Serbian human rights defender Nataša Kandić spent decades collecting evidence of Serb crimes in the Yugoslav wars. For this, she is often called a traitor at home. An interview

Oksana Kovalenko
Dmytro Rayevskyi
Serbian human rights defender Nataša Kandić spent decades collecting evidence of Serb crimes in the Yugoslav wars. For this, she is often called a traitor at home. An interview

Nataša Kandić.


Serbian sociologist Nataša Kandić is called differently in her homeland. For some, she is a human rights defender who for years persistently searched for evidence of crimes during the Yugoslav Wars. But for most, Kandić is a traitor to her own people. It was she who found and showed the world a video in which militants of the Serbian "Scorpions" unit shot unarmed Bosnian Muslims near Srebrenica in 1995. In 2005, this recording was shown on TV. It also became an important piece of evidence at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY). There, the events in Srebrenica were recognized as genocide. For this, Kandić was scorned at home for many years, she was pressured and literally spat at by Serbian nationalists. She herself says that even now, after numerous court verdicts on Serb crimes, most of the countryʼs population does not recognize the mistakes of the past, and state propaganda glorifies war criminals. Babel correspondent and lawyer Oksana Kovalenko met with Kandić, who heads the Center for Humanitarian Law, in Belgrade. The human rights defender told how she collected evidence against her fellow citizens for years, despite pressure and threats.

You became a human rights defender even before Yugoslavia officially disintegrated. How was it?

In 1990, intellectuals from Belgrade and Pristina decided to conduct a serious study about the Serbian governmentʼs plans for Kosovo, because even then it was a difficult issue. The study showed that the political goal of Serbia is to cancel the autonomy of Kosovo. Powerful propaganda was already working against the Kosovar Albanians back then. We openly talked about it in the book "Kosovo Knot: Untie or Cut?". But then Milosevic was very popular in Serbia. No one wanted to organize a debate about our research and the book. It was the only important document about the effects of propaganda against the people in Kosovo, which portrayed all Albanians as enemies.

And how did you create a human rights organization?

In 1991, wars began. At first, we organized actions against the war, made petitions so that the citizens of Serbia would not be mobilized for the war against Croatia. After that, I created an organization that professionally, based on methodology, investigated what happened. At that time, no one was doing this in Serbia.

We started working in 1992. First, we documented the crimes, then cooperated with the International Tribunal during Milosevicʼs time. And then we supported the national prosecutorʼs office — it tried to work efficiently, but could not bring victims from other countries to interrogate. But we could easily go to Croatia or Bosnia, talk to people, explain to them how important it is to come and testify.

We documented crimes in Foča and Srebrenica. Many people tried to escape from Srebrenica across the river and ended up in Serbia. There, the Serbian authorities created a camp for them, we managed to get there and gather information. Or, for example, Bjelina, a city located an hour and a half away from Belgrade, where there were many Muslims, they began to be oppressed. We talked with them and wrote, in particular, about the murders. At that time, the media in Serbia still published such information, every report could be verified, and no one could accuse us of lying.

How did people react to the fact that you were gathering evidence against the Serbs?

Until 1990, there were independent professional mass media in Serbia. They wrote about the crimes of the Serbian military in Bosnia and Croatia. And you know, at that time some citizens deeply condemned these crimes.

At the same time, the pro-government mass media were against the tribunal and called it "anti-Serbian". Several journalists testified against Serbian officials at the International Tribunal — many calling them traitors. Prosecutors [of the tribunal] could not come to Serbia to talk to some of the victims, even in the case of the Čelebići camp, where the victims were Serbs. But still, at that time we had a strong civil society that supported the tribunal, because we saw the military policy of Serbia, we saw tanks going to Croatia from Belgrade.

In 1999, everything changed — the conflict with Kosovo began, and it has a special meaning for the Serbs. In our country, people simply did not understand that 96% of its population are Albanians, not Serbs. Now if you ask people, they will all say that Kosovo is Serbian territory. And mass media in 1999 also changed their approach.

What changed when Milosevic lost power?

From 2002 to 2011, Serbia actively cooperated with the tribunal: there were many trials, many indictments, a healthy atmosphere.

And then in 2011, everything changed.

