Category: Land of the Balkans


August 10, 2017

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Bosnia is marking the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s visit, her last overseas tour before she died in a car crash in Paris. Her crusade against land mines led to her three-day visit to Bosnia from Aug. 9, 1997, during which she met victims who sustained injuries from devices planted during the country’s savage civil war in the 1990s.

Three weeks after her visit, which coincided with news of her romance with millionaire Dodi al Fayed, the pair died in a car crash in Paris when their driver lost control of his car as they were pursued by photographers.

British Ambassador Edward Ferguson said Thursday during a memorial conference in Sarajevo that Diana would be saddened by the fact that mines still kill people in Bosnia. “What I think 20 years ago Princess Diana did is that she shone a light on this problem with mines, and she really brought it into public attention in an enormous way, in a way, perhaps, that only she could have done,” Ferguson said.

“By walking through a mine field in Angola, by visiting Bosnia-Hercegovina just a few days before she sadly died. She really got the public attention and therefore political attention as well.” He said undetected land mines still represent a danger in Bosnia despite some recent progress. A half-million people, or about 15 percent of the population, live with this fear of mines, Ferguson added.

The princess’ trip to Bosnia was organized by The Land Mines Survivors’ Network, a group founded in 1995 by two American victims of land mines, Ken Rutherford and Jerry White. As part of the visit, Diana made a surprise visit to the Suljkanovic family in their modest home in the small village of Dobrnja near Tuzla.

Several weeks earlier, the father of the family, Muhamed Suljkanovic, had lost both his feet after stepping on a land mine in the forest outside his house, a remnant of Bosnia’s three-year war. Diana took him some cake on Aug. 9, his birthday, his wife Suada remembered.

“Diana and her friend Ken (Rutherford), the American, they brought the birthday cake, and they sang happy birthday to him, and we were in shock. How did they know?” But the Suljkanovic family’s joy turned to shock and disbelief when, just a few weeks after Diana’s visit, they heard on the radio that the princess had died.

“What? I said to myself. How? Where? I could not believe it. Immediately after that I named my newborn daughter Diana, after the princess. They say we have to somehow remember good people, and we remember her like that,” Muhamed Suljkanovic said.

During her visit, Princess Diana promised financial support for Muhamed for a new prosthesis. Just a couple of months after she died, the family say they received a donation from the royal family, the exact amount promised by Diana.

Another land mine victim, Malic Bradaric, was only 13 in 1996 when he stepped on one while playing in his village of Klokotnica. The incident left him without most of his right leg. When Diana came to visit, he said this week that he expected a royal in a shiny dress wearing a crown. Instead, she arrived on his doorstep wearing jeans and a white shirt.

Bradaric and his friends, who had a chance to meet Diana, said she was “a light at the end of the tunnel” for them. He now remembers the shock when he heard that the princess was killed. “That light that we saw at the end of the tunnel just turned off,” Bradaric said.

Associated Press writer Dusan Stojanovic from Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.

August 01, 2017

MOSTAR, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Thousands of people converged on the southern Bosnian city of Mostar over the weekend for an annual diving competition from a historic bridge that has drawn crowds for more than four centuries.

Over 10,000 spectators cheered and let off smoke bombs as they watched 41 daring men take the plunge from the Old Bridge during Mostar’s 451st annual diving competition. The competitors dove from a bridge 27 meters (89 feet) high into the cold, fast-flowing Neretva River below in front of a panel of judges studying the quality of the dive.

The fall from the top of the bridge to the 4.5-meter (15-foot) deep river underneath lasts nearly three seconds, with divers picking up a speed of around 80 kph (50 mph). At the end of a beautiful Sunday afternoon of diving, 38-year-old Mostar native Lorens Listo claimed his 11th competition victory.

“Every time I compete it is more difficult and every victory is thus sweeter,” Listo said. Diving or jumping from the bridge, originally built by the Ottomans in 1566, has been a rite of passage for generations of Mostar youngsters.

The Old Bridge, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was destroyed during Bosnia’s 1992-95 war, but was painstakingly rebuilt after the conflict. “I compete elsewhere as well, but I love diving from the Old Bridge more than anything else,” Listo said.

The event climaxed with participants jumping from the bridge after nightfall with flares in their outstretched hands.

July 11, 2017

SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Tens of thousands of people converged on Srebrenica Tuesday for a funeral for dozens of newly identified victims of the 1995 massacre in the Bosnian town. Remains of 71 Muslim Bosniak victims, including seven juvenile boys and a woman, were buried at the memorial cemetery on the 22nd anniversary of the crime. They were laid to rest next to over 6,000 other Srebrenica victims found previously in mass graves. The youngest victim buried this year was 15, the oldest was 72.

