I will never hold a weapon again: Combatting illicit arms in Western Balkans

Arms collection awareness raising activities in Novi Sad with SEESAC-produced material. Photo: SEESAC

In the tiny town of Crevnka, 14-year-old Milica Milanković was playing basketball in her backyard when her life changed forever. Just a few doors down, her neighbors had decided to shoot some guns in celebration.

“I threw a party to celebrate that my wife and my son, my first child, finally arrived home,” Marko Grabež recalls. “My father and I fired a gun and I don’t know who fired a bullet that injured a girl, but that doesn’t matter. I bear all consequences.”

Incidents like these are frequent in the Western Balkans, where celebratory gunfire is deeply entrenched in the culture. Every day seems to bring some news story on firearm accidents at weddings, family celebrations, night clubs, even funerals.

With the region still recovering from the wars of the 1990s, the problem of small arms and light weapons (SALW) remains a serious threat. While no precise figure on illicit weapons circulation in the region exist, experts estimate it be in the millions.

Last February, both Serbian and Montenegrin Parliaments passed new and long-awaited laws on weapons, and legalization campaigns are now underway. The aim is to decrease the number of these weapons in citizens’ possession by encouraging their surrender and registration.

The European Union (EU) has welcomed and supported the efforts and is now helping to carry out these campaigns.
 
“Owners can hand over all types of weapons and ammunition at the closest police station,” notes Serbian Interior Ministry’s Zorica Loncar-Kasalica. “They will not be asked to provide proof of origin and will not be charged for illegally purchasing and holding the weapons.”

During the first seven weeks, citizens in Serbia handed over 480 weapons, nearly 41,000 pieces of ammunition, 264 bombs and explosives, and submitted 1,023 requests for weapons registration.

Highlights

  • During 2014, over 11 000 pieces of SALW and their parts were collected following the campaign Choose Life without Weapons in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
  • During 2010 - 2012, Croatia collected 1753 pieces of SALW, 16,368 pieces of illicit fragmentation weapons, 818,153 pieces of ammunition and 620kg of explosives through collection campaign Less Weapons, Less Tragedies. Campaign in Croatia continues, with estimates that on average, 4 pieces of weapons are daily collected.

Working together with Serbian and Montenegrin authorities, UNDP’s SEESAC initiative is supporting the awareness and advocacy efforts. In Serbia, the Interior Ministry is disseminating leaflets and information in the streets of 20 towns and cities, while major television channels throughout the country are airing public service announcements.    

“This is well organized, I support it. It is good that citizens can get this type of information. I am a hunter and own a hunting rifle. I would like to know how to pass it on to my son, so this type of street activity is also educational,” says Robert Stojiljkovic, a technician in Novi Sad, Serbia.

While Milica is recovering from the wounds, Serbian police filed charges against her neighbor Marko Grabez and three others, for discharging firearms. Grabez says he would not survive if the bullet killed Milica:

“This was the first time I took a gun into my hands…. I accept the confiscation of the weapons and criminal charges. All that matters is that Milica is alive and well. I will never hold a weapon in my life again.”

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