The Bridge of the Brave Women of Kruščica – Land of absurdity

United under the slogan “Keep thievery away from our river”, the locals of the Vitez municipality are defending the Kruščica River, a future nature park, with their bodies, preventing the construction of small-scale hydropower plants. Among them is a group of women who suffered police brutality at the scene.

As we’re driving towards the village of Kruščica, a scene is replaying in my head, as if from a movie: the locals are gathered in an improvised and wobbly tent and are merrily singing the songs of the local rock group Dubioza Kolektiv, accompanied by the artists themselves. The band members are among many people who are visiting Kruščica to show their support. Within a very short time span, this village in the Vitez municipality and its brave inhabitants have become the talk of the region, well beyond Bosnia and Herzegovina. Two documentaries have already been made about their struggle, and journalists and TV crews are common visitors at the already famous site of the Bridge of the Brave Women of Kruščica. And we truly can’t remember a civic initiative in Bosnia and Herzegovina ever having this much of an impact with the media.

This is the topic of my discussion with a colleague Kasandra from WWF and Viktor Bjelić from the Centre for the Environment from Banja Luka (CZZS). Viktor and his partners from Arnika, a Czech organisation, were among the first to arrive to help the locals. They have plenty of experience in fighting back against the “tsunami” of small-scale hydropower plants making its way in the Balkans.

“The projects of hydropower construction offer no economic benefit to the local population, they don’t create jobs, and their effect on the environment is catastrophic”, says Viktor Bjelić from CZSS.” said Slemenšek.

“Over 300 have been planned for construction in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the number is constantly rising. That means that no river in Bosnia and Herzegovina, all 260-something of them, is going to go unscathed”, says Viktor, quickly calling us back to reality and interrupting our positive vibes following the general cheer, singing and media focus the locals are currently enjoying. “Four hydropower plants are planned for construction here at the Kruščica River, and those plans involve almost the entire waterway to be pipelined. These projects offer no economic benefit to the local population, they don’t create jobs, and their effect on the environment is c catastrophic. And if it weren’t for the state subsidies, they would hardly be rentable for the investors themselves”, Bjelić states. Right around the moment when he started to point out the locations of new small-scale hydropower plants in the world on a map, demonstrating a tendency for Third World with an almost non-existent legal system, we arrive at the BRIDGE.

Heavy rain forces us to immediately seek shelter in the improvised tent where the locals stayed through the winter while preventing the heavy machinery to start their operation. A couple of months ago, when the locals prevented the start of the construction of the hydropower plants, an improvised tent was raised at the location. As time went by, they expanded and insulated it and installed a wood-burning stove. Pep posters, protest photos, newspaper articles and a shift schedule hang on the walls. Mehmed Bilal, the oldest of the protesters, informs me that “the women are on shift until around 6 pm, and the men have the night”.

The atmosphere is warm and friendly; we haven’t even sat down yet, and they’ve already put coffee and Turkish delight on the table. I comment aloud how the whole situations seems to have brought them closer together. If I hadn’t known the reason we’re here, I would’ve thought we crashed a local celebration of some sort. The situation was similar at the large protest they organized last fall. People danced, and the locals served the guests barbecue, pies and other homemade delicacies.

It wasn’t until we started rehashing the events on the bridge chronologically that I noticed signs of trauma and fatigue on their faces, mixed with pride and enthusiasm. Even though we tried to keep the focus of the conversation on the successes of the locals and of the initiative, which is much more organized nowadays, it was impossible to avoid recalling the beginning of this story. Viktor’s phrase about Third World really stuck in my mind. Even though there is a legal framework in Bosnia and Herzegovina obliging the authorities and the investors to include the local community in the planning and decision-making processes, those regulations are consistently ignored.

“With Kruščica, they plagiarised the consent of the locals. The list contained the names of some of the deceased locals”, Haris Hurem says.