Adela Efendic came to Srebrenica to bury the remains of her father, Senaid. “I was 20-day-old baby when he was killed. I have no words to explain how it feels to bury the father you have never met,” Efendic said. “You imagine what kind of a person he might have been, but that is all you have.”

More than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys perished in 10 days of slaughter after Srebrenica was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces on July 11, 1995. It is the only episode of Bosnia’s fratricidal 1992-95 war to be defined as genocide by two U.N. courts.

Serbs hastily disposed of the victims’ bodies in several large pits, then dug them up again and scattered the remains over the nearly 100 smaller mass graves and hidden burial sites around the town. Every year forensic experts identify newly found remains through DNA analysis before reburial.

Most coffins are lowered into their graves by strangers, because all male members of the victims’ families had often been killed. “I was looking for him for 20 years…they found him in a garbage dump last December,” Emina Salkic said through tears, hugging the coffin of her brother Munib. He was 16 when he was killed.

Srebrenica was besieged by Serb forces for years before it fell. It was declared a U.N. “safe haven” for civilians in 1993, but a Security Council mission that visited shortly afterward described the town as “an open jail” where a “slow-motion process of genocide” was in effect.

When Serb forces led by Gen. Ratko Mladic broke through two years later, Srebrenica’s terrified Muslim Bosniak population rushed to the U.N. compound hoping that Dutch U.N. peacekeepers would protect them. But the outgunned peacekeepers watched helplessly as Mladic’s troops separated out men and boys for execution and sent the women and girls to Bosnian government-held territory.

An appeals court in The Hague ruled this month that the Dutch government was partially liable in the deaths of more than 300 people who were turned away from the compound. Mladic is now on trial before a U.N. war crimes tribunal, but many Bosnian Serbs, including political leaders, continue to deny that the slaughter constituted genocide.

“We are again calling on Serbs and their political and intellectual elites to find courage to face the truth and stop denying genocide,” Bakir Izetbegovic, Bosniak member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, said in his address to the mourners.

Lars-Gunnar Wigemark, the head of the EU delegation to Bosnia, said that remembering what happened in Srebrenica was “the common duty of us as Europeans,” especially as we live “in a world where facts and truth are being manipulated.”

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the international community, “and in particular the United Nations,” have accepted their share of responsibility, and that all parties must acknowledge “that these crimes occurred and our roles in allowing them to occur.”

“The difficult task of building trust to allow for full reconciliation in Bosnia and Herzegovina lies with the people of the country’s various communities,” Guterres said in a statement. “To build a better and common future, the tragedies of the past must be recognized by those communities.”

Amel Emric in Srebrenica and Edie Lederer in New York contributed

February 3, 2017

A Bosnia-based international school said today it would offer scholarships to refugees and students from seven nations affected by the immigration ban issued last week by US President’s Donald Trump.

United World College (UWC) Mostar, one of 17 UWC schools worldwide that aim to bring together students from conflict zones, opened in 2005 with the goal of healing ethnic divisions after the Bosnian war of the 1990s.

“We offer scholarships to US students, as well as to refugees and students from majority Muslim countries banned by the US Executive order to send a signal for peace,” said Valentina Mindoljevic, head of the UWC Mostar.

Trump’s order bars the admission of people from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen and places an indefinite hold on Syrian refugees.

The school in 2011 extended a scholarship to Kim Han-sol, the grandson of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, after Hong Kong refused him a visa to study there.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170203-college-in-bosnia-offers-scholarships-to-people-banned-by-trump/.

January 09, 2017

BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Bosnian Serbs celebrated a controversial holiday Monday in defiance of the country’s other ethnic groups, its constitutional court and the international community.

The Jan. 9 holiday commemorates the date in 1992 when Bosnian Serbs declared the creation of their own state in Bosnia, igniting the country’s devastating four-year war. Police officers, firefighters and folklore groups paraded through the streets of Banja Luka, the de-facto capital of the Serb-run part of the country, Republika Srpska.

Members of a Bosnian Army regiment who come from the Serb chunk of the country were also in attendance despite warnings by the defense ministry and NATO that their participation would be considered illegal.

The soldiers did not take part in the parade, but were present on the orders of the Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, Mladen Ivanic, who insisted he had the right to request a military honor guard.

