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The Truth-Teller: Natasa Kandic, Urging Serbs To Face The Past

"The main impression...after being 15 minutes in her presence is that she is not frightened," a colleague says of Natasa Kandic (above).
"The main impression...after being 15 minutes in her presence is that she is not frightened," a colleague says of Natasa Kandic (above).
Natasa Kandic has been the frequent target of death threats and vicious pressure campaigns. But the 60-something lawyer still rides the public bus every day to work.

She says it gives her a valuable chance to talk to ordinary people -- fans and critics alike.

For Kandic, who has spent the past two decades defending war victims and challenging the Serbian elite to face up to the crimes of the past, the thirst for dialogue outweighs any sense of fear.

"I'm a human rights activist and it's my choice in life," she says. "I was afraid only once, after Kosovo independence, because the media and ordinary people were invited by the state institutions to be against me because I showed that I support Kosovo independence. But no, I'm not afraid. I'm only very concerned regarding the situation in Serbia."

Kandic is the founder of the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade, one of the foremost human rights organizations engaged in peace and reconciliation efforts in the Balkans.

Founded in 1992, the center has sought to document and prosecute cases of rape, torture, and murder committed during the brutal ethnic wars that rocked the former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1999.

First-Hand Reporting

Kandic is widely credited with providing critical evidence on Serbia's role in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian Muslim men and boys.

Her release of a video documenting the Scorpions, a Serbian paramilitary group, executing six Bosnian Muslims eventually led to the delivery of the Srebrenica masterminds -- Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander, Ratko Mladic -- to the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
Is it normal to appoint a general who didn't prevent those crimes? The government should answer that."
Natasa Kandic

Kandic is also cited for reporting first-hand on atrocities committed by Serbian forces against ethnic Albanian civilians during the war in Kosovo in 1998-99. Summary executions, arbitrary detentions, and widespread looting were all reported in Kosovo during what was characterized as a Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign aimed at burying an independence drive in the restive province.

Serbia reluctantly initiated domestic war crimes trials in 2003 to address allegations of Serbian atrocities. Sian Jones, a Balkans researcher with Amnesty International, says Kandic has been instrumental in persuading Kosovar victims to testify against their Serbian attackers.

"Advocating for the end to impunity for war crimes in Serbia is an extremely difficult task, and there are people within the elite and within political society and elsewhere who would rather she did not do that," Jones says. "And she's done that amid very, very difficult circumstances, and with an enormous amount of opposition."

'Is It Normal?'

Kandic's latest battle has caused some of the fiercest opposition yet.
Ljubisa Dikovic, Serbia's new army chief of staff
Ljubisa Dikovic, Serbia's new army chief of staff
Citing Hague testimony, the lawyer last week claimed that Serbia's new army chief of staff, Ljubisa Dikovic, is unfit for the post because of alleged war crimes -- including the Izbica massacre of at least 130 Kosovar Albanian men -- committed under his watch as a commanding officer during the Kosovo campaign.

Kandic acknowledges that Dikovic and his army units may not have played a direct role in the killings. His transgression, she argues, was in failing to prevent them.

"Is it normal to appoint a general who didn't prevent those crimes?" she asks. "The government should answer that."

Serbian officials have roared back, with Defense Minister Dragan Sutanovac calling Kandic's claims "monstrous" and war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic lashing out at the Humanitarian Law Center for what he characterized as an anti-Serbia stance.

Kandic admits to being "surprised" at the vehemence of the response. But she's far from intimidated. If Serbia is to build a promising future, she says, it has to start by taking an honest look at its past.

"If we want changes, if we want a democratic future, if we want to see Serbia as a member of the European Union," Kandic says, "it means that we need new people who will take responsibility for past abuses and base the future on the need to respect victims, and to try to organize everything in a way that pays attention to the victims for their suffering and their need for justice."

Relying On The Truth

Kandic's notoriety at home stands in sharp contrast to the numerous human rights awards and accolades from global watchdogs like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch.

But even at home, Kandic has her admirers. Sandra Orlovic, the deputy executive director of the Humanitarian Law Center, was a young law graduate when she joined Kandic's team in 2004.

The first thing she learned from her formidable boss, she says, was that "we need to rely on facts, on the truth about what happened in the former Yugoslavia."

"She continued to be present in Kosovo and to document all the horrible things that had happened there," Orlovic says. "The main impression of Natasa after being 15 minutes in her presence is that she is not frightened, and that she will risk everything for the truth for her victims and their rights."

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