By Anna Squires
BELGRADE, Anita Mitic always felt like a rebel. But then, she would have to. Any 25-year-old NGO director must at some level delight in subverting expectations – and for Mitic, who runs the Belgrade branch of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR), that subversion is both societal and skin-deep.
If Belgrade’s youth activist movement has a face, it is Mitic’s. The curvy twenty-five-year-old has a shock of white-blond hair, a rich belly laugh, glowing skin, and a penchant for pink blazers. Energetic, most at home in a nightclub, and obsessed with her dog Kasper, she makes her role look downright glamorous.
But activism in Serbia today is grueling. The society bears scars from the 1990’s: former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević’s bloody regime left a broken economy, corrupt politicians, and disheartened youth in its wake. Serbia’s new status quo is one of apathy and pessimism. Mitic runs an NGO trying to engage Belgrade’s youth in political protest, which means that she is trying to create a new future for a Serbia that is just not interested.
Yet if anyone has the right temperament for activism, it is Mitic, who challenges the status quo with her very existence.
“I am everything that’s not ‘Serbian woman in politics’,” she says gleefully. “I don’t wear only serious clothes. I’m not settled. I do wear heels sometimes, but they’re usually pink…I just adore the feeling you get when people look at you, and they’ve already formed an opinion of you, and then you prove them wrong.”
A very bad student
It all started in high school, where Mitic was a wild child more interested in partying than studying.
“I was a very bad student,” she says, laughing, as she sips coffee on a cherry-red couch in her office.
But when society told her to go right, Mitic went left. In 2008, Kosovo, a former province of Serbia, unilaterally declared independence. When Belgrade was hit with a conservative, anti-secession backlash, Mitic was meeting Kosovo activists. She began volunteering with left-wing YIHR activists in March 2009.
Mitic’s progressive streak never stopped. She earned a political science degree from the University of Belgrade while simultaneously racing up YIHR’s organizational ladder – first directing YIHR’s global program in 2014, then landing the corner office in the Belgrade branch eight months later.
Under Mitic’s leadership, YIHR has advocated for free movement between Kosovo and Serbia, protested the Serbian state’s treatment of Syrian refugees, and, this year, helped to organize the most-attended and least-violent Pride Parade in Serbia’s history.
Mitic attributes her success largely to the idealism of Belgrade’s youth.
“Everything is different when you’re young,” she says. “You see the impossible being possible. And you’re not wrong.”
But Ivan Duric, program coordinator of YIHR’s Human Rights Department, says that Mitic’s progression up the hierarchy has been vital to the organization’s success.
“She encourages discussion and debate on almost every decision that she makes,” Duric notes, “which is crucial for our team of young people whose both job and passion is to question the work of authorities.”
Making dreams come true
What will Mitic’s ultimate act of rebellion be? Ending Belgrade’s legacy of political patronage? Advocating for more job opportunities? Engaging the Belgrade youth on a grand scale?
None of the above, for Mitic is already living out her most powerful act. In a society marked by corruption, brain drain, and political disappointment, Mitic is still dreaming of brightness – and glowing with a determination to harness the energy of young people in order to create a healthier, more abundant society.
“I dream when I sleep,” Mitic concludes, “and when I am awake, I am making my dreams come true.”