“With Kruščica, they plagiarised the consent of the locals; in a personal home of one of the former representatives of the local community council, around 40 people signed off their consent for the projects. The others didn’t have a clue what was going on, and there are over 2,000 people living in the village”, says Haris Hurem. “The list contained the names of some of the deceased locals. The four small-scale hydropower plants were subsequently added into the spatial plan of the Vitez municipality, in which the Kruščica Mountain had been listed as a protected area. We found this out accidentally from one of our locals working in the municipal hall. We organized amongst ourselves quickly and informed anyone who could help us.”

Apart from the CZZS, the first ones to arrive were the people from the neighbouring Fojnica municipality: “We spent 325 days in the canyon of the Željeznica River in Fojnica, on vigil day and night, fighting against the same threat that our friends from Kruščica are facing today. Speaking from experience, we advised the locals of Kruščica to put women at the front while blocking the roads. It worked for us, since the security personnel brought over by the investor didn’t want to use force on women”, Robert Oroz, the president of the Eko Gotuša Association of Fojnica, explains.

On 24 August 2017, special police forces brutally assaulted the women who were bravely blocking the pathway of the machinery with their bodies in order to prevent the start of the construction works.

At this point, sadly, we come to the moment mentioned at the beginning of the text, the reason the women of Kruščica received so much media attention. Sadly, in spite of all the difficulties and troubles that post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina is going through, no one could have expected the events that took place at the Kruščica bridge. On 24 August 2017, special police forces brutally assaulted the women who were bravely blocking the pathway of the machinery with their bodies in order to prevent the start of the construction works.

“We sat on the bridge and joined hands; the men were behind us. The situation was tense and we wanted to avoid the confrontation of the men with the police. It wasn’t regular police, but special forces wearing armour”, Maida Bilal recalls, and the last thing she remembers is a boot in front of her face. “After that, I closed my eyes and it was chaos, noise, tears and sobbing…”

Epilogue: 18 local women injured, as well as a son trying to protect his mother. To make things worse, the local Vitez health centre refused to give them a certificate regarding their injuries, so they had to go to nearby Travnik.

Nowadays, Maida Bilal is an activist and main operative at the Eko Bistro Association founded by the locals. Maida also represents the association in the River Protection Coalition of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The establishment of the association and cooperation with other B&H; associations is just one of the accomplishments of the Kruščica locals.

“First, we had to replace the current local community council members”, Tahira Tabold, the newly-elected president of the Kruščica community council, joins in. “I think this is the first time in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and even beyond, that over 800 people show up to vote at the community council elections. We simultaneously drafted the petition against the constructions of the hydropower plants, with only a small number of locals refusing to sign it. The local Roma community is also involved, and we made sure that all constituent ethnic groups of Bosnia and Herzegovina are involved in the initiative. We are aware that we are of interest to political parties, due to such a large number of supporters, and that may be the reason we elected women, who were, unfortunately, not as politically active at the head of the community council”, Tibold proudly states.

And they didn’t stop there. With the support of the River Protection Coalition of B&H;, they hired an attorney-at-law to represent them at all court proceedings. This resulted in the court overruling the misdemeanour charged against the women on grounds of public misconduct, and they won the case against the investors for disregard of the procedures for issuing an urban planning and environmental permit. “This decision bans the construction of two small-scale hydropower plants (out of four that were planned) and we’re waiting for the court’s ruling in the reassessment”, Hata Hurem explains, not letting go of her cell phone due to constantly being in touch with the attorney. “These rulings are a comfort and they give us the strength to carry on. We’ve been here for over 300 days, a lot of things has happened, and we’re being provoked on a daily basis in all sorts of ways”.

As she said that, the tent erupted in a commotion with the locals starting to demonstrate their defiance. The same defiance that stopped heavy machines and special police forces. The men arriving from work to take over the shift join the conversation and claim loudly: “To hell with their provocations! We’ll be here for as long as it takes”.

The conversation is coming to an end as we’re discussing other problems in the village. For example, the absurd situation in which half of the village doesn’t have a functioning water supply system, and the Kruščica spring is supplying the town of Zenica. The absurd situation in which the entire former tourism-related infrastructure in the village is destroyed, but illegal felling is as vibrant as ever. We’re left with the impression that it’s those people that represent the very best of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and everything around them is – absurdity.