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The Brave Women of Bosnia

Molly Baker  /  September 26, 2018  /  10 Min Read  /  Activism

Photo: Andrew Burr

Activism and the feminine spirit unite to save Europe’s last wild rivers.

Mornings in Fojnica, Bosnia-Herzegovina, bring a harmony of Franciscan monastery bells and the broadcast of Fajr prayer, the valley draped in fog and wood smoke. As the fog lifts, hills speckled with the first yellows of fall appear, sloping gently to the creeks and rivers sneaking through the inflowing valleys.

Sumbulka Milicevic, known as Sumbe, has lived in her house on the Željeznica River near Fojnica for 33 years. An hour northwest of Sarajevo, Fojnica is a couple miles from the village where Sumbe grew up. She moved for love. “In Bosnia we say that good women marry within their village,” says Viktor Bjelic, a founder of Center for the Environment, a Bosnian NGO working to protect the local waterways. Sumbe shakes her head laughing, “Maybe some think we should marry in our villages. Many women marry downstream. I married upstream, like a good, strong fish.”

We’re in Sumbe’s backyard on the banks of the Željeznica. Her matronly hair, penciled-in lipstick and floral scarf make her look like the grandmother that she is. In high-heeled sandals with white tube socks, she sashays around the kitchen preparing chicken, rice and cabbage salad before running around the yard serving each of us. Viktor chain-smokes, his dark beard hiding a stern face. He’s mostly quiet as Sumbe happily narrates her life in Fojnica.

The Brave Women of Bosnia

The Željeznica River is one of the last wild rivers on the European continent and risks being completely drained if plans for two hydropower diversion dams are successful. Photo: Andrew Burr

“Most of what we need comes from our backyards,” Sumbe says. “As children especially, we never bought fruits or vegetables.” The apple tree in the front of the house is healthy, yielding crisp red fruit. A friend of Sumbe’s enjoys a fallen apple between puffs of a hand-rolled cigarette and a Turkish coffee. “If we don’t have water in the river,” Sumbe says, “we don’t have any water for the fruit trees.”

On the drive from Sarajevo to Fojnica, nearly every home—most separated by tidy, abundant green gardens and proud haystacks—remains pockmarked by mortar rounds and bullet holes from the Bosnian war. Though an agreement endorsed by a local Roman Catholic priest and Muslim imam initially kept the peace locally, once the Bosnian Army invaded in 1993, most of Fojnica erupted in fighting. I’d even read a horrific account of about 200 physically and mentally handicapped children who were abandoned for three days in a hospital there. (Canadian troops, on behalf of the United Nations, rescued those who remained.)

Now another conflict is quietly mounting. Bosnia-Herzegovina’s rich freshwater resources are under attack. More than 3,000 hydropower dams are either proposed or in the process of being built in the Balkans—on the last wild rivers in Europe. These dams will cause irreversible damage to rivers, wildlife and local communities.

The Brave Women of Bosnia

Nelina Ahmic, inviting us to take a drink from the Kruščica River, the freshwater resource she and other locals will lose if Higracon, an energy company from Sarajevo, wins the fight to build a diversion dam. Photo: Andrew Burr

Throughout the Balkans, many of these hydropower projects are indirectly funded by large international institutions, such as the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, most are small-scale hydropower projects—often illegal or concessions given to private companies by local governments—with less then 10MW installed capacity. No environmental impact assessment is required for projects of this size.

Three hundred new hydropower dams are plotted in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which will impede nearly all of the country’s 244 rivers, with some waterways destroyed by dozens of destructive dams. If any dam were built upstream, the Željeznica behind Sumbe’s home would run dry, diverting water to larger nearby municipalities, and every house in the village would lose its source of fresh water for agriculture and drinking.

From August 2012 to June 2013, Sumbe and other Fojnica locals held a 325-day protest to stop two planned dams on the Željeznica. For 24 hours every day, 1,200 men and women took shifts near the river, blocking the road so hydropower construction crews sneaking into the Željeznica River canyon couldn’t build. They won.

“Really, the only thing that truly belongs to us, that we feel is ours, is the river, the surrounding landscape,” Sumbe says. “And there have always been people trying to take what is ours.”

