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Bosnia-Herzegovina Report #6 - Migrants, environmental wreckage, sports
By Peter Lippman
September 2018


2018 Report index

Report 1: Anger, activism, exodus
Report 2: Srebrenica
Report 3: Kozarac and Prijedor
Report 4
Chicanery in the RS, Activism in Banja Luka
Report 5: Elections and stability in Bosnia-Herzegovina
Report 6: Migrants, environmental wreckage, sports

Previous journals and articles

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When I was in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in late 2015, tens of thousands of migrants and refugees from north Africa and the Middle East were flooding through the "Balkan route" to Europe. They came from Syria, Libya, and beyond, through Turkey, Greece, and Macedonia. Hundreds drowned in the Mediterranean. The survivors made their way from Macedonia into Serbia, and then into the European Union, via EU members Hungary and Croatia. From there—if they made it that far—they could continue, with more ease, to richer countries to start a new life. Thousands were mistreated and rebuffed, with Hungary notoriously locking people up in train cars as they built a wall along their border.

Almost no one bothered to try to come through Bosnia, but with increasing difficulties at the borders between Serbia and the EU, that has changed. In 2017, fewer than a thousand migrants entered Bosnia. But this year, to date, that number is up over 11,000, and it has caused quite a commotion in the country.

As with pretty much every other country along the route, Bosnia—the poorest and most unstable country in the region—was not ready for the influx of people from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and Libya. Agencies at different levels of government have not cooperated with each other. Opportunistic politicians have reacted with hyperbole and manipulation. Some ordinary people have responded fearfully, but most have tried to be kind and helpful.

By April over a hundred migrants were crossing into Bosnia every day, mainly from Serbia, with thousands more people stuck there, hoping to move on. The influx had become prominent in the newspapers. People were coming across the Drina River from Serbia at midnight in rubber rafts and improvised crafts, and then hiding in cornfields. There were several near-drownings. Most of the crossings were in the municipalities of Srebrenica, Bratunac, and Zvornik. Bosnian border police caught the migrants and returned them to Serbia (or Montenegro) when they could, and then the migrants would try again. At times, migrants became aggressive and threw rocks at the police.

Migrants were turning up in the cities all down the eastern border with Serbia, from Bijeljina to Gacko, and were moving on to Biha
ć and Velika Kladuša, towards Croatia, in the northwest Bosnian region, called the Krajina. They tended to leave the Serb-controlled entity as fast as they could. Some hundreds of people gathered in improvised tent shelters in a park near the old City Hall (Vijećnica) in Sarajevo. One group occupied the former apartment of Radovan Karadžić, near the center of the city.

By mid-May nearly 4,000 migrants had entered Bosnia, with as many as could do so moving on towards the EU. In Sarajevo, the Canton's Ministry of the Interior organized a convoy of five buses, carrying over 250 people, to go to Salakovac, a migrant camp near Mostar. But when the convoy arrived at the border between Sarajevo Canton and Herceg-Neretva Canton near Konjic (the border between Herzegovina and central Bosnia), police stopped the convoy and attempted to turn it back. They were officials of the Croat-dominated Herzegovina-Neretva Canton, who decided that they did not want to welcome the migrants into their region. There was a standoff for half a day at Ivan Sedlo, a tunnel entrance at the cantonal border, until the local police backed off and let the convoy through. This was the first prominent episode in a series of many scandalous, politicized abuses of the migrants.

Since then, mayors in the cities of the northwest have proclaimed their cities "under attack" and "at war" with the migrants, although there have been very few incidents of crime or violence associated with them. Those mayors have engaged in their own rhetorical war with Minister of Security Dragan Mektić, who has distinguished himself by avoiding hyperbole and by attempting to tone down the hysteria. In the last couple of months, in addition to Salakovac, collective centers have been set up in the Krajina area and near Sarajevo.