Yes. Then people from the party of [Vojislav] Šešelj came to power. Nationalist rhetoric began to dominate, now instead of the word "traitors" public activists are called "enemies". Even today I had a trial, because the former deputy speaker of the parliament wrote on social networks last year that my father was the murderer of 27 Serbian boys. They picked up on this lie and began to accuse me. I appealed to the court. The judge is due to rule soon.

In November 2023, Serbian human rights defender Aida Korovic, together with other activists, tried to paint a mural of Ratko Mladic. The mural was created in 2021 on one of the houses in Belgrade — a month after Mladicʼs conviction. On the day of the action, the mural was guarded by Serbian law enforcement officers. They detained Korovic when she threw several eggs at the mural. She was accused of violating public order. The court fined Korovic $900. Activists collected money, but the law enforcement officers said that she did not pay the fine, and therefore she should serve her sentence in prison.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

You have found an important piece of evidence about the murders in Srebrenica in 1995. How did you find out about it and how did you find it?

In 2002, a trial began in Serbia regarding the killing of children by the “Scorpions” in Kosovo. The trial was held in a small town, former soldiers of the unit came to the meeting, completely filled the courtroom and put pressure on the judge. We insisted that the trial be moved to Belgrade. Many people, including children, gave evidence there. Suddenly one of the former “Scorpions” called me and said that he was ready to testify, invited me to come to his city. At the meeting, he said that he had read about the case in the newspaper and would like to tell what he knows, but he is afraid that he might be killed.

I spoke with the prosecutor and the judge, we agreed that he would testify anonymously. He was very afraid. I invited him to come to my place and just stay for a while. It was important for the relatives of the victims to hear how a member of the “Scorpions” described their crime.

He was afraid to return to his city and spent four weeks in my apartment. We talked a lot. I, in turn, talked to the investigators of the International Aggression Tribunal, and they said that it was important to have him as a witness. But for this, it is necessary to take him out of Serbia — it was dangerous for him to stay there.

While we waited, he told us about Srebrenica and the video tape with the important recording — about a hundred copies, many of which were destroyed. He did not know if even one had been preserved and where it could be, but he advised where to go and who to ask about the tape. Later he was transferred to The Hague, he testified in some trials, and we tried to find the tape.

One day another member of the “Scorpions” approached me and said he had a tape. Instead, he requested guarantees of protection for himself and his family from the International Tribunal. I talked about it with the investigators of the ICTY — they agreed. In November 2004, he gave me the film. I had to keep quiet until he left the country.

In May 2005, he was already safe, and I was able to make the recording public: I invited several people from the American embassy and we went to the prosecutorʼs office. There we all watched the film together. The prosecutor immediately said that he had no doubts about its authenticity and ordered the police to arrest the members of the “Scorpions”. The trial has begun.

You also gave the tape to the mass media.

Yes, to the independent channel B92. After that, people called us for three days and thanked us for the truth. We did not expect this. People did not listen to another story about the crime, they saw everything with their own eyes. A Serbian soldier was seen standing behind a young Bosnian boy and asking him before shooting him: "Have you ever slept with a girl?". He answers: "No." And the soldier told him: "Well, you will never sleep." It was so strong that people took the side of the victims. Today, unfortunately, something similar is impossible.

Relatives honor the memory of six Bosniaks, who were shot in the forest in July 1995 by the fighters of the Serbian unit "Scorpions". The murder of these six men was on the tape obtained by Kandic.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

What was the reaction of the authorities?

On the very first day, they said: we will not justify these crimes. All the guilty will be punished, the institutions of Serbia will take responsibility for this. But the very next day, the President of Serbia, Boris Tadic, declared that the “Scorpions” are a criminal group that has no connection with the state. In this way, the government shut down the conversation about the genocide, about the responsibility of Serbia, and after that we never had an open debate.

What do you think made that fighter talk about the tape and confess?

When the war began, he was a member of the Serbian Radical Party. He went to fight in Croatia because he believed that the Serbs were in danger. But he realized that it was a lie. He lived with me, talked with me, read various books, I think something changed in him then. Years later, when he was under protection and living under a different name, he agreed to be interviewed for a documentary about the “Scorpions”.

And why did the “Scorpions” film their crime at all?

It was not a crime for them. Killing Muslims, enemies, is heroism. There is a moment in our film when the priest gives the Scorpions an instruction: "You go to protect the Serbs, you go to fight against the Muslims."