The separate post-war militaries of Bosnia’s three ethnic groups merged into a common army in 2005 in what was considered the country’s most successful postwar reform. Monday’s events were the first time that the army’s unity and shared command — requiring unanimous decisions by the presidency’s Bosniak, Croat and Serb members — had been challenged.

Bosnia’s defense ministry said Monday it had issued a clear order vetoing participation of the Bosnian Army soldiers in the celebration. The ministry added in a statement that it will investigate how and why its order was disregarded.

Reacting to the celebration, the U.S. embassy in Bosnia said it was taking “any threat to the security and stability … very seriously,” adding that those responsible for the rule of law violations “must be held accountable”

Although Serb leaders insisted that Monday’s celebrations would be a secular holiday, they participated in Serb Christian Orthodox ceremonies in the city’s main church. That was broadcast live on local television, along with interviews with Bosnian Serb wartime military and political leaders who had been sentenced for crimes against humanity by a U.N war crimes court.

During the war that killed 100,000 people and turned half of the country’s population into refugees, Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats were persecuted and almost completely expelled from Republika Srpska territory.

After the war, Republika Srpska became an autonomous region of Bosnia. Bosniaks and Croats who returned there view the holiday as a celebration of their expulsion. The holiday was banned last year by Bosnia’s top court. It ruled that the date, which falls on a Serb Christian Orthodox religious holiday, discriminates against the country’s other ethnic groups.

The continued celebration was repeatedly condemned by the top European Union and the U.S diplomats in Bosnia who urged Bosnian Serbs to stop defying the country’s top court.

August 02, 2017

SARANDA, Albania (AP) — Descending beneath the waves, the cloudy first few meters quickly give way to clear waters and an astonishing sight — dozens, perhaps hundreds, of tightly packed ancient vases lie on the seabed, testament to some long-forgotten trader’s unfortunate voyage more than 1,600 years ago.

A short boat ride away, the hulking frame of an Italian World War II ship appears through the gloom, soldiers’ personal items still scattered in the interior, its encrusted railings and propeller now home to growing colonies of fish and sponges.

Off the rugged shores of Albania, one of the world’s least explored underwater coastlines, lies a wealth of treasures: ancient amphorae — long, narrow terracotta vessels — that carried olive oil and wine along trade routes between north Africa and the Roman Empire, wrecks with hidden tales of heroism and treachery from two world wars, and spectacular rock formations and marine life.

“From what I’ve seen so far, you can’t swim more than a few meters without finding something that’s amazing, whether it’s on the cultural history side or the natural history side, here in Albania,” said Derek Smith, a coastal and maritime ecologist and research associate who has been working with the non-profit RPM Nautical Foundation to explore the Albanian coastline for the past decade.

Now Albania’s National Coastline Agency is examining how best to study and protect its sunken attractions while opening them up to visitors in a nation that is virgin territory for the lucrative scuba diving industry.

“The idea of presenting the Albanian underwater heritage is a new idea for the country, because so far there is very little known about the rich history of the Albanian coastline, and in particular the shipwrecks,” said agency head Auron Tare, who has been involved for the past 12 years with RPM Nautical Foundation’s underwater research. “I believe the time has come now that we should present to the world the wealth of this heritage that we have in our waters.”

Once more isolated than even North Korea, Albania has gradually opened up to international tourism and shrugged off its former image as a hermit state that briefly turned into lawless bandit territory in the late 1990s. But coastal land development has been burgeoning in an often anarchic fashion, and there are fears the more accessible wrecks could be plundered unless adequate protections are put into place.

Legislation is expected to be passed soon to protect the country’s underwater heritage while also granting some access to visitors. Neighboring Greece, to Albania’s south, has struggled with balancing tourism with protecting its ancient artefacts. Greece was so fearful of losing its underwater antiquities it banned diving outright in all but a handful of places. Even today, diving is forbidden on any wreck — ship or plane — built more than 50 years ago, regardless of when it sank.

Albania is going for a more balanced approach. “I’d say that in the near future the ancient wrecks should be open to scholars and research,” said Tare, who noted the country has also lost some of its underwater heritage to plundering in the last 20 years. “Where(as) some of the modern wrecks which do not have much to lose in the sense of looting might be opened up to the dive industry.”

He estimated that with access to the more modern wrecks from WWI or WWII, diving could pick up in Albania in the next five years. The RPM Nautical Foundation, in cooperation with the coastal agency, has mapped out the seabed along about a third of the Albanian coastline, from Saranda near the Greek border to Vlora. Using a combination of divers and high-tech equipment including sonar and a remotely operated underwater vehicle, or ROV, its research vessel has discovered nearly 40 shipwrecks.

