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After Two Mass Shootings In Serbia, Grief, Blame, And A Search For Answers

People leave flowers, toys and candles outside the school in Belgrade on May 4.
People leave flowers, toys and candles outside the school in Belgrade on May 4.

BELGRADE -- People in the hundreds, many of them clutching flowers, many of them young, gathered outside the school in the Serbian capital of Belgrade on May 4 that was the site just a day before of one of the Balkan country's bloodiest mass shootings.

A 13-year-old boy is alleged to have used his father's guns to kill eight of his schoolmates and a security guard at the Vladislav Ribnikar primary school on May 3. The boy was arrested at the scene and has been placed in a psychiatric clinic.

As Serbia was observing a three-day mourning period for the victims of the school shooting, late on May 4, at least eight people were killed and 14 wounded after a gunman in a moving car opened fire on passersby south of the Serbian capital.

The 21-year-old male in that attack is alleged to have used an automatic weapon to shoot randomly at people in several villages near Mladenovac, 50 kilometers south of Belgrade. He was on the run for hours before being arrested early on May 5, police said.

The two incidents have shocked Serbia and prompted much soul-searching -- and, inevitably, plenty of blame.

Serbian Education Minister Branko Ruzic pinned the school shooting in part on the "cancerous influence of the Internet, video games, and so-called Western values." At a press conference on May 3 in Belgrade, Ruzic said that Serbia was "unfortunately part of the world where things like this happen more and more often."

"It is clear to all of us that major change is needed, the tightening of measures, but also a systemic solution, so that this tragedy does not become a socially acceptable form of behavior, as is, unfortunately, the case in some Western societies," Ruzic said without elaborating further.

The remarks earned Ruzic a rebuke and calls for his resignation. On May 4, the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR), a Serbian-based NGO, called for the dismissal of Ruzic for politicizing the school shooting.

Education Minister Branko Ruzic (file photo)
Education Minister Branko Ruzic (file photo)

"By declaring that 'the system did not fail' and accusing 'Western values, the Internet, and video games', Minister Ruzic, instead of taking responsibility and resigning, did not miss the opportunity to recklessly politically abuse a great tragedy," the organization said in a statement.

Students interviewed by RFE/RL's Balkan Service seemed to agree that some officials were trying to find scapegoats for the school tragedy.

Ognjen Tutic, a 24-year-old student from Sremska Mitrovica in the Serbian region of Vojvodina, said it was "irresponsible" to point the finger at the West or video games. "The tragedy is huge, unfathomable, and it is completely irresponsible to talk about who is to blame in that way, and especially to point the finger at the West [or] video games.... What, are we tilting at windmills?" Tutic told RFE/RL.

Ognjen Tutic
Ognjen Tutic

Instead of blaming the West, 19-year-old student Jovana Zujovic said Serbia needed to start looking for answers in the home. "I think that the way we raise children is the first factor that determines how children comprehend content on the Internet. This should be resolved through a conversation with parents," she said.

Jovana Zujovic
Jovana Zujovic

Twenty-year-old Marija Duric from Belgrade agreed, telling RFE/RL that instead of the West, the authorities had failed to pay proper attention to dysfunctional families and the school system itself. "We blame the West for everything. That child wouldn't have done that if he had a happy life. If he was happy, he wouldn't have that amount of anger to kill someone," Duric said.

The European Movement in Serbia (EMINS), a Belgrade-based NGO, also slammed Education Minister Ruzic for his remarks and called for his resignation. "It is unfortunate that such an event is used for daily political purposes.... The government must take responsibility for promoting hate speech and intolerance, shaping public opinion at its discretion, as well as creating a dominant feeling of anxiety," EMINS said in a statement.

Ruzic has held the post of education minister since October 2020. He is a member of the Socialist Party of Serbia, a coalition partner in the government of President Aleksandar Vucic's ruling Serbian Progressive Party. Dozens of high-school teachers rallied in front of the Education Ministry in downtown Belgrade on May 4, demanding improvements to school security and the education system.

At a press conference on May 3, Vucic was asked whether Ruzic should step down over the school shooting. He only said that everyone can talk about their own responsibility. "Today, Branko Ruzic said that he is ready to resign, but that is up to him and [Prime Minister Ana] Brnabic.... I try to be objective and fair, and we'll see if there is any fault on his part or not. Only then, we'll see further," said the president.

WATCH: Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic called the country's second mass shooting in less than two days an act of terrorism.

Serbian President Calls Latest Mass Shooting An Act Of Terrorism
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The Balkans as a region ranks high globally for the number of guns per capita, with many weapons left over from the wars of the 1990s. Serbia has one of the highest per capita gun-ownership rates in the world -- 39.1 weapons per 100 residents -- according to the latest data from the Small Arms Survey, an independent research project located at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland.

Despite the surfeit of guns, mass shootings are rare in Serbia. In April 2013, army veteran Ljubisa Bogdanovic killed 13 people in the village of Velika Ivanca near Mladenovac, in the deadliest mass shooting in Serbia. Automatic weapons are illegal and, over the years, the authorities have offered several amnesties to those who surrender them.

In an address to the nation on May 5, Vucic said the second incident was "a terrorist attack" and vowed tough gun-control steps that will amount to what he said was a "practical disarmament" of the country.

On May 4, the government said it was instituting an extensive revision of existing private gun permits and other measures.

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by Iva Gajic of RFE/RL Balkan Service

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