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Serbia: Two mass shootings in two days

May 5, 2023

More people have been killed in a second gun attack in Serbia, immediately after a bloodbath at a school in Belgrade. The country is in shock, and its people are casting about for reasons.

A girl with long brown hair crouches beside a row of white lilies and lit taper candles propped up near an iron railing
Serbia is reeling in grief, anger and bewilderment after two mass shootings in as many daysImage: Antonio Bronic/REUTERS

"Someone has to take responsibility for all that's happened," says a man in a Belgrade café. "On the other hand… tragedies like this keep happening everywhere in the world."

Like all of Serbia, this middle-aged man is trying to make sense of why the Balkan country has just experienced two fatal mass shootings in the space of two days. It is almost the only topic of conversation. Many people are experiencing a confusing mix of grief and anger. Belgrade, normally known for its noisy streets and buzzing nightlife, is noticeably quiet.

Still in shock after Wednesday's bloodbath at a school in the capital, the country awoke on Friday to news of another mass shooting. This time, another eight people had been killed and 13 wounded, some of them critically.

Amid a crowd, a weeping woman hides her face against the chest of a young man, who holds and comforts her.
People have come out on the streets to mourn the victims of the shootingsImage: Zorana Jevtic/REUTERS

Full-scale manhunt

The gunman, Uros B. (21), who has since been arrested, is the son of an army officer. On Thursday evening, he fired an automatic weapon at passersby in the village of Orasje, around 50 kilometers south of Belgrade. The initial victims were almost all young people who had met up near the village school for an evening picnic, beer and a barbecue.

The attacker went on to kill more people in two neighboring villages before eventually fleeing. A full-scale manhunt ensued, involving anti-terrorist units, sniffer dogs and helicopters. Uros B. was finally arrested in central Serbia on Friday morning.

Highest number of weapons per capita

Serbia is the country with the highest number of legal and illegal weapons per capita in Europe. Many of them date back to the time of the Yugoslavian wars, after which they remained in private hands. Domestic violence is also a widespread, everyday phenomenon; so is gang crime.

Until this week, though, mass shootings have been a very rare occurrence. And now: two massacres in two days? Many people you meet on the street have reacted almost superstitiously to the tragedies.

A boulevard completely packed with people, some carrying white lilies
Thousands of mourners gathered near the school in Belgrade where a 13-year-old killed nine people on May 3Image: Antonio Bronic/REUTERS

On Wednesday, a 13-year-old boy killed eight of his fellow pupils and a security guard at a primary school in the middle-class Belgrade district of Vracar. He had planned the attack carefully in advance, and carried it out using weapons that were legally owned by his father. Thousands of people have been gathering outside the school in the aftermath, leaving white flowers and lighting candles.

Seeking an explanation

"Serbian society is both armed and deeply traumatized, and has been for more than three decades," said Momir Turudic, the editor of the Belgrade weekly magazine Vreme, in an interview with DW. "I would almost say it's a miracle that we haven't seen atrocities like this before."

The journalist is dismayed to see that, even at a time like this, his country is still split along deep political divides. After the massacre at the school on Wednesday, it wasn't long before politicians, journalists and intellectuals were trying to outdo each other in the media and on social networks, speculating and apportioning blame.

Some — including some members of the government — blame the tragedies on "Western values," video games, and people turning away from tradition. Others say Serbia's autocratic system of government and the constant rabble-rousing in the tabloid media are responsible. Others still see the fondness for Russia that is widespread in Serbia, and indeed traditional values, behind the rampages.

Serbian leader pledges gun controls after shootings

"Instead of quietly grieving, we saw aggression and political games-playing yet again. You could almost predict that, with that kind of atmosphere, people would instrumentalize it for their own political ends," Turudic told DW.

Gun laws to be tightened

The Serbian president, Aleksandar Vucic, appeared before the press again on Friday. He has ruled the Balkan country almost absolutely, with an iron fist, for eleven years, and keeps most of the media on a very short leash.

Vucic described the bloodbath in the three villages as "terrorism" and an "attack on the whole country." He did not, however, provide any evidence of this. It is still unclear what the perpetrator's motivation was. It seems he may have fired at people randomly following a private quarrel.

"The attacker will not see daylight again," Vucic promised. The president presented himself at the press conference as the father of the nation getting to grips with the problem. He wants to see the age of criminal responsibility lowered from 14 to 12, and says there are plans to deploy more so-called school police. He is also promising regular drug tests for children, and the blocking of certain online content. Gun laws will also be tightened, he says, with a sentence of up to 12 years imprisonment for the possession of an illegal weapon. "We will disarm Serbia," the president declared.

Aleksandar Vucic, in a black suit and tie, speaking into two small microphones at a press conference.
Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic responded with a promise to tighten gun lawsImage: Darko Vojinovic/AP/picture alliance

Many are skeptical as to whether further repression will help to deal with the problem of violence in Serbia. "People would be well advised to listen to experts and not come up with new measures like these overnight," says the journalist Turudic. "It's inappropriate, to say the least, that the government and opposition are engaging in political mudslinging right now, with reciprocal accusations and hasty conclusions."

Serbia has declared three days of national mourning, starting on Friday. But will this week bring about national catharsis, and self-criticism in the political and media systems? No one in Serbia seems to think so.

This article has been translated from German.

Headshot of a man with black hair and a beard (Nemanja Rujevic)
Nemanja Rujevic Editor, writer and reporter for DW's Serbian Service