Migrants, environmental wreckage, sports
By Peter Lippman
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
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
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 Bihać
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
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
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
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
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.
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."
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
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:
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
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
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
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
Sports and nationalism
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
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
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."
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"
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 Pavelić.
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-Kitarović
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
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.
Index of previous journals and articles