OPINION: Tragic school shooting to scar Serbia for years

OPINION: Tragic school shooting to scar Serbia for years
Police at the site of the school shooting in Belgrade on May 3. / mup.gov.rs
By Ann Smith in New York May 10, 2023

The first mass killing of children by another child, not just in Serbia but across the continent of Europe, has deeply scarred Serbia and repercussions are expected for years to come. 

The tragic event took place on May 3 when a 13-year-old seventh grade student turned a gun on his schoolmates and killed eight children and a security guard, injuring seven more.

The tragedy in Belgrade was followed by a deadly shooting in the town of Mladenovac, less than 50 miles (80 km) away, when a 20-year-old killed eight youngsters and injured 13.

“We will count time up to May 3, 2023 and after May 3, 2023,” said Radmila Vulic, family therapist and clinical psychologist on the Insajder tv talk show Debata, expressing some of the grief and shock felt by the population. 

Scared to go to school

People throughout Serbia are devastated. Fear of going back to school is widespread among kids and parents. After two shootings within two days, everybody is scared that something similar may happen again. For a couple of days after the massacre, head teachers told parents to decide whether their children would go into school to just talk to teachers and see their friends, or stay at home. The majority preferred to stay away from school. 

This is highly unusual, as basic education is mandatory in Serbia, and parents are usually ready to sacrifice everything to secure their children’s success in school. Even though the credibility of the educational system has been downgraded in last 20-30 years, going to school has never been questioned; until May 3, 2023.

The grieving continues. Children mourn, while at the same time worrying that they could be killed in their own classrooms. The story is not only about students, it is also about teachers. They are trained to deal with conflicts but this is above and beyond that and many of them also fear that they may be a target in future. The non-teaching staff like dinner ladies and cleaners locally known as “tetkica” or “little aunties” are deeply affected by the tragedy too. 

For all of them, and for the wider population, life goes on, but with a sense of incredulity that a child was capable of killing and questions as to how (or whether) justice will be carried out.

Who is responsible? 

After the deadly shootings on two consecutive days, the nation is searching for justice. But there is no precedent for a child killing other children on a school premises. 

According to Serbian laws, a person younger than 14 cannot be convicted for a crime, while a person younger than 21 cannot be sentenced to more than 20 years in jail. Laws can be changed and likely will be, but this will not affect those that already committed the recent mass murders. 

The current legislation is in accordance with EU standards, but many Serbs do not see it as fair. Most find it hard to imagine that a child that killed nine people can ever return to school or rejoin the community.

Based on old praxis from the communist era, many expected the 13-year-old shooter’s parents to be charged for his crime, but this is not an option. A large portion of the public is deeply disappointed that the father denied any responsibility.

The situation has been communicated in the media, but people still look to the government to do something to satisfy the families of the victims and the broader population. There are further concerns that a lack of punishment for this crime would lead to similar monstrosities in future. 

Polarised political climate

The government immediately came up with a set of measures to prevent similar incidents and implementation started as of May 7. However, many still blame the system for the tragedies.

That is a feature of Serbia’s polarised society. Serbians have long been divided between those that firmly support President Aleksandar Vucic and the government led by his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and those that truly hate him. The tragedies didn’t change this. Part of the community unconditionally blames the system and/or Vucic. The other side unconditionally defends the president and the system.

A child doesn’t kill other children in Serbian schools on a daily basis in fact the school shooting was unprecedented which is why the government didn’t preempt such a crime. On the other hand, the social climate in the country is ugly. Reality shows full of violence, glorification of war criminals and admiration for hooliganism are rife. Materialism also rules among many Serbians, with people including children in schools judged by the brands they wear and their family’s influence. 

Media reporting reflects the broader divisions in Serbia’s society. The country’s media are sharply divided among those that support the government and those that oppose it. Some did show a certain level of professionalism but the majority failed including by publishing the name of the child that killed his classmates, in violation of journalistic ethics. 

In short, the mass shootings were broadly sensationalised, and pro-government tabloids published whatever they could to distract focus from the government and its responsibility, while anti-government media criticised whatever the authorities had done.

Education minister blames the US

Serbia will likely be looking for an answer to why these tragedies happened for decades to come, even though outgoing Minister of Education Branko Ruzic tried to blame Western values before any detail was known. 

“As you know, Serbia is … unfortunately, part of that world in which such things happen more often. The influence of the internet, video games [and] so-called Western values is cancerous and fatal, and it is clear to all of us that a huge turnaround is needed, stricter measures but also a systematic search for a solution that would prevent such a tragedy, God forbid, from becoming an acceptable, social model of behaviour as it is, unfortunately, in some Western societies,” Ruzic who has since resigned said a couple of hours after the school shooting. 

Since nothing similar has ever happened anywhere near Serbia, he was clearly talking about the US. It is not clear if he spoke emotionally and simply said what that was in his heart and mind, or if that was a strategic statement. If it was the latter, he was possibly looking for a scapegoat to divert public anger away from the government. The West is always the easiest culprit to blame in Serbia a result of the Kremlin’s intensive hybrid war in the country.

On the day when a child killed other children and an adult, social networks were burning with anti-Western content. People shared posts urging each other not to look for responsibility at home as the “one that did all that to the whole world is America” (a quote from one of the shared posts). Another lamented that Serbia is now an “americanised nation. A nation with a thousand years long culture copies and takes the culture of a 200-year-old nation, which killed the largest numbers of someone else’s kids all over the world, including Serbian…”.

Other things people chose to blame were Halloween, Black Friday, or anything else that could be linked with the US.

The anti-vaxxer movement also reared its head, as the tragedy quickly became politicised. People shared appeals for blood donations since hospitals were overwhelmed with the injured, but some claimed only donors who had not been vaccinated for COVID-19 were wanted. Other comments claimed the child that killed nine others must have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and linked this to his state of mind. 

Political changes ahead

The tragedy that shook Serbian society may trigger some crucial political changes. President Aleksandar Vucic announced on national TV on May 7 that some major changes will happen during May. He continued to hint at changes the following day when he said that early elections or a reconstruction of the government are possible options. 

Pressure on the government has mounted in the days following the shootings, with tens of thousands of people turning out in protest on May 8. 

The sad truth is, though, that no one knew what to do as no one was ready for such tragedies. Should anyone ever be?

Ann Smith has been following and writing about transitional justice, war crimes, human rights, security (defence and terrorism), European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations and international relations in the Balkans since 2000. She holds a masters degree in humanitarian international law as well as in journalism/political sciences.