“So far RPM has documented from about 3rd and 4th century BC through to World War I and World War II contemporary shipwrecks,” said Smith. “So we’ve got quite a big range of maybe 2,500 years, 2,300 years’ worth of cultural resources here on the Albanian coastline that have really largely been unexplored.”

One of them is the tightly-packed amphora pile near the shore. Known as the Joni wreck, it was a merchant vessel estimated to have had about four crew members and a cargo of mainly of north African amphorae.

The fact that the pottery was north African “is really important because it shows the trade connections between the Adriatic and the north African coast,” said underwater archaeologist Mateusz Polakowski, who has been working with RPM.

Small fish peer out from the necks of the jugs, which the passage of time has concreted into the seabed. The site hasn’t been excavated and archaeologists believe several more layers of amphorae, as well as the wooden hull of the ship, might still lie intact beneath the seabed.

“A lot of these wrecks are very important as national heritage treasures,” said Polakowski. “Just as much as the biology of it is, just as important as the reefs and the fish populations are, I think these shipwrecks not only become artificial reefs, but they also instill a sense of cultural identity, cultural heritage.”

Albania sits at a strategic point at the entrance of the Adriatic Sea and along ancient trade routes from Italy to the Balkan peninsula, Polakowski said. Much more remains to be explored. “They have about 200 miles of coastline here,” said Smith, the maritime ecologist. “Even though we feel like we’ve covered a tremendous amount of it … there’s always more to be discovered.”

June 27, 2017

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albania’s left-wing Socialist Party has secured a second mandate in a general election, winning a majority of seats in parliament, nearly complete results showed Tuesday. The election is seen as a key benchmark to the country’s bid to launch membership negotiations with the European Union.

The Central Election Commission said that with more than 95 percent of the ballots counted, the governing Socialists of Prime Minister Edi Rama had won about 48 percent of the votes, or 74 places in the 140-seat parliament.

The previous government was a coalition of the Socialists and the Socialist Movement for Integration, or LSI, often creating problems for Rama. The opposition Democratic party of Lulzim Basha won 29 percent, or 43 seats. The LSI is third with 19 seats.

Turnout in Sunday’s election fell to 46.6 percent, 7 points lower than in 2013. International observers who monitored the polling hailed the generally calm campaign and voting, but also noted the continued political fight that has negative impacts on the country’s democracy.

The U.S. embassy in Tirana said that the incidents “were not so widespread as to change the overall outcome of the elections.” Federica Mogherini, EU’s foreign policy chief, and Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn urged the new Cabinet to continue the reform process.

“The continuation of the justice reform and the fight against drug trafficking and cultivation will be of particular importance in this respect,” their statement said. The governing Socialists had agreed in May to give the opposition Democrats a greater role in oversight on election transparency.

The two parties also pledged to work together toward eventually joining the European Union. Rama had pledged that his new cabinet would work hard on a reform agenda to root out corruption and fight drug trafficking, achieve faster economic growth, improve pay and lower unemployment.

The nation of 2.9 million, a NATO member since 2009, received EU candidate status in 2014.

June 26, 2017

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Preliminary results show that Albania’s left-wing Socialist Party appeared headed for a new governing mandate in crucial elections in the country’s bid to launch membership negotiations with the European Union.

The Central Election Commission’s preliminary results after counting one-third of the votes Monday morning show the Socialist party of Prime Minister Edi Rama winning almost half the votes compared to 28 percent of the opposition Democratic party of Lulzim Basha.

Election authorities said the partial count pointed to the Socialists winning at least 75 seats in the 140-member parliament. Turnout fell to 47 percent, or 6 points lower than in previous polls in 2013.

Holding a free and fair election is key to launching EU membership talks for the nation of 2.9 million, which is already a NATO member and that earned EU candidate status in 2014. Rama wrote on Monday in his Facebook page wishing Albanians “a beautiful day with this still-unfinished masterpiece of this country’s common people,” referring to the expected significant difference in winning results.

Basha spoke to reporters late Sunday evening thanking Albanians for voting “with a European dignity” in a religious day and under extreme hot temperature. The voting was extended by one hour due to low turnout that was attributed to religious festivities and temperatures that reached 39 degrees (102 Fahrenheit.)

Albania with a two-third Muslim majority celebrated Eid al-Fitr on Sunday, the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. International observers are expected to hold a news conference with a preliminary statement in the afternoon.

