In order to draw attention to the dirty air, Samir Lemeš made an unorthodox move. In mid-November, he invited the leaders of all four major religions in Bosnia-Herzegovina to a lecture about how detrimental pollution is to the health of their congregants.
“People in Bosnia don’t listen to the politicians,” said Lemeš, a 54-year-old professor and environmental activist from the industrial town of Zenica, in central Bosnia-Herzegovina. “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.”
Levels of deadly pollutants regularly exceed what the World Health Organization says is safe for human health, especially during winter months.
The goal, however, was not really to explain the facts of toxic air.
In Bosnia, a multiethnic Balkan country whose cities have long been listed among the most polluted in Europe, the statistics are public knowledge. Levels of deadly pollutants regularly exceed what the World Health Organization says is safe for human health, especially during winter months, when temperatures drop and people heat their homes with firewood or even charcoal. Thick clouds of smog are common, especially in the country’s capital, Sarajevo, which is located in a deep valley surrounded by tall mountains.
Lemeš wanted to convince the religious leaders that something can be done.
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“Many in Bosnia believe that air pollution is God's will and people should not interfere,” Lemeš told OZY. After speaking with the group of religious leaders, he said, “The response was mostly positive. Many leaders asked for further information, as they seemingly didn’t know much about fighting pollution.”
Reliance on coal and wood for heating homes and businesses, as well as coal for electricity, and outdated diesel vehicles for transportation, all contribute to Bosnia’s horrific air quality. According to Lemeš’ estimations based on the official register of polluters, some 60% of the air pollution in Zenica is produced by the steel mill, ArcelorMittal Zenica, a leading maker of steel products in the Balkans.
Lemeš has spent years in a legal battle with that steel mill. Working in collaboration with colleagues at EkoForum, an environmental NGO, Lemeš and others were able to force the privately owned manufacturer to release data about the extent of its pollution. He said that, after street demonstrations and lengthy legal pressure that included criminal charges, the mill eventually agreed to comply with some of the rules regarding ambient air quality. For instance, the company installed filters on blast furnaces, thus reducing emissions. But Lemeš pointed out there is still much more work to do. He said the plant’s new environmental permit specified 141 new measures to be implemented in the next five years.
Many are still stuck in communist mentality that killed individuality. In France, if people are not happy with their authorities, they spontaneously pour into the streets. This is not the case here.
- Enver Hasanbasic
“Some say that the Bosnian way of life is unhealthy. We smoke in public places, drink lots of coffee, eat meat and sweets,” Lemeš said. “But this is our choice.” The people have no choice, he noted, in whether they breathe polluted air.
Yet Lemeš 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,” Lemeš admitted. “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?’”
Some people are afraid to act out against pollution due to economic concerns. In Zenica, a town with a population of 110,500, the steelworks employs some 2,200. Emotional sentiment also seems to play a role. Modern Zenica, with its public institutions, including a football stadium, hospital and theater, was developed during communist times thanks to support from the steel mill Željezara Zenica, a division of which was later privatized by ArcelorMittal.To this day, it is known to many residents as “Željezara Majka,” or “Mother Željezara.”
Asked what ArcelorMittal has done to decrease its pollution, Alena Kahrimanović, the company's public relations manager, said that, “All required data on environmental projects, investments and workers are publicly available.” She declined to comment on Lemeš' estimate that ArcelorMittal is responsible for 60% of the city’s air pollution.
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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 “Željezara 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,” said Hasanbasic, 79, sitting in his garden. He added that many people “don’t believe in justice,” and also lack money for a long battle.
“Many are still stuck in communist mentality that killed individuality,” said Hasanbasic. “In France, if people are not happy with their authorities, they spontaneously pour into the streets. This is not the case here.”
When you speak with people, everyone supports our fight. But if you need their voice to be heard, no one is there.
- Dragan Ostić
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. Hasanbasic has therefore received no compensation.
For their part, elected officials have largely been reluctant to tackle the country’s pollution problem.
“We have become hostages of bad policies and the lack of vision,” said Faris Fejzagić, 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.” He said any progress would require coordination of “all levels of government,” and that no forward movement would be possible during the current energy crisis.
To Lemeš’ greatest surprise, deadly pollution seems to be of little interest to the country’s young people.
“They have a completely different mindset,” he said, noting that he and his colleagues had “applied an engineering approach: to analyze the problem and look for the solution.” By contrast, he said, young people have tried to avoid the problem. 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 U.N. survey found that 47% 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 Ostić, a 31-year-old activist and member of the Center for Environment, a 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, Ostić made it his life’s mission to safeguard the natural heritage of both his town and country.
“When you speak with people, everyone supports our fight. But if you need their voice to be heard, no one is there,” he explained.
“But this is what we have chosen to do in our lives,” Ostić added, referring to the few activists with whom he collaborates. “Even if sometimes it feels almost biblical, like a lonely fight against the big evil.”
This story was prepared as part of the BIRN’s Reporting Democracy Travel & Reporting Programme.
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