There have been a few incidents of violence inside the camps, with weary travelers acting out their frustrations. There was a report of local people keeping a "night watch" in the vicinity of the camps. Some locals claimed that the migrants were eating ducks from the River Una. But on the other hand, non-governmental organizations—Kvart from Prijedor, Basoc from Banja Luka—and individuals have organized to provide the migrants with food and clothing.

I had witnessed groups of men from the Middle East at the main bus station in Sarajevo. In July, walking through Oslobodjenje Square in Sarajevo, I talked to a man from Algeria named Karim. I mentioned that it was dangerous and difficult to go to Croatia or the rest of Europe from Bosnia. Karim told me that he had friends—Algerians, not Bosnians—whom he trusted to help him. But he told me that he wanted to stay in Bosnia.

I commented that many Bosnians were leaving their own country, and that it was hard to get work there. "Algeria is rich,
" Karim said, "I have a car, a woman, and a house in Algeria, but I don't have freedom. You can't buy freedom," he said. Karim told me that he wanted to be in Bosnia where he could drink beer; in Algeria people would kill him for that. He also wanted to stay in Bosnia because "it's Muslim—I don't hate Christians or anyone else, but I'm comfortable here."

Karim then asked me where I was from. I said America. After a little bit, he said, "But you don't have an accent like an American. You have an accent like...a policeman," and he walked away suddenly. After a moment, he came back and asked for some change. When I gave him 20 KM, he hugged me.

In a report from mid-August, migrants at the Salakovac center were quoted as praising the local people and making friends with them. One said that "Bosnia is a fine country, but we can see that the local people are not happy either."

By mid-August over 10,000 migrants had entered Bosnia, but only between 2,000 and 3,000 remained. Most people would enter the country declaring that they wished to file for political asylum, as this would help secure their right to temporary refuge. But only a few hundred actually filed. Most wished to move on.

In a migrant camp near Velika Kladuša journalists interviewed a sixteen-year-old from Syria. Faysa said, "I come from Homs in Syria. My family remained there. I left Syria a year ago. I came through Turkey, Greece, Albania, Montenegro, and now I am here. I want to get to Italy or Germany."

And Sana Ullah, from Pakistan, said, "I started traveling because we have many problems in our country. My family is in Pakistan. My two cousins and two friends are with me. I came through Italy, and I want to get to France. My cousin is there, and I want to work there. The situation here in the camp is good. We have come through many countries. In every country we had some problems, but here, in Bosnia, people are good. The local people help us, they are all pleasant and friendly. The problem is in Croatia."

Most of the movement of migrants was taking place in the Croat- and Bosniak-controlled Federation. President of the RS Dodik was having none of it. He accused the Bosniak leaders of plotting to resettle migrants in the RS "to change the demographic structure" in that entity. He said, "What they are planning in Sarajevo is useless; we are the ones who decide here." And he refused to set up any refugee camps in the RS.

The number of migrants who have succeeded in entering the EU is down significantly from last year, with a drop of more than 15%. There is no safe or legal way to cross into Croatia and Slovenia, so people have risked crossing through woods and farm fields. They are being met with increasing brutality on the Croatian side, with border police detaining and beating hundreds of migrants, stealing their money, breaking their cell phones, and at times molesting the women. They have strip-searched people and destroyed their personal documents, detained them in closed cells, and denied access to asylum procedures. They have beaten men, women, and children, and chased them back across the borders into Bosnia, sometimes using cattle prods, and sometimes dogs.

There are friendly local Croatians who would try to help the migrants by showing them the way to move on to Slovenia, but there were others, sometimes bribed by the police, who would turn them in. Slovenian police have behaved similarly, cooperating closely with the Croatian police. They have been especially brutal towards those migrants who tried to declare their wish to gain asylum, as that would give the police specific responsibilities to take care of them.