During which case was this tape shown at the ICTY?

In the Milosevic case.

Were there court hearings in Serbia in this case?

Yes. But since in Serbia at the time of the hearing the code contained neither crimes against humanity nor the crime of genocide, the qualification was different. The court in Belgrade convicted five "Scorpions" members for the murders.

In 2010, the Serbian parliament passed a resolution recognizing what happened in Srebrenica as a "horrible crime" but not genocide. This is despite the decision of the UN International Court of Justice, despite the verdict of the tribunal. Today, there is not a single politician in Serbia who would admit that there was a genocide in Srebrenica. It is recognized by a few, a minority even in civil society. Currently, there are many public organizations in Serbia that were created by the state, and they work to make it appear that the society also does not recognize the genocide.

Serbia will now try to do everything to prevent a debate in the UN on the resolution on the anniversary of Srebrenica as the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Genocide.

I saw inscriptions on houses in Belgrade with the name of Ratko Mladic, who was convicted of genocide in Srebrenica. Is he considered a hero?

Yes, if we talk about whether the Serbs recognize their war crimes, the situation is worse now than in 1991, when the war began. Currently, there are no strong independent media and civil society is weak. The government and a significant part of the opposition do not support the verdicts of the International Criminal Tribunal and the decisions of the UN International Court of Justice regarding Srebrenica. We have a growing youth who believe in the official Serbian explanation of what happened in Srebrenica, and that the ICTY is an anti-Serbian court, and Ratko Mladic deserves respect. They believe that he protected his people and prevented the genocide against the Serbs.

Serbian politicians conduct effective propaganda. For example, they explain that the Serbs are being "made into a genocidal nation", but in reality no one says that.

Ratko Mladic, July 1995.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

Do you think the NATO bombings helped the authorities to make this propaganda more effective?

Yes, this is an element of propaganda. NATO bombed some civilian objects, radio and television of Serbia, for example. After Milosevic lost power, the NATO bombing was not much talked about in Serbian society. Everything changed when Vucic came — then the "new truth" about the bombing appeared, he started talking about thousands of dead.

But we conducted an investigation, collected names and came to the conclusion that 745 people died from the bombings, and half of them were Albanians, because NATO bombed a convoy of refugees from Kosovo. I cannot understand why this happened, maybe because the police were following them. But Vucic and others continue to talk about thousands of victims on each anniversary of the bombings. This year, however, some media did tell the truth — citing our research, they said that 745 people died then, not "thousands." As for Vučić, he talks a lot about the bombings, but not about what caused them and not about the crimes committed by the Serbs in Kosovo.

So the authorities are trying to hide their actions in Kosovo and shift the focus?

Exactly. Our database has all the facts. In 78 days, Serbian forces killed about 7,000 Albanian civilians. We know about this because we prepared a book about missing persons. And three times a week in X, we publish short stories about what happened before the NATO bombing in Kosovo. Of course, we will also publish information about what happened in Serbia, but there are no missing persons there.

I also heard that the bodies of people killed in Kosovo at that time are still being found, and one of the graves was near Belgrade.

Yes. We have a total of about 900 Albanians killed in Kosovo, their bodies transported to Serbia. The largest Albanian burial ground outside Belgrade in Batajnica is a police camp. When it became clear that NATO might intervene, in May 1999 Serbian forces secretly moved the bodies from Kosovo to Batajnica. In May of this year, we will ask to officially tell the truth about these bodies, because they were transported secretly, the police kept silent.

Bodies of murdered Albanians found at the police base in Batajnica.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

And what was the reaction of the Serbs when these mass graves were discovered?

There has been much debate that these are supposed to be bodies from WWII. In general, Serbian politicians preferred not to comment on such things.

Serbia believes that the tribunal was anti-Serbian. I looked over some decisions, and there were sentences for crimes against Serbs. Did the Serbian media write about them, do people know about them?

No one can say that the ICTY accused and convicted innocent people — there are testimonies and evidence. This is the end of the discussion. As for crimes against Serbs, Serbian mass media usually do not follow such trials. There is only one network of journalists that does this.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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Oksana Kovalenko
Dmytro Rayevskyi
International Tribunal
Human Rights in Action

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