Part IV: Scorpions

 

I am in front of a Scorpion. His name is Momcilo. The phoenix tattooed on the necks of such men means there’s no chance of mistaking them. The Scorpions were the most feared Serb paramilitary unit during the Bosnia and Kosovo wars. In one infamous video which went round the world, we saw them laughing at several Bosnian civilians who are packed into a truck on the roadside in 1995. Later, they executed them.

A few days ago, when we were in Belgrade, we met Natasa Kandic, a renowned Serbian human rights activist who dedicates her time to bringing war criminals like the Scorpions to court. She faces countless difficulties, with judges and prosecutors discharging detainees, and police officers refusing to cooperate. But despite the frustrations and only slight chance of success, Natasa says the process is essential if Serbian society is to become aware of the recent past and take responsibility for it. Due to the propaganda machinery set up by Milosevic, she says, many Serbs still believe that the Srebrenica killings and the massive deportation of Albanians in 1999 are stories fabricated by the Americans to turn the world against Serbia. Even today, the government has refused to reconstruct the Ministry of Defence, bombed by NATO in 1999, so as to continue making Serbs feel like the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of war and killings.

It is a strange feeling after meeting Natasa, and hearing about her crusade to establish truth and bring people like the Scorpions to Court, to find ourselves sitting in front of one of them. Momcilo is a community leader in Northern Mitrovica and is giving us a talk on the situation in the Serb-dominated area of northern Kosovo. His manners are calm, and his English excellent. He explains the problems Serbs face, most notably the fact that the Mitrovica court is still closed after incidents during which one Ukranian peacekeeper was killed, and how difficult life is for Serbs in Mitrovica and other enclaves.

What Momcilo does not tell us is that there is parallel security administration operating in the area, composed of Serbian security forces and intelligence services, and that it is very likely that he is the link between them and more visible institutions like the NGO he runs or the Kosovo police force, which some Serbs have joined. The ‘Bridge Watchers’ of Mitrovica are part of this set up. They sit, sipping coffee in cafes that overlook the bridge over the Ibar that divides their city, monitoring the Albanians, Serbs and members of the international community who pass by.

Some people claim that the remaining Serb ultra-nationalists, like this Scorpion, have a vested interested in the situation not improving. They are said to be the ones benefitting personally from lawlessness, profiting from all sort of illicit activies. This would hardly be a surprise: ethnic wars in the Balkans have been quite a profitable business for nationalists on all sides. Hiding behind their weapons and aggressive rhetoric, they’ve made impressive fortunes.

So is Momcilo sincere when he speaks of practical cooperation with the government in Pristina? Is this simply a well rehearsed speech, telling foreign listeners what they want to hear? It is hard to say. But sincere or not, it matters that he has swapped a murderous paramilitary group for an NGO dedicated to community building. Even if this is a façade, a continuation of war by other means, it feels like progress. And you can see the results on the ground: compared to other divided cities, there is now little barbed wire at all in Mitrovica. Although tensions are high, the number of inter-ethnic incidents has dramatically decreased since independence.

Do Scorpions hold the key to the future of the Western Balkans? In Serbia, Natasa would argue that their prosecution could force people to face the past. In Kosovo, Momcilo’s seeming conversion could pave the way towards an accommodation with independence. One thing seems certain to me now this trip is drawing to a close – they know they have lost, and Kosovan independence is irreversible.

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