Balkan Heroes of 2018 – Those Who Raised Their Voices

Balkan Insight

For the Balkans, 2018 was a turbulent year full of ups and downs. Still, it was salvaged by a heroic few.

Throughout the region, extraordinary women and men have pushed their societies to think bigger. Just as it did last year, BIRN is recognising the people who in 2018 spoke out against injustice, against violations of human rights or simply put the greater good before their own, raising their voices for a better future.

Two Bereaved Fathers in Bosnia United in Protest

In 2018, Bosnia saw two fathers united in a mission to discover what happened to their dead sons.

In March, the body of 21-year-old David Dragicevic was found in the main city of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, days after he was reported missing.

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Hundreds of people still gather daily at 6 p.m. on Banja Luka’s Krajina Square, now popularly known as ‘David’s Square’

Police ruled there was no evidence of foul play and that his death was probably an accident. But David’s father, Davor, was unconvinced, not least by inconsistencies in the police account, and with David’s mother, Suzana, he led a protest on March 26 on Banja Luka’s Krajina Square, saying they believed their son had been killed and that the authorities were covering up the fact.

Nine months on, hundreds of people still gather daily at 6 p.m. on Krajina Square, now popularly known as ‘David’s Square’. The Facebook page Justice for David has 262,000 members.

In April, 10,000 turned out from across Bosnia in protest, and again in October, on the eve of Bosnia’s parliamentary election, 40,000 demonstrated.

The ruling party and its leader, former Bosnian Serb president and now the Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik, say the protests are political, an accusation Davor Dragicevic vigorously denies.

In July, Dragicevic travelled to the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, in solidarity with Muriz Memic, who has been seeking justice for his son, Dzenan, since he died in February 2017.

Dzenan was taken to hospital in Sarajevo on February 8, 2016 with severe bodily injuries. He died a week later.

While the prosecutor’s office said Dzenan was injured in a traffic accident his family disputed the explanation, pointing to a number of irregularities identified in the case.

Muriz organised ten protests last year and this, attended by hundreds of Sarajevans. Small protests have spread across Europe among Bosnian expats.

The Stork Helpers of Bulgaria

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Sevgin Ridvan from the village of Naum, both near the Bulgarian town of Dulovo

Bulgaria gets few positive international headlines, but the late freeze of March 2018 sparked a flurry of heart-warming stories about people across the country’s northeast region sheltering storks from the cold.

The cold snap caught off guard the birds returning from their winter retreat across the Mediterranean. Sub-zero temperatures grounded the storks in ditches, near roads and in fields, when they would usually be roosting in trees.

Then, one after another, stories of birds being rescued and sheltered by drivers and villagers started spreading on social – and later traditional – media.

Most were found in the region of Silistra in Dobrudzha, close to the land border between Romania and Bulgaria.

A number of stories – including those of Safet Halil from the village of Zaritsa and Sevgin Ridvan from Naum, both near the town of Dulovo – made it into international media.

“I found five frozen storks near the village road the day before yesterday,” Halil told AFP, adding: “I took them home, lit a stove to warm them and fed them fish.”

Yuksel Ahmed, the mayor of Dulovo, sent municipality workers to help stranded storks from the fields around the small town and sheltered over 20 of them in the garage of the Town Hall.

These acts of kindness received almost unequivocal praise in Bulgaria and beyond.
Environmental organisations and the Bulgarian Ministry of Ecology, however, urged caution, given that while the birds might be cold, they were not in danger as long as their wings did not freeze.

The more restrained approach of environmentalists was not misplaced – a few stork enthusiasts went to extremes. Local media reported perfectly healthy birds being chased across fields by potential rescuers and of utility poles where birds had roosted being set on fire by well-meaning locals trying to warm them up.

Croatian Woman “Breaking the Silence”

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Croatia’s Parents in Action: Roda NGO advocates dignified pregnancy

After years of silence, hundreds of Croatian women have been speaking publicly about the traumatic experiences they suffered during childbirth in the country’s hospitals, putting obstetric violence on the political agenda.

A debate about obstetric violence – the disrespect, discrimination or abuse of women by medical staff during labour – and women’s healthcare erupted in October when Croatian MP Ivana Nincevic Lesandric spoke out about her own painful experience of a cervical scrape carried out without anaesthesia.

But the parliamentarian was not the only trying to end years of silence on the issue of women’s reproductive health.

Four years ago, Parents in Action: Roda (Stork), an NGO that advocates dignified pregnancy, parenthood and childhood, launched an initiative on social networks entitled #BreaktheSilence.

Nincevic Lesandric’s speech motivated Roda to begin another campaign, #BreaktheSilence2018 (#PrekinimoSutnju2018), inviting all women who have had bad experiences with the country’s medical system to write it down, together with the location and date.

Over a period of just four days, Roda received more than 400 letters from women who have had traumatic experiences and gave them to the Health Ministry.

The campaign caught the attention of local media. Women in neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina also began speaking out.

Even Kurdish activists, members of the women’s rights movement ‘Kongra Star’ in Rojava, raied their voices in solidarity with the struggle of Croatian women, posing with a banner that read “Solidarity from Rojava – To the Women of Croatia”.