The Brave Women of Bosnia

“The Bridge of the Brave Women of Kruščica” at their outpost where they have been protesting since August 3, 2017. Photo: Andrew Burr

Bosnia-Herzegovina has always been ethnically diverse; a region where the East and West met. Where rivers and their cultures flowed together. It’s also seen more than its share of bloodshed.

In March 1991, Croatia, to the north of what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina, declared independence from Yugoslavia, and Serbia formed a new separate Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, opening the Bosnian war. Within a year, Bosnian Serbs called for the “ethnic cleansing” of the Bosnian Muslim majority, and on April 6, 1992, Serb troops began shelling Sarajevo and crossing the Drina River to attack Muslim majority villages on the border.

At one point, I ask Viktor about the Serb invasion of Sarajevo. “This is only one part of the story,” he says. Viktor was born in Banja Luka, the capital of the Republika Srpska—the Serb Republic—which remains as one of the two constitutional and legal entities of Bosnia-Herzegovina. “The details of who did what to whom in the war are not important,” he insists.

In August 1995, a NATO intervention led to a cease-fire, peace talks and, finally, the Dayton Peace Agreement, signed in Paris on December 14, 1995. By then, as many as 200,000 people were estimated to have been killed or to have gone missing. Today, 80,000 land mines remain in the country and have killed nearly 2,000 civilians in the years since Dayton.

The rivers of Bosnia-Herzegovina don’t recognize religion, politics or borders. They provide sustenance to all—a common heritage. And having lived through the war, Sumbe says, the people of Fojnica do not scare easily.

On a visit to where they held their 2012–13 protest, she points out a woman in a brown leather jacket. “They beat her up,” Sumbe says, referring to security guards hired by the dam investors to disrupt the blockade. “And her,” Sumbe adds, gesturing to a woman in a long magenta coat and knee-high boots. “They broke her arm.”

“We decided to have the men guard the site during the day, and the women at night,” Sumbe says. “We thought it’d be safer to have the women there at night because the guards would surely not become violent with us.” They were wrong. One woman was strangled until she lost consciousness.

The Brave Women of Bosnia

Built in 1959, the Idbar Dam cracked soon after its construction. Investors and construction crews had ignored multiple warnings from the locals not to underestimate the force of the Bašćica, a river known to be unpredictable and fast-flowing. Idbar was decommissioned soon after it was constructed, when the river began fracturing the dam, allowing the Bašćica to flow freely again. Konjic, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo: Andrew Burr

Despite the constant physical risk, the women I meet have fond memories of that time, too—of playing cards and eating cookies they’d baked for each other. The Christmas holidays at the site. One woman lived most of her pregnancy camped out at night in the lean-to hut the community built for the 24/7 surveillance (she was rushed to the hospital to give birth to her son near the end of their protest).

They laugh, linking arms as they tell their stories. They pull me along to the banks of the river to show me what they’d fought to protect—the river they’d been attacked for defending.

Nelina Ahmic has a piercing blue sadness in her eyes when she speaks about the small dam projects planned for the Kruščica River. Like the women of Fojnica, Nelina and other locals are guarding a small bridge that allows access to the upper Kruščica. About 31 miles northwest of Fojnica, they’d heard of protests on other rivers in Bosnia-Herzegovina—the Željeznica, Una, Neretva, Sana—and decided they could defend their water, too. They keep watch 24/7.

Walking along the Kruščica, one can see similar fruit, poplar and willow trees, and small gardens that feed the local villages. Already, nearly 80 percent of the Kruščica is diverted to the nearby municipalities of Zenica and Vitez for their water supply. If any additional dams are built, they’d lose the last of their water.

We sit near the bridge where the villagers have been protesting since August 3, 2017, the day that Higracon, an energy company in Sarajevo, was granted permission by regional authorities to build a dam. Nervously shaking, a twitch in her cheek as she fights back tears, Nelina describes summers along the Kruščica before the war: tourism, children swimming, and lamb roasting on open fires for feasts in the evening. Her facial expression almost never changes, except when I see her walk to the river, cup her hands and drink from it. She smiles when she shows us that they—the locals, lynx and bears—can still savor water straight from the source here.

