As the Balkans readies for a new year, we bring you a list of ‘Balkan heroes’ – men and women who acted selflessly in tough times, or when no one else was brave enough to do so.
In a region still known for its instability and political earthquakes, some people in the Balkans deserve to be called “heroes” for their acts and deeds this past year.
Bosnian pupils say ‘no’ to segregation:
A group of pupils from Jajce stood up this year to oppose ethnic divisions in their school in their town in central Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is mostly populated by Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats.
|Students from all grades wearing traditional Serb, Croat, or Bosniak clothing perform traditional Serb, Croat, and Bosniak dances in the main street in Jajce. Photo: Katherine Heroux|
In Bosnia’s education system, in many towns two schools operate under one roof, with one catering to one nationality and other school for another. Pupils often do not share anything. In Kiseljak, near Sarajevo, it was even recorded that separate buses drive Bosniak and Croat children to the same school.
There are still 54 two schools “under one roof” in Bosnia but earlier this year, Jajce high schools pupils stood up against this practice, condemning further segregation in their town. They won regional support for their campaign, while the OSCE also supported their aim.
Fighter for human rights in Serbia:
Serbia’s Public Information Commissioner, Rodoljub Sabic, is probably best known for helping journalists. His office received more than 287 complaints from journalists since January, many about Freedom of Information Requests.
|Rodoljub Sabic. Photo: Media Centre|
FOA requests are a known way of getting documents and information from officials, but all too often Serbia’s institutions ignore them, or do not send complete information.
“In a large number of these cases, the Commissioner ordered the authorities to give them [the journalists] information that is in the public interest and should be available,” Sabic recently told BIRN.
More than 60 times in the past year he filed requests to the government, asking it to enforce the Commissioner’s decision, but the government often ignored his requests.
Sabic is known also for his stern criticism of the government in cases when all other independent institutions have remained silent.
In August, he opposed a new draft law on the Security Agency, BIA, which gave it more power, and warning that the changes “contravened the constitution and other laws”.
He also criticised prosecutors in February for their inactivity in the case of the mysterious overnight demolitions of several buildings in Savamala area of Belgrade in April 2016.
In April, he urged the Anti-Corruption Agency to provide more information about checks on Belgrade Mayor Sinisa Mali’s assets and income, after the Agency failed to provide the final results of a report into the matter.
Serbian mother shielding kids from violence:
Dragana Jankovic is known in Serbia as “Aleksa’s mum”, for her campaigning work to protect children in Serbia from peer violence.
Her son, Aleksa, killed himself aged only 14 on May 10, 2011, after several of his peers had bullied him for more than eight months.
Aleksa and his parents had sought help from the school, teachers, and police but Serbian institutions ignored their appeals for help, as a result of which later some of them were fined.
Eventually, the teen jumped from the third floor of the appartment block where he lived.
Serbia has long had an issue with bulling in schools. Some cases went public after incidents were posted on social networks.
Since her son killed himself, Aleksa’s mother has devoted herself to pushing for a law nicknamed “Aleksa’s Law”, which would take measures to curb such violence in schools. Parliament has not discussed it as yet.
She has not given up her campaign.
“Dear mom, I’ve decided to write you a letter,” she wrote on Facebook on March 3 , ahead of the anniversary of the death of her son.
“You are always writing to me and please do not cry. I’m writing you from some far away world where people live with a smile every day and every hour. Here there is no sadness, suffering, pain, here there are no abusive and disgusting. They do not torture you here, do not beat you, they do not grasp your neck, do not hit your head on the tree, there is no chaos and lies here. Mom, here is peace.”
Croatian priest helping refugees:
|Tvrtko Barun. Photo: Sven Milekic/BIRN|
One person who made his mark on the year in Croatia, by opening his heart to strangers, was a Jesuit priest, Tvrtko Barun.
FR Barun, 34, heads the Jesuit Refugee Service, JRS for south-eastern Europe in Zagreb, which helps refugees, migrants and asylum seekers coming to Croatia, or trying to pass through towards Western Europe.
Besides coordinating help for refugees on the border and asylum centres, Fr Barun and JCE are active in protecting refugee rights.
In January, JCE reported the Croatian Interior Ministry to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, and the ombudsman’s office over possible illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers to Serbia, which – if confirmed – would violate international law.
“The police … put them in Jezevo [a holding centre near Zagreb], and then sent them to Serbia. This is a violation of international law,” he told TV N1 in January.
Fr Barun has actively advocated helping refugees by recalling Croatia’s own war in the 1990s, when it housed around half-a-million refugees and internally displaced persons from both Serb-held parts of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“A lot of people in Croatia know what it is to be a refugee, what it is like to flee without anything from one’s home and what it’s like to depend on the goodness of others,” Fr Barun told BIRN in July.