Roda’s Danijela Drandic, who personally delivered the women’s letters to Croatian Health Minister Milan Kujundzic, told BIRN that the public had finally woken up to the problem, especially women who “finally know that what they have experienced is not acceptable and that the problem is not with them, but with the system”.

“Another positive thing that came out is that the topic of the reproductive health of women was spoken about in the highest legislative body in Croatia, which is not only a precedent for Croatia, but for the whole region, I would even dare to say for the whole of Europe,” Drandic said.

“Changes in maternity wards and hospitals will be slow, but we will not quit.”

Victim of Sexual Violence during Kosovo War Speaks Out

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Kosovo Albanian survivor of wartime sexual violence, Krasniqi Goodman, spoke out and became an inspiration for many

Vasfije Krasniqi Goodman became the first Kosovo Albanian survivor of wartime sexual violence to speak out in the country when she told a TV interview about her experience and her unsuccessful fight for justice in court.

Fearing stigmatisation and rejection by society, thousands of victims of war rape in Kosovo live in silence, some suffering with serious health problems from their assault.

But in October, Krasniqi Goodman spoke out and became an inspiration for many, telling the public broadcaster how she was taken from her home in Vushtrri/Vucitrn in April 1999 during the Kosovo war by a Serb police officer who told her he was taking her to the police station to make a statement.

She was only 16. The police officer took her somewhere else and raped her.

“At that moment I just wanted to be killed with a bullet,” Krasniqi Goodman said.

Within hours of the assault, she was raped again by another Serb who was not in uniform.
Jovica Dejanovic and Djordje Bojkovic were charged with rape but were acquitted in 2014 by the Supreme Court. After she went public, the Kosovo Special Prosecution has relaunched an investigation into Krasniqi Goodman’s case.

Reconciliation in Macedonia, Two People at a Time

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Stojance Angelov [L] and Abedin Zymberi [R] drinking coffee in once war torn rural municipality of Lipkovo in Macedonia
During the Macedonian conflict of 2001, Stojance Angelov and Abedin Zymberi fought on opposing sides.

Angelov was a police general, spearheading police operations against now-disbanded ethnic Albanian guerrillas of the National Liberation Army, NLA. He almost died when shrapnel from a grenade penetrated his lungs.

Zymberi was a commander in the NLA, in charge of its military police in his home region of Lipkovo, a rural municipality near Macedonia’s northern town of Kumanovo that saw much fighting.

During one battle, a grenade killed his seven-year-old daughter, seriously wounded his then 12-year-old son and killed several other members of his extended family, all hiding in a cellar that was breached by a shell.

Both are now long retired from their wartime duties, scarred by the ordeals they have suffered but determined to ensure Macedonia never sees civil conflict again.

In the absence of any serious national reconciliation effort, over the past few years the two have taken on leadership roles once more, often appearing together on panels and TV shows to explain the ordeals of war, demonstrate mutual respect and try to chart a common path towards a peaceful future.

But sometimes actions speak louder than words, and in an unprecedented move this December, Angelov went to Lipkovo to visit his former foe Zymberi. He spent a day with Zymberi and his son, reminiscing about the conflict and visiting the grave of Zymberi’s daughter, where Angelov laid fresh flowers.

“I stood there silent, broken, sad and with questions on my mind,” Angelov wrote on Facebook after the visit. “Was the war necessary? Did people, and even more terribly, innocent civilians, have to die? While we, the members of the security forces and the NLA were killing each other, innocent civilians have been hurt. Just because they failed to escape in time, [and were] hidden in the cellars of two houses near the NLA positions.”

“Collateral damage, that’s how the science of war would categorize them, as no one had intended to kill civilians. No matter, in the graves in front of me lay ten innocent children and women, ten innocent human souls…”

Zymberi and Angelov met 11 years ago when both were guests on a TV show. Later, during other media appearances, they had the chance to talk in private, briefly at first, but as time went by, their conversations went deeper and deeper.

“Several months ago we both started working at M-NAV [a company that regulates civilian air traffic in Macedonia] so we started seeing each other every day. That’s how the idea was born for me to visit his family and the region [of Lipkovo]. We knew that we would be attacked by both sides but we had to do something,”Angelov recently told Nezavisen Vesnik daily.

The two often have radically different views about why the conflict started, who had the military supremacy and about many other painful issues from the past. However, when it comes to the future, they say they firmly share common ideals of a just society that will be part of NATO and EU.

Zymberi said that post-conflict reconciliation is a must for a brighter future.

“We started this process so that my child and his can be friends, and can live in one shared country,” Zymberi told 1 TV in late December.

Green Activists Protest Offshore Oil Drilling in Montenegro

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A group of green activists launch a broad initiative protesting plans to launch oil and gas drilling on Montenegro’s Adriatic coast. Photo: Courtesy of SOS for Montenegro

In a highly politicised society, with Montenegrins who prefer to debate geopolitics than the local environment, a group of green activists managed to launch a broad initiative protesting plans to launch oil and gas drilling on Montenegro’s Adriatic coast.

