleyball and slightly out of tune guitars, the president had the decency to call those demanding justice “rogues”.
The democratic struggle for the freedom of Serbian citizens’ choices is nowhere near done, and civil action is expected to continue in the coming months, in hopes of preventing the formation of the new parliament.
If nowhere else, on a camera of a man whose name I did not catch remain blurry photographs of a group of strangers I never saw before, and probably will not recognize the next time we find ourselves in the same protest crowd, as proof that we are no rogues.