In-depth | BiH

Keeping the rivers glistening in Bosnia and Herzegovina

By - 27.12.2017

Women of Kruscica part of a nascent movement to preserve rivers in the Balkans.

They woke up early, spruced up and combed their hair. The liveliness and smiles amongst the group were as if, on that cold November morning, they weren’t heading to a court in Travnik, but had woken up early to have a coffee with their neighbors, who they felt were their most close and trusted friends.

Twenty of them had already gathered, some taking out their court invitations to examine. They had all been charged with “obstructing the police in performing their duty and the disruption of public order and peace” in their village of Kruscica, on the warm morning of August 24.

“I’m 62 years old,” said Amira Handanagic. As a refugee in the war, she had moved from country to country and ended up in America, but eventually returned to her home. “I live in Kruscica and I defend the river. This is the first time that I am going to the municipal court. I would die if I would lose the sound of the river.”

“Now, there are these unknown people who want to take the river away from us. This is the biggest joke I’ve ever heard,” Handanagic continued. “I can’t believe that so many policemen charged at us, mothers,” she recounted, while we spoke in the improvised “headquarters” of the Kruscica women, prior to going to court.

Smiling and joking, they slowly leave the “headquarters for river defense,” and move across the “Bridge of the brave women of Kruscica” that connects the village to its treasure, shallow, beautiful mountain rivers which they grew up alongside.

The Women of Kruscica ended up in court after resisting the construction of the hydroelectric power plant. Photo: Mirna Omercausevic.

Their neighbors hugged them, and children are present as well. Handanagic squeezed her palm into a fist, raised her hand and proudly shouted: “Dear mother, I am going to protect the river,” while others joined her. One of them wore a traditional white Muslim scarf and a  dimmis skirt from the area, but also a short sleeved t-shirt carrying the slogan: “No to the construction of the hydroelectric power plant in Kruscica!”

Guardians of the river

The women of Kruscica are now part of a nascent movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina, made up of self-organized citizens who defend rivers from the construction of hydroelectric power plants, and other types of exploitation that is damaging to nature.

Similar actions were taken over the last year, and are still ongoing, for the rivers Una, Sana, Vrbas, and Neretva, but on no previous occasion did the police use force against citizens.

According to data from the ‘River Watch’ organization, the construction of 2,800 dams is planned in the area between Slovenia and Greece.

The construction of hydroelectric power plants in the Balkans has grown by 300 percent in the past few years, ecological experts claim. According to data from the ‘River Watch’ organization, the construction of 2,800 hydropower plants are being planned in the area between Slovenia and Greece, out of which as much 37 percent will be built in protected areas.

Ecologists claim that building hydroelectric power plants can significantly affect the environment, and bring about a catastrophe of wider proportions. River Watch’s report, titled “Tsunami of hydroelectric power plants,” points to the fact that the number of planned hydroelectric plants is drastically increasing each year, increasing by 300 percent in the last two years.

The River Protection Coalition from Bosnia and Herzegovina warn of a large-scale construction of hydroelectric plants and the destruction of rivers: “Our rivers are under great pressure of losing their biggest value — quality water and richness of biodiversity, and all due to the plans for construction of more than 300 hydroelectric plants in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

In their campaign “Freedom to Rivers,” as part of which the River Guardians movie was filmed, they highlight their battles against hydroelectric power plants, where the most important role is played by the local population. “Rivers are a common good, not the property of individuals,” the coalition state.

Water levels and profit margins

In the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, according to media reports and the claims of activists, business connections between investors and political parties in power often stand behind these constructions.

The CBC government has issued 61 concessions to private companies for constructing small hydroelectric plants since 2004. Twenty-nine have already been built, mostly on small rivers and rivers with low water levels during summer.

The people of Kruscica claim that this is also true in their case, and blame the regional authorities of the Central Bosnia Canton (CBC), who are based in Travnik, the city in which the women from the village went to court.

The CBC government has issued 61 concessions to private companies for constructing small hydroelectric plants since 2004. Twenty-nine have already been built, mostly on small rivers and rivers with low water levels during summer.

A thirty-year concession starts from the moment of construction — investors will pay 2 percent of their profits to the cantonal government over the next three decades.

Abdulah Burek, president of the Commission for issuing concessions for small hydroelectric power plants at the Ministry of Agriculture at the CBC, said that there is no better business for the canton.

“The investor will eventually give their wealth to the state. Imagine the situation in 30 years. Even these 15 we will have in our possession for some 15-ish years. Every plant produces electricity, produces money. And this is state property. [The Cantonal government] didn’t have a cent of its own, but now it earns,” Burek explains.

Besim Ajanovic also lives in Travnik. Up until 2009 he was a member and secretary of the Democratic Action Party (SDA) that has been in power in this canton, but also in most parts of the country, since the end of the war in 1995.