He has rejected the claims of Central-European countries that say they only wish to receive Christian refugees, as well as the rhetoric of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who says he is defending Christianity in his opposition to refugees.
“Orban often connects the closing of borders with Christianity, referring to it as ‘defence of Christianity and Christian values’. Well, that’s not legitimate, this has no connections with Christianity, moreover, it is contrary to it,” Fr Barun said.
The European Parliament named him winner of its “European Citizen” award in June for his work with refugees – on the nomination of Croatian MEPs. It was officially handed to him in October.
Albanian squad that saved lives in floods:
|The rescue squad|
During these difficult times Albanians see politicians on TV announcing that they are assisting people and promising that such situations will not happen again.
But the real heroes have been the military and police special forces that take risks to evacuate people from the most dangerous areas.
A special police squad of 11 from the northern town of Shkodra, working far away from publicity, performs one of the most difficult tasks that floods bring: searches and rescues for those trapped or dragged away by flood water.
While the area of Shkodra has long been worst hit by floods, this year they travelled to southern Albania to help communities in Vlora and Fier deal with the danger that heavy rains bring.
The well-trained and equipped squad also travels to other parts of Europe to perform rescue operations.
Ardian Zhuraj, commander of the squad, told Albania’s Top Channel TV that courage and serious physical preparation are the most important qualities that the task requires.
Alfons Gjergji, one of the squad members, says that although the job is hard, the rewards it brings are huge. “We are proud, and feel joy, when giving people the help they need,” he said.
Bulgaria’s Italian ‘Human of the Year’:
He might not be Bulgarian, but he was still Bulgaria’s “Human of the Year” for 2017 – recipient of a prize given by Bulgaria’s largest human rights group, Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, for the person who contributed most to the defence of human rights.
Paolo Cortesi is an Italian Catholic priest, serving in the distant north town of Belene, which hosted a notorious labour camp during the Communist era.
For years, Fr Cortesi had been popular for his activities in preserving the memory of the victims of the Communist regime in Belene, for which Bulgaria’s ex-President, Rosen Plevneliev, honoured him in 2016.
However, he was named Human of the Year for his unsuccessful attempts to host a Syrian refugee family earlier in March.
Amid growing xenophobia and anti-refugee attitudes among Bulgarians, people in Belene protested against having to share their town with a family from Damascus and forced them to leave.
After receiving threats and accusation of smuggling migrants, Cortesi himself was forced to leave Belene, after the Catholic Church withdrew him to Italy.
But he returned to Belene in November, determined to spend at least a few more years in Bulgaria.
“We must not be afraid of those who are different. In Italy, many people are afraid of Bulgarians, Ukrainians and others. But the human is a human – there are no first, second, third class people”, the priest said on December 11 at the Human of the Year award ceremony.
“Welcome to Belene, good people live there,” he added, explaining that sometimes just one match is enough to light a fire.
Romanians build magic home for children with cancer:
Vlad Voiculescu, an economist, and Melania Medeleanu, a television news anchor, founded Magic Home and MagiCamp, two initiatives to help Romanian children with cancer and their parents.
After setting up MagicCAMP in 2013 in Voiculescu’s parents’ home in Branesti, a village in Dambovita County, the two activists raised 500,000 euros in just one month in November 2017 for a Magic Home, a 700-square-metre shelter for the parents of child cancer patients next to the biggest oncology hospital in Bucharest.
Scores of celebrities and parents sat on a chair on the side of a bed set up in a Bucharest art gallery to raise awareness and funds for the shelter. The chair was never left empty.
At the end of what was deemed the most successful-ever social campaign in Romania, despite the office of their NGO being robbed, Voiculescu and Medeleanu said they had proved that there are “incredible resources of generosity and goodness among the Romanian people.”
Voiculescu was Minister of Health in Romania’s 2016 technocratic government. Before, he worked for Erste Bank in Vienna and was involved in several advocacy campaigns on behalf of cancer patients who did not find the proper medication in Romania.
Fighter for the rights of Romanian orphanage victims:
Izidor Ruckel, 36, was one of many children filmed by foreign journalists in 1990, when news broke of the horrific conditions existing in Romania’s Communist-era orphanages.
Abandoned by his parents when he was six months old because he had polio, he ended up in an orphanage for children with disabilities in Sighetul Marmatiei, northern Romania. The facility was nicknamed “the extermination camp” in the ABC News documentary “Shame of a Nation.”
An American couple adopted him after the movie aired in the United States.
Almost 28 years later, he joined Romania’s Institute for the Investigation of the Crimes of Communism and Memory of Romanian Exile and filed an official complaint to the prosecutor’s office, to find the people responsible for hundreds of deaths in Romania’s communist orphanages.
According to the complaint, filed in September, over 771 children died in three centres for children with disabilities. Over 100 people are on the list of suspects.
