by Marsela Pećanac

photos by Robert Oroz

I have recently been grappling with the notion of courage.  I met Asha Bandele, a wonderful woman activist leader, at a conference where she said: “If you want to do anything, you need to do it with courage.”

Here is what came up for me upon reflection:

Courage to do things that are opposite from what years of schooling, training and conditioning have taught us

Courage to do what our parents would advise us not to do to stay in safety of the known path

Courage to engage conflict and see what rises and then engage back with the world with new knowledge

Courage to do what’s right even when it’s opposite from where the world is today

Courage to be open to win, not to be right

Courage to sacrifice

Courage to lead and courage to let other lead and sit back and listen

Courage to listen to our deepest self and see what emerges from the indigo-shaped pit of our dreams

I realized that my courage lies in my dreams, in restoring power to my communities, and in my family and ancestral wisdom.

Asha’s main topic that day was how to be a co-conspirator, and she simply said: “My culture has taught me how to be a co-conspirator.”

I realized the way Asha talked about courage and co-conspirators bears striking resemblance to my own culture.  Maybe it’s the ancestral knowledge and community spirit that we share.  Many ancient and indigenous cultures share in the same circuit of knowledge.

Asha is African American, I am Bosnian American and Yugoslav and European, I guess, but I felt in an instant like we were sisters.  From very early on, my own culture has taught me how to be a co-conspirator.  We learned this from the way our families lived, the way our grandmothers were like noble queens of generosity, and how our neighbors were treated as our closest kin.  Life was all about community.

My home country Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is part of the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans region.   Today, it’s devolved into an economically impoverished territory despite its being amongst the richest places in Europe by natural resources. As an example, tiny BiH with its 3+ million people and the size of West Virginia is the sixth country in Europe by freshwater resources.

Why isn’t the region famous for its splendor and its natural beauty, water resources, and forests?  Instead, for most people first association with the Balkans remains the wars of the 1990s or the derogatory term Balkanization. Some people will recall Churchill saying how the Balkans produce more history than they can consume.

Why isn’t the region famous for its activism and its spirit of resistance?  Yugoslavia was the only country in Europe that expelled Hitler on its own during WW2, with unarmed, grassroots partisans coordinated across six states.  In the same vein, across the Balkans today, local communities led by women and youth leaders have risen up to protect the last free flowing rivers on the European continent threatened by 3,000 small hydropower plants.  Construction that shoves entire rivers into concrete pipes leaving beds dry for miles, tears down forests; threatens the livelihoods and safety of local communities; pollutes waterways and restricts access to clean drinking water. Construction invented by local tycoons, EU companies, local government, even former Bosnian-born NBA millionaires, to exploit the Balkan riches and its peoples.

When I think of courage, I think of the women activists standing up against these people and corporations who have indescribable power, surviving in a society ridden with misogyny and recidivist patriarchy.  To note, before the 1990s wars, Yugoslavia was arguably more progressive for women and minorities than America is today – we had a woman prime minister in the 1980s.  Then we lost ground.

In 2017, the Brave Women of Kruscica heroically confronted first the threats from investors’ thugs and then a filmed attack by the special police forces in BiH.  The women put their bodies on the line between the police and bulldozers on one side and their river on the other.  They are fearless in their fight and they have become an inspiration to many around the world – now seen defending dozens of rivers from the onslaught of “investors” pushing the fairy tales of small hydro being “green”.  It’s anything but.

I think about what these Bosnian women are risking daily as they are standing to protect our water resources and build conditions for a lasting peace.  They are putting their jobs, or possibility of ever getting a local job on the line, they are being called names in the streets of their small towns and villages, they are being physically attacked and threatened.

In the winter of 2020, the power of co-conspiracy of local activists and the community effort finally bore fruit. After tremendous public pressure including from Leonardo DiCaprio personally, Global Wildlife Conservation, Patagonia, and river protectors globally, the Federation of BiH announced that the government would no longer provide subsidies that support the construction of small hydropower plants. This is a huge step that helps to address two root causes of dam construction: profit and corruption.

While the activists welcome these announcements, we know that the “green investors” won’t stop, and neither will the activists until our Balkan rivers run free again.  We know that the government will need persistent convincing.  One thing Churchill forgot to mention is just how stubborn “these people” are.

Rivers are calling us to protect them and to protect ourselves.  It is a call for help, but a mighty one that reverberates and extends through time, comes to us through dreams, in a language of love and the sacred.  As a 16-year-old activist from Bosnia recently put it, “the river is us and we are the river”.  If unheard, this call will ultimately be the end of our people.  We the activists know it.

Our vision for the Balkans is a lasting place of ethereal beauty and diversity where fierce resistance to force, pride, love, and healing run as deep as its waters and where common people always find the strength to rise up and turn to each other no matter how much history or depravity has befallen us.

May the co-conspiracy of this beloved community keep enveloping itself around the world!

Marsela Pećanac is an activist, organizer, and fundraiser. She grew up in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, and lived through the Sarajevo siege in the early 90’s. Marsela’s career has interwoven seemingly disparate worlds: first human rights and education, then values-driven banking, and progressive philanthropy. Her nonprofit board activities include Rainforest Action Network, the Rose Foundation for Communities and Environment, and Jericho Foundation. Marsela currently works with a broad global coalition on the Balkan’s Blue Heart of Europe campaign to save Bosnia and Herzegovina and Europe’s last free-flowing rivers.  She currently lives in San Francisco and works in sustainable banking redirecting capital away from harmful industries into true renewables (not hydro!) and other fields that are well aligned with climate and social justice.

Further info and reading:

Atelier for Community Transformation ACT

GWC Press Release

Blueheart Patagonia