In 2016, Montenegro awarded a 30-year offshore exploration concession for oil and gas to a consortium of Italy’s Eni and Russia’s Novatek. On November 21, the ship Polar Empress started the offshore 3D seismic imaging commissioned by the concessionaire Eni and Novatek.

Since October, the group ‘SOS for Montenegro’ has organised protests in coastal towns against the government plan to go into undersea oil prospecting, claiming it will endanger marine wildlife and fisheries.

In a rare act of civic activism in Montenegro, the protesters, including activists from across the country and local fishermen, spent four days in November walking 144 kilometres along Montenegro’s coast. The initiative was also supported by dozens of civil society organizations in Montenegro.

Marching from Herceg Novi to Bar, passing through the towns of Kotor, Tivat and Budva, SOS for Montenegro protested against what it called a “crime against the Adriatic Sea, a crime against nature.”

Romanian Fundraisers Behind a New Cancer Hospital

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Since 2015, Carmen Uscatu and Oana Gheorghiu have raised nine million euros from donations for fighting cancer

Carmen Uscatu and Oana Gheorghiu challenge the accepted wisdom that “nothing can be done in Romania.”

Since 2015, Uscatu and Gheorghiu have raised nine million euros from donations and on December 7 they announced that their organisation, Give Life, has begun building the first Children’s Oncology and Radiotherapy Hospital in Romania.

It is the first hospital to be built in Romania in the three decades since the country shook off communism.

Uscatu and Gheorghiu began raising money in 2009 for cancer patients who could not afford treatment in Romania, where the healthcare system does not cover such expenses.

In 2013, Give Life launched the Happiness Exchange, an online platform to raise funds, in a transparent way, for child cancer patients. By January 2018, they had raised 10 million euros which went to treatment, equipment and the modernisation of oncology clinics.

Romania currently has only one small centre where children with cancer can receive treatment: a 30-bed ward of the Marie Curie hospital in Bucharest, where children and their parents share one toilet despite their vulnerability to infection.

The money they raised to build the new hospital is about half the sum actually required. None of it came from the government or local administration.

“I don’t think it’s about courage,” Uscatu told the news website Hotnews. “I think that if a politician would spend some time like we do and see the conditions, if they spoke to a mother once a year, if they came to see a child, if they entered that operating room and if they were able to feel some empathy towards a parent, I think they would find the courage to build a hospital.”

In Moldova, Ensuring Dignity in Death

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Moldova’s Hospice Angelus is on the front line of the fight to provide dignified palliative care for cancer sufferers in Moldova

Moldova’s Hospice Angelus is on the front line of the fight to provide dignified palliative care for cancer sufferers in Moldova, Europe’s poorest country where cancer cases are on the rise and mortality rates are high.

Palliative care provided by Hospice Angelus is designed to improve the quality of life for patients with incurable cancer. Staffed by volunteers, it provides medical, social, psycho-emotional and spiritual counselling for people in need.

With roughly 48,000 people diagnosed with cancer every year, the NGO deals with between 2,000 and 3,000 cases.

“Our goal is to take care of incurable, terminally ill patients who have a limited life expectancy, said the hospice’s Director of National Development and Education, Valerian Isac. “We work to ease their suffering and improve their quality of life.”

In the last decade in Moldova, the incidence of cancer has increased from 193.4 new cases per 100,000 citizens in 2005 to 266.4 in 2015.

A Serbian Judge Taking on the System

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Belgrade Appeals Court judge Miodrag Majic is known for his frequent criticism of Serbian politicians and their influence on judges and prosecutors

For his fight for an independent judiciary, Belgrade Appeals Court judge Miodrag Majic has become a symbol of the importance of speaking out in Serbia.

Majic is known for his frequent criticism of Serbian politicians and their influence on judges and prosecutors.

He was also among the first professionals and intellectuals who warned that planned constitutional changes would further increase political control over Serbia’s already troubled judicial system, which must be reformed if the country is to make progress towards membership of the European Union.

When the Justice Ministry published a proposed set of constitutional amendments in January, and called for civil society and experts to engage in a public debate, Majic took to his personal blog.

Majic wrote a series of articles in which he warned that the proposed amendments would further increase political pressure on the judiciary.

“It is clear that the only reasonable solution would be the urgent withdrawal of this proposal,” Majic wrote in February.

Majic and others continued to criticise the proposals, eventually winning a public statement of support from the Consultative Council of European Judges, CCJE, a Council of Europe advisory body on issues relating to the independence and competence of judges.

The Venice Commission also called in June for Serbian authorities to modify the proposed text and launch a constructive public debate.

But Majic did not stop there, taking to the airwaves to highlight the shortcomings noted in the EU’s latest progress report on Serbia and challenge the government spin.

“Unfortunately, it seems that we still don’t learn anything from these reports,” Majic told N1 TV in November. “We persistently get bad grades and we do not understand it, we persistently strive in one direction that constantly gets negative marks, especially in Chapter 23 [judiciary], which will turn out to be the biggest obstacle to our European integration.”

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