Tens of thousands of Serbians rallied in the capital Belgrade, demanding better security, a ban on violent content on TV and the resignation of key ministers, days after two separate mass shootings.
Crowds in numbers not seen in the Balkan country for years solemnly marched on Monday through the city centre behind a banner that read “Serbia Against Violence”.
“We have gathered here to pay our last respects, to do our best so this never happens again, anywhere,” said Borivoje Plecevic from Belgrade.
Last Wednesday, a schoolboy who brought two handguns to his school killed eight pupils and a security guard. Six other pupils and a teacher were wounded.
The following evening, a 21-year-old man, brandishing an assault rifle and a pistol, killed eight and wounded 14 people in central Serbia. Both shooters surrendered to the police.
Protesters and opposition supporters demanded a shutdown of TV stations and tabloids they accuse of promoting violent and vulgar content.
They are also demanding a ban on pro-government newspapers that regularly stoke tension with articles targeting political dissidents.
“We demand an immediate stop to further promotion of violence in the media and public space, as well as responsibility for the long-standing inadequate response from competent authorities,” the leftist Let’s Not Let Belgrade Drown party said in a statement.
“We are here because we can’t wait any longer. We’ve waited too long, we’ve been silent too long, we’ve turned our heads too long,” Marina Vidojevic, an elementary school teacher, told the crowd.
“We want safe schools, streets, villages and cities for all children.”
Opposition parties and some rights groups accuse President Aleksandar Vucic and his ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) of autocracy, oppressing media freedoms, violence against political opponents, cronyism, corruption, and ties with organised crime. Vucic and his allies deny this.
Protesters also called for the resignations of Interior Minister Bratislav Gasic and Aleksandar Vulin, the director of the state security agency, and the dismissal of the government’s Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM) within a week.
On Sunday, the country’s Education Minister Branko Ruzic stepped down, citing the “cataclysmic tragedy” caused by last week’s school shooting in his resignation letter.
Demonstrators also demanded an emergency parliamentary session and a debate about the overall security situation.
“[This is an act of] solidarity against … violence in media, in the parliament, in everyday life … solidarity because of lost children,” said Snezana, a woman in her 60s who declined to give her last name.
Similar protests were held in several other Serbian cities.
Vucic’s SNS slammed the demonstrations, calling the opposition groups participating in the rally “faceless evil … that dares to use a national tragedy for their own interest”, according to local media.
Following the shootings, Vucic vowed to “disarm” Serbia with an ambitious plan that would crack down on legal and illicit firearms in the country.
Police on Monday started a one-month amnesty for surrendering illegal weapons. It said more than 1,500 were handed over on the first day.
In addition to existing gun laws, Vucic announced police checks of registered gun owners.
Serbia has the highest level of gun ownership in Europe, with roughly 39 of 100 people owning firearms, according to the Small Arms Survey research group.
Serbia has a deeply entrenched gun culture, and along with the rest of the Western Balkans is awash with military-grade weapons and ordnance in private hands after the wars of the 1990s that tore apart the former Yugoslavia.