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Bosnia's 'Brave Women' And The Fight For Free-Flowing Rivers

In the Balkans, developers are rushing to install hydroelectric plants on Europe's last untapped river systems. Activists — including an unlikely group of Bosnian villagers — are fighting back.

Art installation on a Bosnian dam
Art installation on a Bosnian dam
Emanuele Bompan and Marco Ranocchiari

KRUŠČICA — The country road that leads to Kruščica meanders through wooded hills, haystacks and scattered houses. It's a sleepy landscape, sometimes enlivened by the loud colors of the corrugated iron on a mosque roof or the bright red of apples in a roadside vendor's stall.

Nearby is a stream that bears the same as the village. Bosnia has a slew of formidable rivers. The thin Kruščica isn't one of them. And yet, many people here value its clean waters, so much so that for the past year-and-a-half, a group of activists has guarded — through rain and shine — what is now known as the "bridge of brave women." Their goal is to prevent the construction of two hydroelectric plants.

This village of 800 inhabitants is one of numerous places in the Balkans where the indiscriminate construction of hydroelectric plants risks altering the life of local communities and the environment. In fact, approximately 3,000 new power plants are under construction or planned throughout the peninsula. About a third of those projects are in protected areas; 118 are in national parks. And it's all taking place in the only European region where almost all rivers still flow in their natural state, free from dams or other regulating works.

The numerous actors involved in the fight against the hydroelectric proliferation met last September in Sarajevo for the first ever European Rivers Summit, a large conference organized by a network of organizations from the Balkans and all over Europe, with the support of the Patagonia clothing brand. Some of the more than 250 activists and scholars from more than 30 countries ventured all the way to Kruščica to pay tribute to the hrabre žene, the "brave women" who have become true symbols in this struggle.

Flags and banners fly on both ends of the bridge. Visitors are astonished to be facing some very ordinary ladies from the countryside rather than fearsome pasionarias. Some have white hair. One wears oversized, old-school glasses. Others have colored shawls or long skirts. They tell their stories as they sit with a Bosnian coffee prepared on a camp stove.

We have all lived through the war. We've had enough of abuse.

In the summer of 2017, construction work was set to begin on two hydroelectric plants that would have captured the waters of the Kruščica, almost draining it. The river is the fulcrum of life of this village, which is predominantly based on agriculture. There had been no public consultation, even if it is required by law. Moreover, police were sent in to disperse the crowd.

One of the women, Majda, shows a video on her cell phone: It offers a clear sense of the kicking, shoving and screaming. The violence caught the villagers off guard but only added to their resolve. "They were beating my son," says Ilduza Mujkić, another activist, her eyes still bright with indignation. "We have all lived through the war. We've had enough of abuse," echo the others.

Some women had decided therefore to guard the bridge themselves — the only access to the construction site. "We didn't think they would have the courage to beat us. They did it anyway. But we remained just the same," one of them explains.

News of the determination of these women began to spread, making inroads in a country that had long been immobile. Eight of the "courageous women" ran in local elections, winning a majority. The result was all the more remarkable given how men have traditionally dominated Bosnian politics.

The battle continued through legal channels. A June 2018 ruling recognized that the Kruščica flows into an environmentally protected area and that the concessions would have to be re-negotiated. It was a victory, albeit just a partial one. Pending a final ruling, the energy company made attempts to open the site. And so, the stream's self-appointed guards remained day and night, in a state of continuous tension.

"After the 2008 crisis, only two types of investments have become safe: real estate and the green economy," says Gabriel Schwaderer of the Euronatur foundation. Often, however, the "green" bit is more in name than in reality. More than 90% of new concessions are related to so-called mini and micro hydroelectric power: Developers set up facilities that are certainly less showy than a large dam, but capable of exploiting ever smaller streams, sometimes of great environmental value.

River systems are among the most vulnerable ecosystems. According to a WWF report, fresh-water systems have lost 81% of their wildlife over the past 40 years. The scientific community does all it can to suggest ideas for truly sustainable hydroelectric systems, but rarely are they put in practice. Concessions are issued in a hurry, more to pocket the generous subsidies at a fixed rate than to effectively reduce the use of fossil fuels.

The EU Water Framework Directive aims to achieve, by 2027, a "good ecological status' for all water bodies on the continent. This is an ambitious target. "But the nations that have to accept it, including the candidate countries for EU membership," says Eef Silvers of Wetland International. "It's important to act above all on a national and local scale."

It's a true ethnocide.

This is particularly true in the Balkans, the new European mecca of dam builders. Smoky bureaucracy, high rates of corruption and a great haste to enter the European Union, whose norms are often copied in a superficial way by the rulers, expose these countries to the risk of speculation.

Investors include mainly banks and companies from Western Europe, in particular from Austria and Italy. The numbers are mind-boggling: Over 300 new stations planned in Bosnia; 837 in Serbia. Even sunny Albania has decided to snub photovoltaic and invest the entire renewable energy budget on blue gold. Never mind that the longest European river in its natural state, the Voiussa, flows into the Adriatic after a journey of 260 kilometers between breathtaking scenery, or that the Cem, in the remote Albanian Alps, sustains a chain of pastoral communities dependent on agriculture.

"It's a true ethnocide," says Martine Wolff, an anthropologist who has lived among the mountaineers of the north of the country for over 10 years. From Greece to Montenegro, from Bulgaria to Croatia, the scenario is the same.

"In the Balkans you have what we Western Europeans have lost: an intimate relationship with the river," says Austria's Ulrich Eichelmann of Riverwatch.

Sometimes mobilizations achieve important victories.

It's true: While in the West the waterways have been progressively reduced to channels and excluded from the urban fabric, in the Balkans, rivers play an important role in uniting people. Just think of the old bridge over the Neretva in Mostar, a symbol of coexistence between different faiths. Or the bridge on the Drina celebrated by novelist Ivo Andrić. Or the sinuous Danube.

Sometimes mobilizations achieve important victories. Macedonia's Mavrovo National Park, habitat of the elusive Balkan lynx, is safe for the time being. In Belgrade over 5,000 people took to the streets in January; in Kosovo, a massive mobilization led Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj to block the construction of seven power plants in the Rugova mountains in February.

The most emblematic news, however, comes from Kruščica. On Dec. 14 the long-awaited final ruling arrived: The building permits were canceled. The stream continues to flow freely under the "Bridge of the brave women," where the group's banners and flags — weathered from long exposure to the elements — continue to hang. After 17 months, the hrabre žene can finally go home.

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