The Croatian police have denied that they have violated international law by hurting and expelling the migrants. But organizations including the No Name Kitchen, based in Velika Kladuša, and the Balkan Info Van have monitored hundreds of cases, just in the last month or so, of such behavior. For example, see this article:
Illegal push-backs and border violence from the EU external borders to Bosnia. You can learn more about the migrant crisis throughout Europe and beyond at the web site of Are You Syrious.

Toxic Capitalism in Bosnia

In the first ten or fifteen years after the war, many people in Bosnia-Herzegovina spoke of "going to Europe" (joining the EU) as if it were just about synonymous with going to heaven. For a long time, I wondered what the role of Bosnia could be in Europe. Eventually it became clear to me that the role of Bosnia would be, at best, that of second-class citizen, continuing to be exploited as a supplier of raw materials, cheap labor, and educated workers as well.

For now, however, Bosnia-Herzegovina is not getting any closer to joining the EU. But the careless international and domestic economic exploitation of Bosnia, which has accellerated ever since the end of the war, continues apace. Here's just one example: GIKIL in Lukavac near Tuzla. This company produces coke (fuel-grade refined coal), ammonium sulphate, benzene, and a number of other scary-sounding chemicals. GIKIL not only exports from Bosnia; it imports coal for its own industrial use and then, in a textbook example of toxic capitalism, defiles the local environment. And since the majority share of the company is foreign-owned, much of the profit from exports remains outside Bosnia in foreign hands.

Partly owned by Tuzla Canton, GIKIL is part of a multi-national company. Its director is Debashish Ganguly, a businessman and scientist out of India. His company, said to be the fourth-largest exporter in Bosnia, employs about a thousand workers and has recorded an annual trade of a billion KM.

If you pull on the thread of multi-national companies associated with GIKIL, you'll have enough wool to knit sweaters for all the migrants in Europe. GIKIL's parent company is
GSHL, Global Steel Holdings Limited, with its home office on the Isle of Man. GSHL is a "holding entity" for the wealthy Mittal family, based in India. It has investments in Nigeria, Dubai, Bulgaria, and the UAE, among others, and it is connected through shareholding to a half-dozen other international corporations. GSHL has been criticized numerous times in several countries—and faced lawsuits in the UK—for violations ranging from environmental destruction to failure to pay debts.

I find the complicated lineage of GIKIL fascinating because it is one of many cases you can investigate that reveal the nitty-gritty role of Bosnia-Herzegovina in the world economy. I've looked into other local industries in the country and found the same paradigm: careless international companies swoop down on Bosnia, collaborate with domestic politicians, scoop up local resources, and defile the local environment. At the bottom of the pyramid, Bosnian workers receive low pay, suffer from poor working conditions, with minimal benefits, and get paid late or not at all.

If you think of pollution in Bosnia, you'd be on the mark if you first mentioned Zenica, home of the Mittal steel plant. But Tuzla, with its signature coal-burning energy plants right at the entrance to the city, is also notoriously polluted. Before the war, people proverbially smoked cigarettes there "to have something cleaner to breathe." The presence of a rich store of minerals in the surrounding area has driven industrial development since Austro-Hungarian times, and with it, environmental destruction. Just between Tuzla and Lukavac there are ten highly polluting industries. And in Lukavac municipality stand three of the ten worst polluters in the entire Federation.

The Federation and Canton governments, like all other levels of government in Bosnia-Herzegovina, have been extremely lax about enforcing laws that protect the environment. The political party / corporate nexus dictates that ruling parties (the strankokratija, "party-ocracy") turn a blind eye to the behavior of the public corporations they control and which enrich their leaders. This dynamic allows companies such as GIKIL to pay negligible fines for environmental violations, rather than clean up their messes or invest in updating obsolete equipment. GIKIL has customarily avoided any significant investment in upgrading its plant; since taking over the factory in 2003, it has only spent some 900,000 KM out of a promised 110 million KM.

In Tuzla Canton, the resulting pollution leads to increased youth-onset asthma and higher incidence of cancer. It is estimated that some 3,500 people die each year from air pollution.