He was also a cantonal representative, and then, in his own words, was “kicked out” from the party after he “opposed the criminal politics of the then prime minister and member of the party, Salko Selman.”

Ajanovic claims that during his mandate, from 2004 to 2012, Selman “devised the criminal concept of hydroelectric power plants construction in CBC.”

“His people were installed every step of the way and nothing has changed — the same script and actors,” Ajanovic said. “They meet prior to the official procedure. They receive assurances, guarantees that they will be the ones to obtain the concessions without any disturbances and problems, and they are the one to establish companies, and everything is happening in accordance with that pattern.”

After he left the party, Ajanovic established the “Whistleblowers” (Uzbunjivaci) NGO that combats corruption in the CBC area. He presents a series of documents which, as per his words, he has submitted to the prosecution several times, but investigations have not commenced.

Salko Selman, vice president of the SDA and the director of the Bank for Development (an institution that distributes hundreds of millions of convertible marks of budget money) since his party won the general elections in 2014, refuses to talk to the media. After thirty days of email enquiries and phone calls, K2.0 did not receive a response.

On the basis of the estimates conducted by Whistleblowers, out of almost 30 small hydroelectric power plants in the CBC, in the 30 years of concession, investors are likely to earn around 280 million euros, and pay the Canton and Municipality a mere 2 percent, or 5.6 million euros.

According to the existing legislature, the allowed sum of the concession compensation is up to 10 percent of profits, which means that the Canton could collect up to 28 million euros, if the forecasts are accurate.

Spatial planning changes

In the case of the Kruscica river, permits for the construction of the hydroelectric power plants were approved in 2007 and 2012. However, it was only later, in 2015, that the ruling majority in the Vitez municipality, made up of the SDA and the Croatian Democratic Community of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZ), amended the local spatial plan.

Instead of being a protected area, as had been planned previously, construction was approved on the river that springs under the beautiful mountain of Kruscica, and is fed by numerous untouched streams.

The evergreen forest and rivers serve as place for excursions, but also a place of escape for the rarely employed people of the area.. Photo: Marketa Sediva.

The tender for one of the two hydroelectric plants was granted to Higracon d.o.o. from Sarajevo. Armin Hadzialic, Higracon’s owner gave a statement to the Federal Television, saying that he has all “the necessary paperwork for construction in Kruscica,” and that there is consent from the local community.

Locals that oppose the project claim that discussions took place solely with an SDA representative and 40 other people from a community of over 4,000, and that insufficient information was provided. It is on the basis of that consent, Higracon was granted the right to build there.

The investor announced the beginning of construction in August this year. Dissatisfied with this outcome and, as they put it, “with taking away their river without their consent,” citizens didn’t allow the Higracon’s trucks and excavators to pass over a 10-meter-long and five-meter-wide wooden bridge, that leads to the future construction site some five kilometers upstream.

Since August, Kruscica locals have been keeping watch in a small tent at the entrance of the bridge, in order to prevent the re-arrival of machines.

However, at the end of August they found out that the Special Police intended to unblock the road so the trucks and excavators could pass. As K2.0 was told by a Kruscica local, it was the women that decided to stay on the bridge, “so that the men didn’t provoke a reaction from the police, because some of them working in public institutions were already threatened with dismissals from their jobs.”

Since women partook in the blockade action, the bridge has symbolically been given the name: “the Bridge of the Brave Women of Kruscica.” Photo: Marketa Sediva.

“We thought it would all end peacefully, that they won’t attack the women,” said Neliha Ahmic, who alongside some 30 other women, came to protect the river from “the interests of a handful of people.”

They residents’ actions were in part motivated by the experiences of locals from the villages of Gojevic and Bakovic in the same canton in 2012. Through protests, they succeeded in making the cantonal government block a private investor from building on the Zeljeznica river in the Fojnica municipality. Using lookouts and their bodies, they guarded the river for years, and even now they are leading a legal battle for its preservation.

Ahmic told K2.0 that in Kruscica, things got a little more heated. “This commander of theirs came and told us that we have three minutes to go away, and if we didn’t do as he requested, they would fine us 200 euros each,” she explained.  “We told them: ‘fine us, we’ll pay it somehow.’ But two minutes hadn’t even passed when the police started to pull, push, and insult us. This lasted for 30 minutes. Many of our women have injuries and consequences even now.”

After the police “unblocked the main road,” Higracon’s vehicles crossed the bridge. Records of the violence on the bridge went viral during that day on social networks, YouTube, and the media.

“Locals who found themselves on the public road were issued a legal order to unblock the road, which they ignored,” a representative from the CBC’s Ministry of the Internal Affairs told daily newspaper Avaz. “As many as 19 of them disobeyed the order. After that, without using force, they were physically transported to the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ vehicles.”

