The advocate [Natasa Kandic]
by Carlotta Gall, Belgrade
Much of the time in Belgrade, it feels as if nothing is happening in Kosovo.
People complain endlessly about the NATO bombing, and they talk politics all
day, but there is a large hole in the conversation. Barely anyone mentions Koso
vo, let alone the horrors that are occurring there.
Natasa Kandic is one rare exception. She is a slight woman, with dark circles
etched under her eyes behind glasses. A sociologist by profession, she heads the
Humanitarian Law Center, a non-governmental group that has been documenting hu
man rights violations in Yugoslavia since 1992, and supplies material to the in
ternational war crimes tribunal in the Hague.
As the political climate and restrictions on news media here have made it impos
sible to publish material about human rights violations, Ms. Kandic has resorted
to writing and e-mailing a newsletter to friends and news and human rights or
`Intellectual society has changed here', she said, sitting calmly in her modern
offices in Belgrade drinking a mug of coffee. `People saw only the bombs here,
without thinking what is happening in Kosovo and who is the person organizing
She is one of the few Serbian intellectuals to have maintained close collabora
tion with ethnic Albanians on human rights issues and last year won a prize for
her work on democracy and civil society, awarded by the United States and the
She attributes the fact that she is practically alone in her research on Kosovo
to the climate of fear that has paralyzed the intellectual community in Serbia,
and the success of the state propaganda.
Human rights and civic groups have always been allowed to operate in Serbia,
tolerated by the Government while they have remained small. `But for the first
time people feel fear', Ms. Kandic said.
In recent weeks, she said, several hundred people in Serbia, including a number
of her own employees, have been invited by the police for an `informal talk'.
They were questioned about their work for the tribunal at The Hague, and about
other organizations and intellectuals.
Several people have received anonymous letters full of abuse and threats. A
swastika, along with graffiti calling staff members `NATO's spies', was daubed
on the walls of the Fund for an Open Society, which receives funding from the
In everyone's mind, Ms. Kandic said, is the fatal shooting of a well-known pub
lisher, Slavko Curuvija, after he received threats and was denounced on state
television. With representatives of the international cÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
ommunity largely gone
from Belgrade, Curuvija's death cowed everyone else.
`Two days was enough to establish silence', Ms. Kandic said.
Milosevic has also been skillful at turning the NATO bombing campaign to his ad
vantage, exploiting the genuine outrage people feel to block out all memory of
why the bombing started. `Official propaganda succeeded in convincing people
that it is aggression, and that the national task is to defend the country', she
Sonja Licht, head of the Fund for an Open Society Yugoslavia, said a great
majority of people `refuse to talk about' Kosovo. She gathered 27 democracy and
human rights activists in Serbia to sign a statement condemning both the NATO
bombing and the `ethnic cleansing' of Albanians from Kosovo, but even that was
One journalist who is close to some of those who signed said, `They fought over
every word.' In the end at least two people refused to sign the statement be
cause they objected to the inference that `ethnic cleansing' was perpetrated by
`Yugoslav forces' rather than only `paramilitaries'. Ms. Kandic refused to sign
because it did not go far enough.
Many of those working for non-governmental organizations accuse the West of be
traying them and destroying the civil society they were trying to create. The
few organizations that do function concentrate on the humanitarian needs of
Ms. Kandic, virtually alone, is pressing for international support for the peo
ple left in Kosovo, and she has won respect among Serbs and Albanians alike.
Last week she sat reading a letter sent by an Albanian friend in the southern
Kosovo town of Prizren. It was printed to disguise the writing and signed with
just two initials.
The author described the hunger, fear and isolation of the people left in the
town and begged for international aid organizations to come. `If they do not
come we shall die', the letter said.
Ms. Kandic said then that she had already decided on her next trip, but some in
Belgrade say Ms. Kandic is too reckless for her own good.
Soon after NATO began its bombing campaign, when foreign journalists were ex
pelled and Albanians were fleeing Kosovo, Ms. Kandic got into a taxi and per
suaded the driver to take her to Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo.
`I had a human and professional obligation to go', she explained. She had an of
fice in Prishtina, with six local staff members, as well as many friends and
colleagues in Kosovo.
Her first aim was to help them escape, but she was also determined to document
what had happened since 24 March, not least because a colleague and close
friend, the human rights lawyer Bajram Kelmendi, had been arrested by the police
and was later found dead along with his two sons.
In one recent newsletter, she described the fear that gripped members of her
staff as she helped them escape Kosovo. She wrote how she found her office ran
sacked, the computers gone and one of her lawyers `at his wit's end from ter
`I had known he lived in fear that someone might come, knock on his door and
kill him', she said, `but the terror I saw in his eyes made up my mind then and
there to depart immediately'.
This article was first published in The New York Times,
23 May 1999