It's the same problem around the country. In Ugljevik there's a thermo-electric plant that is considered to be the worst emitter of sulfur-dioxide among all such plants in the Western Balkans. And overuse of water from Lake Jablanica is drying up the lake. That water is going to produce electricity for the aluminum plant near Mostar; that plant, and the state-run electrical company, are gold mines for the SDA and the HDZ.

Back in Lukavac, GIKIL was responsible for two environmental disasters in the past few months. In May the company allowed a massive spill of tar into the nearby
Spreča River. In that incident, three workers were injured. At the beginning of August, GIKIL spilled several hundred cubic meters of ammonia, some of which also ended up in the river. In that incident seven workers were seriously injured. The land, air, and soil around Lukavac are in a dangerous state.

If you look at GIKIL's web site, you see that it touts its sense of environmental responsibility, saying that it will plant thousands of trees around Lukavac to absorb CO2. But there have been no announcements from the company since late July.

The recent environmental disasters caused by GIKIL led to a public outcry that forced canton and entity officials to respond. After some pressure, mayor of Lukavac Edin Delić issued a statement blaming outmoded technology and "criminal privatization," along with the fact that the canton has been lax in its inspections and, as co-owner of GIKIL, has done "nothing that it should have done." Delić continued, "It's true that the amount of coke produced brings in millions. But, no one talks about the fact that GIKIL is also one of the biggest importers; it brings in coal from Venezuela, then burns it here without any kind of responsibility, and then sells the coke in Serbia, and all the profit goes to Great Britain and beyond—leaving all the poison here."

A textbook model, indeed. In mid-August Tomislav Ljubić, Tuzla Canton Prosecutor, inspected the GIKIL plant. He was horrified by what he saw, relating that the workers walk around "without the minimum protection...you can't breathe from the ammonia and evaporation [of dangerous chemicals]." He declared, "In GIKIL you have an industrial plant that is a real atomic bomb."

Around this time, the Federal Ministry for the Environment and Tourism rejected an application by GIKIL for an environmental permit; in fact, it has not received one since 2012. So towards the end of August a Federal environmental inspector ordered the plant to shut down, requiring GIKIL to locate polluting substances in its vicinity, to clean them up, and then to acquire the necessary environmental permits to resume operation. This, after GIKIL had ignored repeated demands from the inspector to clean up. Soon afterwards, Director Debasish Ganguly was arrested, but not jailed. The Minister of Tourism is negotiating with Ganguly, and the unions are concerned about the loss of livelihood with the shut-down of the plant. But, presumably the benefit of a cleaner environment outweighs the immediate economic impact.

Meanwhile, GSHL, GIKIL's parent company, has gotten into big trouble due to massive debts to other British corporations. It has been ordered to liquidate its holdings and to discontinue functioning as administrator of GIKIL.

Sports and nationalism

In the practice of sports there's a spectrum of behavior that starts with Hellenism and ends approximating war. That is, one can recognize the joyful aspects of physical excellence, teamwork, youthful pride in accomplishment, and maybe even healthy competition. At the other end, especially in connection with commercial sports, people's natural competitive impulse gets tied up with the pathology called nationalism. Fan behavior associated with sports tournaments quickly becomes vicious, hateful, and sometimes violent, tempting me to conclude that sports are the continuation of war by other means.

This dynamic plays out, certainly, in the context of the World Cup, which was taking place while I was in Bosnia. At a certain point it became clear that Croatia was going to do well. Bosnia had not made it to the tournament and, while I was visiting Kozarac, Serbia lost out as well. People in Kozarac were relieved when the Serbian team lost. That is because in previous years, whenever Serbia a game, local Serb nationalists would celebrate by driving a parade of cars through mostly-Muslim Kozarac, honking, shouting nationalist slogans, and sometimes firing weapons in the air.