Montenegrin fire fighters pictured waiting for rain:
|Montenegrin firefighters Marko Popovic dancing in the rain on August 17, 2017 in Cetinje photo Podgorica vremeplov|
They worked through days and nights in horrific and dangerous conditions after devastating wildfires hit coastal and central area of Montenegro this summer, and revealed the struggle of understaffed and underequipped firefighting brigades across the country.
The firefighters did not consider themselves heroes. However, that is what people across Montenegro called them after images captured by locals, showing the exhausted firefighters sleeping by the road in the mountains near the old royal capital of Cetinje, were seen by thousands on Facebook.
A photo by Marko Popovic, 25, from the Cetinje firefighting brigade, made the social media red hot.
After wildfires raging for days threatened the town, the first rain brought some ease for the unit mostly composed of volunteers and just a few dozen professional firefighters.
Feeling the first drops on his face, Popovic lifted his arms in the air, celebrating the rain.
“I didn’t expect that photo to cause such a reaction on web portals and social media. I was standing in the rain, just hoping it would last as long as possible,” Popovic later told the media.
A volunteer since childhood, who joined the professional firefighting unit six years ago, Popovic said that he spent two months on the road, sleeping only two or three hours per day but it was worth it.
Raging wildfires had threatened towns in the country’s central and coastal areas since early July, continuing through August, with the most dramatic situation around the coastal town of Tivat and on the Lustica peninsula, where hundreds of firefighters and military personnel were on duty overnight to keep the blazes away from houses.
The blazes exposed the lack of resources in the state’s emergency response system. Fire fighting brigades under municipal control lack modern equipment – in some cases they do not even have fireproof clothing.
Other videos posted on Facebook showed firefighters wetting their shirts to deal with the high temperatures to which they were being exposed.
Macedonia pupils and teachers bridge ethnic divide:
|Pupils involved in the multi-ethnic project. Photo: Natasa Geleva.|
Pupils and teachers from two elementary schools in the capital, Skopje, this year showed how camaraderie can bridge the ethnic divide that remains pronounced between the country’s majority Macedonian and minority Albanian community.
The pupils from Lazo Trpovski school, in Skopje’s mainly ethnic Macedonian municipality of Karposh, and Liria, in the mainly Albanian district of Cair, veered off the beaten path of segregation and took time to get to know each other, share their different traditions and discover things that connect them.
In the process, they have become good friends.
Throughout the year, the pupils, helped by their enthusiastic teachers, openly debated ethnic violence, held yoga and meditation exercises together, had drawing and writing activities and created an ethno room with various traditional garments.
The camaraderie peaked in November when they gathered their parents and teachers for a fashion show that displayed traditional Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish and Roma garments with modern street styles, accompanied by a music mix that the pupils put together, using samples of famous songs sung in all these languages.
The feat of these young heroes and their teachers is that much greater, as such actions form no part of Macedonia’s official curriculum.
Ethnic divisions in Macedonia remain strong and have been particularly pronounced in the education system, in which there is little or no contact between ethnic Macedonian and Albanian students.
The work of bridging the ethnic gap and countering hate-related violence currently falls on small groups of enthusiasts and on limited funds coming from NGOs that wish to help.
Pupils from both schools say they wished that all of their friends learned what they have learned this year.
“I will tell all my friends that violence leads to nowhere. We must understand each other and be friends because we are all the same,” Daniel, a pupil from Lazo Trpovski, said.
Young Macedonian defies the odds to be football star:
The life of nine-year-old Jane Velkovski from Skopje revolves around football. He plays the game whenever he gets the chance, and is both the goalie and captain of his neighbourhood football team.
What makes Jane’s determination impressive and inspirational is that he is tied to a wheelchair, having been diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, SMA.
“I have a muscular disease, which means I can’t walk,” said Jane. “But I don’t let anyone joke about the issues I have with walking. I want to tell the whole world that everyone is equal and that people with disabilities can do the same things everyone else can. And even if they can’t, that doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy their lives.”
This intelligent boy became noticed in Macedonia when he first appeared, in June, to lead out on court the Macedonian team during the European Qualifier against Spain.
He became a real sensation when he posed in front of a poster of his favorite player Cristiano Ronaldo, imitating his winning pose. The image taken by his grandfather during the UEFA Super Cup match in Skopje went viral on social media and his story was soon picked up by UEFA.
UEFA took time and shot a short video about Jane’s inspirational story as part of its social responsibility campaign dubbed #EqualGame.
Now, Jane frequently participates in humanitarian football matches and often gets public endorsements from international sporting stars, some of whom he has met in person.
“When playing football, I sometimes forget that I am in my electric wheelchair,” he said.
“I imagine myself scoring goals like Ronaldo, and sometimes I almost forget that I can’t walk,” he told UEFA in November.