“We are strong because first they attacked us, bombing and shooting our villages,” says Nelina. “Now they are trying to take our water and the places in nature where our children will play.”

On August 24, 2017, at 4:30 a.m., special police forces arrived to find 54 local women at the bridge. The police began threatening the women to leave, then beating them, so Higracon’s trucks and excavators could cross the bridge. Some women were arrested, fined upward of 200 euros and later summoned to the municipal court. Since then, the bridge was given the name, “The Bridge of the Brave Women of Kruščica.” Despite the beatings, court summons and fines, the women are still guarding the bridge.

Nelina talks of her sister killed in the war; another woman, of her husband—Croat soldiers forced her to watch him murdered in the massacre in Ahmići. The impacts of these atrocities are visible everywhere: in their eyes, on the buildings, in their ferocity to protect what gives them life. The name of every river in this country ends with an “a,” assigning them a feminine gender in today’s Bosnian language. At a time when most of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s rivers are under threat, it’s appropriate that these women, these survivors of war, have emerged as their greatest advocates.

A few days later, we meet with Nataša Crnkovic, president of Center for the Environment, on the Bašćica River, where the inoperable Idbar Dam is slowly disintegrating. Nataša’s wild pile of dark curls frames her cherubic face, as she too puffs on a cigarette. Nataša proclaims that if she ever has a daughter, she will name her after her favorite river, the Sana, which means, health. “The Sana could be symbolic of Bosnia as a whole—it connects all the regions and ethnic groups in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” she says. “And it is pristine and full of life.”

Nataša helped run a campaign against a dam on the Sana. It included nine lawsuits, dozens of appeals and other legal procedures, media statements, local round-table discussion, a petition and protests with several hundred people at the construction site. “The fight against hydropower in Bosnia has moved from offices to the rivers,” says Nataša. “The protestors are stronger than police brutality and small government games.”

We walk down a slight embankment to the trickle of water coming through a human-sized hole in the dam. Luka Tomac, a Croatian photographer, and several of his friends put up ladders at the bottom of the dam. Some prepare to repel from the midsection. They are there to make some repairs on a 49-foot mural on the dam’s wall. The mural makes it appear as if a woman is swinging a sledgehammer to expand the hole in the dam. Next to the hole reads, Sloboda Rijekama! (Freedom to the Rivers!).

The Brave Women of Bosnia

The Franciscan monastery, central mosque and inflowing river valleys of Fojnica, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Photo: Andrew Burr

Built in 1959 in the valley below Prenj Mountain near Konjic, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Idbar Dam cracked soon af ter its construction. Investors and construction crews had ignored multiple warnings from the locals not to underestimate the force of the Bašćica. Decommissioned soon after it was completed, it’s been slowly disintegrating ever since.

“Women are connected to the communities, to the nature around their villages,” Nataša says, as we wait. “They are thinking in the long term about their country and local resources.”

Hydropower is short-term thinking. It’s the only “renewable” energy source that sends species to extinction, while displacing people and contributing to climate change. Eighty percent of rivers in the Balkans are very healthy—the opposite of most waterways in central Europe—and 91 percent of the planned Balkan hydropower dams will produce little energy. Is it worth the energy gained to destroy a perennial source of life?

On the Željeznica, the community gathered 1,200 signatures in 2012 opposing the dams and filed a case against the environmental permit the investors had acquired. The company managing the dam project began having problems with taxes, and all its equipment was confiscated and put up for auction. Additionally, the environmental certificate the company needed to proceed was finally rejected—so it gave up.

On the Kruščica, the local women still guard the bridge to stop illegal construction crews from crossing the river to the proposed dam site, despite a June 2018 court ruling that annulled the environmental permit. The next step in the women’s fight is to convince Minister Salkan Merdžanić to delete two concessions for dam construction on the river, preventing any companies or private investors from advancing future hydropower plans.

This story is featured in the September 2018 Patagonia Catalog.

To learn more about the problems with hydropower, the proposed dams in the Balkans and our new film, Blue Heart, visit

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