In Bosnia, the air is heavy with deadly toxins. Yet a combination of economic worries, a lack of faith in the justice system, and a fatalistic attitude means many people, young and old, don’t seem to care.
In order to draw attention to the dirty air, Samir Lemes made an unorthodox move. In mid-November, he invited the leaders of all four major religions in Bosnia and Herzegovina to a lecture about how detrimental pollution is to the health of their congregants.
“People in Bosnia don’t listen to the politicians,” Lemes, a 54-year-old professor of computer graphics and environmental activist from the industrial town of Zenica, in central Bosnia, tells BIRN. “But they do listen to their Catholic or Orthodox priests, imams and rabbis. If we convince them, I thought, they would spread this knowledge to the people.”
The goal, however, was not really to explain the facts of toxic air.
In Bosnia, whose cities have long been listed among the most polluted in Europe, the statistics are public knowledge. It’s estimated that in this country whose main source of energy are its own fossil fuels, mainly lignite, poor air quality causes the death of 3,300 people annually according to the World Bank. Levels of deadly pollutants regularly exceed what the World Health Organization regards is safe for human health, especially during winter months when temperatures drop and people heat their homes with firewood or even charcoal.
Woodpiles on balconies or in front of buildings are a common sight in Bosnia, just like thick clouds of smog, principally in the country’s capital Sarajevo, which is located in a deep valley surrounded by tall mountains.
Lemes wanted to convince the religious leaders that something could be done. “Many in Bosnia believe that air pollution is God’s will and people should not interfere,” Lemes says.
After speaking with the group of religious leaders, he describes the response as mostly positive: “Many leaders asked for further information, as they seemingly didn’t know much about fighting pollution.”
Unhealthy way of life
Reliance on coal and wood for heating homes and businesses, as well as coal for electricity, and outdated diesel vehicles for transportation, all contribute to Bosnia’s horrific air quality. But in Zenica, according to Lemes’ estimations based on the official register of polluters, some 60 per cent of the air pollution alone is produced by the ArcelorMittal Zenica steel mill, a leading maker of steel products in the Balkans.
Lemes has spent years in a legal battle with that steel mill. Working in collaboration with colleagues at EkoForum, an environmental NGO, Lemes was able to force the privately owned manufacturer to release data about the extent of its pollution. He says that eventually, following street demonstrations and lengthy legal pressure that included criminal charges, the mill agreed to comply with some of the rules regarding ambient air quality. For instance, the company installed filters on blast furnaces, which helped cut emissions.
But Lemes points out that there is still much more work to do. He says the plant’s new environmental permit specified 141 new measures to be implemented over the next five years.
“Some say that the Bosnian way of life is unhealthy: we smoke in public places, drink lots of coffee, eat meat and sweets,” says Lemes, as he stares at the gigantic clouds of smoke spewing from the chimneys of the steelworks, sometimes greyish, sometimes blue and yellowish, sometimes dark charcoal. “But that is our choice.”
Even so, the people have no choice, he notes, in whether they breathe polluted air.
Yet Lemes feels little support from his fellow residents for his ongoing efforts to improve air quality for all Bosnians. “People got tired, because we repeat the same messages year after year,” Lemes admits. “They also think: I don’t have to be active, as he is active. Really, they stop me on the streets, saying, ‘Look how dreadful the air is, why don’t you do more about it?’”
He also reveals he’s received threats from steelworkers, some of whom are afraid to speak out about the pollution due to economic concerns. In Zenica, a town with a population of 110,500, the steel mill employs some 2,200 people, much less than in the late 1980s when over 20,000 employees made it Yugoslavia’s top employer. But for many in the town and its surrounding suburbs, it’s still a main source of employment.
Sentimentality also seems to play a role. Modern Zenica – with its public institutions, including a stadium of the Celik (meaning “steel”) football club, hospital and theatre – was developed during Communist times thanks to support from the steel mill Zeljezara Zenica, a division of which was later privatised by ArcelorMittal. To this day, it is known to many residents as “Zeljezara Majka” (Mother Zeljezara).
“Over the years, the steel mill has indeed been a driving force for Zenica’s development,” Lemeš admits. “But now it’s killing the city.”
Asked what ArcelorMittal has done to cut its pollution, Alena Kahrimanovic, the company’s public relations manager, tells BIRN: “All required data on environmental projects, investments and workers are publicly available.”
She declines to comment on Lemes’ estimate that ArcelorMittal is responsible for 60 per cent of the city’s air pollution.
Enver Hasanbasic can easily see the steelworks’ puffing chimneys from his garden. Along with his wife Rahima, Hasanbasic is a pensioner who splits his time between Zenica and Paris. Their home is located just a stone’s throw from “Zeljezara Majka”.
This was exactly the reason why they, along with one other local family, decided to sue the steelmakers for damaging their health and devaluing their property.
“We couldn’t bring more families on board, because in Bosnia people don’t trust public institutions,” relates the 79-year-old Hasanbasic as he sits in his garden. He adds that many people “don’t believe in justice”, and also lack money for a long battle.
His wife wipes with her finger a thick layer of dust from the windowsill of the garden gazebo and sighs: “On bad days, even taking a breath is a problem.”
“Many are still stuck in a communist mentality that killed individuality,” Hasanbasic continues. “In France, if people are not happy with their authorities, they spontaneously pour into the streets. This is not the case here.”
In 2022, after six years of battle which cost the Hasanbasics more than 10,000 euros, a Bosnian court ruled that the steel mill was responsible for the pollution, as Hasanbasic had alleged. But the court was not able to determine to what extent. The Hasanbasics have therefore received no compensation.
For their part, elected officials have largely been reluctant to tackle the country’s pollution problem, a result of various factors from close ties with the coal industry to the largely dysfunctional management of Bosnia’s energy, a reflection of the country’s complex and highly decentralised governance structure .
“We have become hostages of bad policies and a lack of vision,” says Faris Fejzagic, 49, an activist who administers the Facebook page “Prljavi grad Sarajevo” (Dirty City Sarajevo). “There are solutions on the table, like zero tolerance for the use of coal, plus exploring alternative ways for heating, but it is obvious that they will not be introduced for many years.”
To Lemes’ greatest surprise, deadly pollution seems to be of little interest to the country’s young people. “They have a completely different mindset,” he says, noting that he and his colleagues had “applied an engineering approach: to analyse the problem and look for the solution.”
By contrast, he says, young people have tried to avoid the problem and resort to a familiar solution: they “prefer to depart for Germany or Austria.”
Indeed, Bosnia’s pollution may be quite daunting for those youngsters, who face a dearth of economic opportunities, endemic corruption, high unemployment and rising rents, among other issues. A 2021 UN survey found that 47 per cent of Bosnians aged 18 to 29 ponder emigration, either temporary or permanent, while feeling disillusioned by the lack of prospects at home.
Among those who, against the odds, decided to stay is Dragan Ostic, a 31-year-old activist and member of the Center for Environment, an NGO based in Banja Luka, Bosnia’s second-largest city. Born and raised in Banja Luka’s suburbs, where there are pastures encircled by green belts of forest, Ostic made it his life’s mission to safeguard the natural heritage of both his town and country.
“Bosnia is one of the most beautiful places in Europe. But it seems to me that not all Bosnians know that. When you speak with people, everyone supports our fight. But if you need their voice to be heard, no one is there,” he explains.
“But this is what we have chosen to do in our lives,” Ostic adds, referring to the few environmental activists who push for change in Bosnia. “Even if sometimes it feels almost biblical, like a lonely fight against the big evil.”
Source: Balkan Insight