It was interesting to see who rooted for Croatia in the World Cup besides, naturally, the Bosnian Croats. Muslims who had experienced mistreatment from Croat nationalists around central Bosnia and in western Herzegovina were not interested in Croatia's success. On the other hand, Muslims who had been victimized by nationalist Serbs in the Krajina and elsewhere, right along with Bosnian Croats, rooted for Croatia. And normal Serbs, Croats, and Muslims everywhere said, "They''re our neighbors, and we're happy for them." I was hesitant at first, due to the prospects for resounding displays of Croatian nationalism, but I eventually came around to supporting Croatia.

Over in Serbia, one sports commentator said, "Civic Serbia will root for Croatia, while chauvinistic Serbia will hope for their most convincing defeat." And Serbian tennis star Novak
Đoković also publicly rooted for Croatia. Both figures were condemned in public, with the otherwise popular Đoković being called a "psychopath, a fool, and a complete idiot."

In the end, Croatia made it to the championship match and was defeated by France, coming in second overall. It was still a moment of glory for a relatively small country that defeated Argentina, Spain, Russia, and England. Glorious enough to justify grand celebrations back home.

Unfortunately, to some extent the celebrations were sullied by the phenomenon of
Marko Perković "Thompson." Thompson, nicknamed after the American machine gun, is a pop singer who has worked up an unsavory reputation by glorifying, in coded and not-so-coded lyrics, the history of the Ustashe, the WWII Croatian Nazi collaborators. One of his songs, and many of his concerts, begin with the Ustashe slogan, "Za dom spremni!", i.e., "For the homeland, ready!" The innocent-sounding phrase has historical connotations similar to "Sieg heil" in German.

Thompson is a polarizing figure in Croatia and Bosnia, where he periodically shows up to perform. Of course, there are thousands of radical Croatian (and Bosnian Croat) nationalists who adore him. On the other side, large numbers of ordinary people would rather he faded from the limelight.

One of Thompson's songs is the official theme song of the Croatian football team, and he is friendly with the players—to the extent that he was on the team bus as it was entering Zagreb from the airport upon the return from the World Cup. It also happens that President of Croatia Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović has declared that Thompson is her favorite musician.

It's a problem when the president of a country that's a member of the EU endorses a musician who romanticizes Croatia's WWII Nazi collaboration. The phrasing in Thompson's lyrics is directly reminiscent of wording used by the WWII collaborationist leader Ante Paveli
ć. The lyrics include such lines as "“Antichrists and Masons/Communists of all sorts/Spread Satanic phrases/To defeat us” and other ominous allusions to a resurgence of Ustashe politics. Thompson's fans often wear Ustashe symbols to his concerts. One commentator wrote that all this "shows that many Croatians don’t necessarily see the Ustashe past and its symbols as problematic," and that "Thompson is the product of a society and a political class that has shown little desire to come to terms with the worst moments of Croatia’s past."

While Thompson's association with football is strong, there are signs that at least in politics—Grabar-Kitarovi
ć notwithstanding—some leaders have taken to avoiding the "Nazi-rock" star (h/t Ivo Skorić). Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, and most of the leading party HDZ, have taken to giving him a wide berth. And when Thompson and the football team arrived at the central square in Zagreb, technicians pulled the plug on the sound system in the middle of one of his songs.

Recently, Nike presented Colin Kaepernick as its latest commercial spokesman, with his photo and the quote, "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything." While this prompted some white nationalists to burn their tennis shoes (after taking them off...too bad), the noble quote raised Nike's profile.

We can argue about whether Kaepernick did the right thing in enhancing the sweatshop operator's image. But one friend wrote, "
Bravo to Nike! Please tell me what nationalism and violence, represented by flags and national anthems, have to do with sport. Kaepernik is doing good things. People should be for people, reconciliation, and assistance, not violence and nationalism."

In those words you have the two ends of the spectrum of what's associated with sports. It's been forever since I've witnessed sports in the service of reconciliation. But you can hope.

You have to hope.

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