Esteemed family members,
Dear Bilja’s boys,
Highly esteemed and not so highly esteemed friends,
When Duško asked me to say something on this sad occasion, I wondered, as probably many of you do: why me? I wasn’t a close friend of hers, personally I barely knew her, we never spent hours sitting at an airport waiting for a flight, or participated at some conference. And then I thought that all that would only blur the image of Biljana, and that image is clear just like Biljana was.
Practically at the same time, the night between Monday and Tuesday when Biljana died – NOT after a long and hard illness, but following complications which arose during treatment, which I hope can be explained to us – Dorothy Height, founder of the American civil rights movement died as well. President Barack Obama spoke about her death, calling her the godmother of the civil rights movement and the hero of millions of Americans. Unlike Biljana, Dorothy Height not only lived to be 98, but was also awarded by her country’s presidents, from Kennedy to Clinton, and universities such as Princeton and Harvard deemed it good for their students to have a woman like her as honorary degree holder and occasional lecturer. BIljana Kovačević-Vučo, of course, did not expect nor could she receive such an honor from her presidents, prime ministers or universities. We are more likely to see Dorothy Height receive the honors which she deserved in Serbia than Biljana Kovačević-Vučo. Should something like that happen, it would not be the first time that we in this country, consider the things which we admire in others to be bad, evil and wrong for us. Many so-called patriots cite Noam Chomsky who is a relentless critic of America, and yet those same patriots shamelessly insulted Biljana. She thought that the best way to love one’s country is to do everything to make it less unjust, less cruel to the people who live in it. One of the ways to make a country less brutal to its citizens and not to turn them every day into predators who leave their dens and attack the first weaker person, is to say that to this country, this state, its institutions, its politicians, judges and policemen, to their face.
People in decent countries have certain moments in life when they do their best or their worst. Biljana lived in a country where for the last quarter of a century, on an almost daily basis, you get to a point where you have to try your best to remain a decent human being. That can be endured only by those who were carved out of solid material, and BIljana Kovačević-Vučo WAS first-class human material. She showed it both during the Milošević regime and subsequently, in the so-called democratic Serbia. I was under the impression that she, like many of us, was more comfortable, in a way, during the 90s when the demarcation line between good and evil was clear, bloody, without nuances. Not then and not later on, there was not anything important or horrible that could happen, without Biljana Kovačević-Vučo doing or at least saying something about it, not only about war crimes, but about Šešelj’s laws on Information and university, about political prisoners, mostly Albanians in Serbian prisons; fighting for amnesty for the boys who had fled the country refusing to participate in Milošević’s wars.
With the arrival of the so-called democratic changes, Biljana, like all of us, was already breathing heavily with exhaustion, which was followed by new – final, as it now seems – anxiety. We lost wars, people, territories, but there was still plenty of unused frustration and hatred which led to the 2003 assassination and coup, and then to a new avalanche of aggression and hatred towards people brave enough to speak up about what we dared do to others and ourselves. Sometimes a day didn’t go by without Biljana Kovačević-Vučo receiving a portion of hatred and worst insults from some respected state official of the pro-European and democratic Serbia, not to mention the lowlifes writing for tabloids. Biljana disturbed the so-called national reconciliation, democratization and Europeanization of Serbia with her questions about the political background of the assassination of Prime Minister Đinđić, by defending Vladimir Popović, by representing journalists like Željko Bodrožić, by defending Biljana Srbljanović from Emir Kusturica. At the same time, she was the target of the worst scum in this country, from the street to the courtroom where she was insulted, from the director of the state television to lawyers and judges who allowed her to be humiliated and insulted in a place where one goes to get a tiny piece of justice.
Many of those who thought alike were saying that Biljana Kovačević-Vučo was too grumpy, that she was slightly extreme, that she did not pick her words… And what words are adequate and not too extreme when you speak about death, slaughtering, genocide, assassination, homophobia, chauvinism and fascism? What are those words and what is too extreme when you speak about all those things which exclude a society from the community of civilized nations?
Biljana Kovačević-Vučo is not a person who made easy deals; unlike many, she knew that there are neither easy nor hard deals between executioners and victims, between marauders and the fallen ones. She knew that one, then a second, and then a third concession lead straight to cowardice and even faster to collaboration.
Serbia will perish, not because of greedy third-rate politicians and businessmen, but because of cowardice and mediocrity of its elite. This intelligentsia knew that during the 1990s it had to rely not only on its mind but its courage, as well. It knew that it had to pay the necessary price under Milošević in order to be respected. Now there are few who want to be brave; every day we see people retreating before the apparent. With Biljana, this option was never a possibility and her enemies, but also many who thought alike, did not forgive her for it. She committed us with her actions, pushed us where we rather wouldn’t go, because we needed a pause to survive. She never paused for air, just like she didn’t pause while speaking, and she talked quickly, passionately and intelligently. She only paused when there was a harsh word on the tip of her tongue, which would insult someone, and she mostly spoke about people who represent chemically pure submissiveness, dishonesty and cruelty.
For years we met on Thursdays to record interviews for Peščanik; we spoke about everything, about Ćosić, Tijanić, Koštunica, Tadić, Rade Bulatović, about the reform of the judiciary and pride parade, but since last night I have been thinking about a hypothesis which was untypical of her. She spoke about how people would transform from members of a nation into citizens and she relies on taxes. I found it strange that she talked about taxes; she said: “Once they start paying taxes, they’ll start demanding their rights from the state”. This was the first moment when it seemed to me that we were defeated, that the whole story about the value of human life, human rights, minorities’ rights – cannot be cultivated on this ground. I don’t believe in the power of taxes, just like she didn’t. Today I somewhat believe that Pericles was right when he said in his funeral oration, in the famous praise of the Athenian democracy: “It is there, where virtue is awarded highest prizes, that bravest citizens are born”.
Some day, when some Serbian president says of Biljana, like Obama said of Dorothy Height, that she is the godmother of the civil rights movement and the hero of hundreds of thousands citizens of Serbia, we will know that this Serbia deserves to be called our country.
Until then, to us Biljana will remain a smart, courageous and beautiful heroine who dedicated her life to the struggle for human lives and people’s right to live as decent human beings. How many of us can say the same about ourselves?
Pronounced by Svetlana Lukić at the commemoration following the death of Biljana Kovačević-Vučo, Belgrade Town Hall, April 21, 2010.
Translated by Milan Bogdanovic