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Institution of Human Rights Ombudsman also got involved, announcing that they will review the procedure for obtaining licences for mini hydropower plants from the standpoint of environment and local population’s interests. The institution will implement an investigation, and if they determine that human rights were broken in the process, will act in accordance with their competencies.

If they prove that a right was violated, the Institution can issue non-mandatory recommendations to competent authorities to apply measures in order to correct human rights abuses or the poor functioning of the state.

Using bodies to defend the river

Thanks to the media interest that day, the general public finally learned that many Kruscica locals don’t want to lose their rivers for the interest of a few people, that they still want to drink clean water from the river, develop tourism and fish in ponds. Since women partook in the blockade action, the bridge has symbolically been given the name: “the Bridge of the Brave Women of Kruscica.”

In August, Higracon’s machinery crossed the river to the location in the woods, where they started digging the land and rock around the three meter wide river. However, on the following day, the citizens of Kruscica stopped them again.

“Again, the machinery came to work, but we halted them. Incidentally, we received news that the Municipal Court of Travnik issued a ban for all types of construction until the completion of the audit process,” Muris Dzelilovic, one of the staunchest opponents of the construction project, told local media.

“To us, this is life,” 60-year-old Rasim Livnjak said, leaning down to drink some water from the river in the place where the construction of the hydroelectric power plant, Kruscica 2, is supposed to take place.

For months, groups of citizens are on duty in a makeshift headquarters at the end of the Kruscica river. Photo: Marketa Sediva.

“From this place, and for the next 1,200 meters, the river would run through pipes, where a turbine would be located,” Livnjak explained. “After that, the next water intake, and then an additional 2,200 meters and another turbine, and another hydroelectric plant. Nothing would be left in the trough. Not for people or animals. You can see that the water levels are low even now.”

Livnjak is an employee of the Zenica Water System. His working spot is located at the source of the Kruscica river, from which around 10,000 people in Zenica are supplied with water.

“When the water system was built, 70 percent of the river was already taken from us. It’s being deliberately forgotten that we are now at a biological minimum,” he explained while walking down the river as if he was speaking to himself. “We will never allow this, not even at the expense of losing our lives.”

Viktor Bjelic is the vice president of the Environmental Center in Banja Luka, and another fierce opponent of the hydroelectric constructions in Bosnia and Herzegovina. “So far, we haven’t seen a single positive example, where a mini hydroelectric plant brought something good to the local community, and the river didn’t dry out,” he told K2.0. “There isn’t any sense in talking about sustainable development, but solely about private interest. Every hydroelectric power plant demands a dam that slows down the river flow, the water quality deteriorates, it loses oxygen, which means it’s dead water.”

Bjelic is an environmental activist and he attempts to use his advice to help movements from Bosnia and Herzegovina in a joint struggle for the protection of rivers.

The Women of Kruscica’s first victories

The women of Kruscica came out of the minibus smiling over nine hours ago. With them was Mehmed, who moves slowly with a cane. He stopped to light his pipe before entering the freshly painted building of the Municipal Court. From this point, only two cameramen are allowed to record before the process starts, whereas the rest of the journalists can record the course of the trial on paper.

There were 23 chairs set out for the defendants but only 22 sat down. One woman couldn’t tell her bosses that she was going to court.

Legal representatives for the police presented three police commanders who managed the “unblocking of the public road” as witnesses. They described their version of events, stating that the protesters ignored their orders to free the road, which is why an order to act was given for an action previously prepared for 25 days.

“I had given the order to carry them one by one from the bridge into the bus without using force,” the commander of the Travnik Police Station, Dragan Skulj, said.

In the end, the court issued an acquittal for the indictees from Kruscica. The verdict states that “there is insufficient evidence to determine individual responsibility of each person that was registered.”

Kruscica locals celebrated the court decision, as well as victory in the elections for the Local Community by their river. Photo: Marketa Sediva.

Prior to that, a candidate backed by the group to stand for president of the Local Community won a convincing victory against the SDA candidate, the man who approved the construction of two small hydroelectric plants. They also won all six seats in the Local Community Council.

“Our lawsuit for the police brutality against citizens has gone to the Supreme Court and the process for the revision of the environmental permit is underway. We won’t give up on our river,” Nelina Ahmic told K2.0.

“We will fight for justice because we know it is on our side. Because we are the Brave Women of Kruscica, because we are what makes Bosnia and Herzegovina proud,” she says, smiling, the cold mountain river behind her glittering in the November afternoon sun.

The women of Kruscica continue to preserve their river, and they still organize a watch in order to prevent a potential return of investors and their vehicles.K

Feature image: Zene Kruscice.