June 25, 2017

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albanians voted in what was expected to be low numbers Sunday in a general election that was aimed at giving the country’s two biggest political parties a chance to look past their bitter differences and work toward eventually joining the European Union.

The voting ended at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT) after the Central Election Commission decided to extend voting by one hour due to low turnout that was attributed to religious festivities and hot temperatures that reached 39 degrees (102 Fahrenheit.)

The decision caused chaos in some places as more people waited in line to cast ballots. When the polls closed, the preliminary turnout from the 19 percent of stations reporting participation figures was 43.9 percent, compared to 53.5 percent four years ago. Preliminary election results are not expected until Monday.

Holding a free and fair election is key to launching EU membership talks for the nation of 2.9 million, which is already a NATO member. After earning EU candidate status in 2014, Tirana has struggled to pass important reforms vital for its bid to advance to EU — namely deeply reforming its corrupted justice system.

Eighteen political parties are running for 140 seats in parliament in Sunday’s vote. The main contenders are Prime Minister Edi Rama’s Socialist Party and the opposition Democratic Party led by Lulzim Basha.

An agreement reached in May ended the three-month parliamentary boycott by the Democrats, who claimed that voting was open to manipulation. The election date was delayed a week and Rama’s Socialists promised greater oversight on election transparency.

All main parties campaigned on a reform agenda, pledging faster economic growth, pay hikes and lower unemployment, which stands at about 14 percent. Some 6,000 police officers were on duty for election security, while more 300 international observers came to monitor the vote.

“We expect a better Albania and leaders to work to do what they have pledged at the campaign,” Zenel Caka, 47, said at a polling station in Tirana. Luan Rama of the Socialist Party for Motivation, the third main political party, said one member was injured following a quarrel and a shooting incident outside a polling station in Shengjin, 60 kilometers (37 miles) northwest of the capital, Tirana.

Police investigating the incident said they found a cartridge but no injured person was taken to the hospital. They said it did not disrupt the voting. The Interior Ministry also reported hundreds of attempts to buy votes, a crime that may result in a jail term.

Central Election Commission said partial turnout at a quarter of polling stations by 10 a.m. was 12.6 percent, almost the same as in the previous election. Albanians also celebrated Eid al-Fitr on Sunday, the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. In the early morning, thousands of Muslim believers said prayers at the recently-renovated Skanderbeg Square in Tirana.

All top leaders cast their ballots, congratulating Muslims on the holiday and urging citizens to vote. “Today, Albania needs God more than ever,” Rama said. The western city of Kavaja was also holding a mayoral election.

July 29, 2017

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albania’s soccer federation is calling on Albanian authorities to stop the extradition to Serbia of a man who has claimed to have flown a drone carrying a nationalist banner over a stadium in Serbia, a display that prompted fan violence.

Ismail Morinaj was arrested in Croatia in June based on an arrest warrant from Serbia. A court in Dubrovnik agreed this week to extradite the 35-year-old Albanian to Belgrade. An Albanian Football Federation statement issued Saturday called on Albania’s government “to intervene within the legal context to stop extradition of Ismail Morinaj to Serbia.”

The federation assured Morinaj’s family it would keep fighting to prevent his extradition, saying it “is fully committed to exploiting all its institutional and diplomatic roads,” the statement said. Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama has negotiated with Croatian authorities in the last two days “for the final solution of the process,” according to another statement from the federation.

Justice Minister Gazmend Bardhi also has formally asked Croatian authorities not to approve the Serbian request, arguing that “Albanian citizen Ismail Morina is endangered to suffer from politically motivated persecution or discrimination.”

A group of Albanian fans, Tifozet kuq e zi, (or Red and black fans, in English) has called for an evening rally in Albania’s capital, Tirana, to pressure the government to get involved. Morinaj, who is from the northeastern Kukes area but lives in Italy, has been a regular at the Albanian national team’s away matches.

His brother Xhevair complained to television station Report TV about the government’s lack of attention, saying Ismail’s life would be in danger in Serbia. “We call on the Albanian state to intervene and stop extradition to Serbia. We, as a family, would do something very radical which would surprise everyone,” he said without elaborating.

Violence interrupted an October 2014 European qualifying match between the Serbian and Albanian teams when a drone with an Albanian banner appeared over the pitch. The 0-0 game was suspended after Serbian fans injured some of the Albanian players who had tried rushing a Serbian player who pulled down the banner.

European soccer’s governing body ultimately awarded Albania the match victory, helping win the tiny western Balkan country a spot in the Euro 2016 finals, its first major tournament.