Hanging Out With Belgrade's Pro-Genocide Brigade
Last Thursday, the 26th of May, Serb police found Europe's most wanted war criminal Ratko Mladic hiding in a farm house. During his time as a military officer in the Bosnian Serb army, Mladic was responsible for the death of over 20,000 Muslims and Sarajevans. To many ethnic Serbs, however, Mladic is not a war criminal, he's a war hero, and any suggestion that his formidable kill tally might make him the latter is swiftly dismissed as Western propaganda. So imagine how pissed off they all were when Mladic's boss Radovan Karadzic – former President of the Serb Republic – was arrested three years ago.
In 2008, the Serbian people weren't yet accustomed to the idea of their deposed leader looking like Dr Noel Sharkey after a few sneaky blasts on Craig Charles' crack pipe. In their mind's eyes, Karadzic still had both more hair and more authority than Mladic, so it's easy to see why babes like these turned out alongside your usual array of stonewashed Serb nationalists and far-right football hooligans to wage war against the three key tenets of UN-administered Western imperialism: police, tourists and McDonald's loathed Filet-O-Fish.
The guy in the middle is Radovan's brother Luka Karadzic. He took to the streets every day to rail against the unjust prosecution of a genocide-prone war criminal who was responsible for the single biggest atrocity in Europe since World War II. To his left stands Mladen Obradovic, leader of Obraz, a nationalist group who believe that all "Zionists, Democrats, Gays, Muslims, Croats and Criminals are enemies of Serbia". They make the EDL look like playschool bullies and have a knack for attacking police with flares at football matches.
Before you cry "Nazi!" at the weird three-fingered salute that looks like a Nazi salute, you should know that these guys hate the Nazis as their heroes Tito and the Partizans fought against Hitler. The three-fingered salute is in fact a Serb nationalist salute linked to the Holy Trinity and the fact that Serbian people traditionally say hello by kissing each other three times. Cutest nationalist symbol EVER!
It seems football hooligan fashion is pan-European. These guys would move along the flanks of the protest harassing any foreign photographers and cameramen who got too close to the Serbian pure bloods.
The police presence was pretty apocalyptic and with good reason, earlier in the year nationalist groups rioted for a whole week when Kosovo declared independence, burning down the US embassy and smashing up any shop that sold anything produced in the West.
The first protest finished with little fanfare, but, being curious and naive, I decided to follow the other protests throughout the week. On the Wednesday the guy above, Serb MP Ongzjen Mihailovic, decided to give me a guided tour of the protest, introducing me to people who fought with him during the Bosnian War and plying me with genocidal memorabilia. He declared that Karadzic and Mladic were both great leaders who were guilty of nothing, before going on to speak eloquently about his hatred of the West while wearing a jacket championing the most successful basketball team in American history.
Confirming the fact that Eastern bloc pop culture lags about 40 years behind our own was this guy, who kept walking around telling everyone who'd listen that the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent people was "really groovy, man."
The protesters were lead along their route by some kids dressed up in paramilitary uniforms shouting songs about how Kosovo is still part of Serbia and the pro-Western President, Boris Tadic, should kill himself when they walked past his house. Wonder if he's still got those Pokemon cards I gave him?
Wondering why this photograph is blurry and everyone's running towards me? That's what happens when a Karadzic supporter points a handgun at a cop outside the President's residence, prompting a police baton charge and lots of flash grenades.
After surviving my first baton charge, Ongjzen told me I should definitely be in town for Sunday when Karadzic supporters from all over the former Yugoslavia would be holding a rally. With a twinkle in his eye he assured me that there would be trouble. Not wanting to miss out, I stayed on for an extra day and watched 30,000 people get drunk in central Belgrade and listen to some speeches made by TV personalities, members of Karadzic's family and transvestite pop singers.
Surrounding the protest was a huge ring of police, all looking at me piteously as if they knew what was coming. Would Ongjzen's prophecy of senseless violence come to fruition, I thought to myself?
When the speeches finished, all the drunk, angry nationalists were bored and looking for something to do, so like a scene out of Braveheart they all charged bare chested at lines of riot police with me in the middle. I was punched because I was English before the rioters started throwing paving slabs and bottle rockets, to which the police responded with tear gas, lots and lots of tear gas. Students: If you ever complain about police brutality and riot tactics in this country again, go and spend a week in Serbia and maybe you'll learn to love our cops for being the big, fluffy poodles that they are.
The rioting lasted around 45 minutes. Most rioters were swiftly beaten, shot with rubber bullets and tear gassed into submission leaving behind an epic amount of debris and dropped makeshift weapons.
So after a week of constant protests, outbreaks of violence and nationalist fervour, Karadzic was finally extradited the next day leaving behind a lot of angry young men waiting for the next occasion to fight the police. So far, it seems the Serbian authorities have learnt their lessons from the rioting in 2008 and the extradition of Mladic should go without a hitch.
Disclaimer: These photographs in no way represent the majority of Serbs, who plied me with alcohol, chocolate and good vibes rather than pro-genocidal rhetoric and punches to the face.
WORDS AND PHOTOS BY HENRY LANGSTON