The last women standing in a Serbian village swallowed by mine

By Thomson Reuters Apr 18, 2024 | 4:34 AM

By Marko Djurica and Ivana Sekularac

KRIVELJ, Serbia (Reuters) – The women are nurses, school teachers, students and housewives. They span three generations. And they are up for a fight.

Nearly two-dozen women are at the centre of a battle to have their village in eastern Serbia relocated away from a copper mine that they say has polluted their land and water and ruined the surrounding countryside.

Since January, when the men of the village go to work, the women have taken turns guarding a barricade on a bridge in Krivelj to stop trucks from entering the mine, which is operated by China’s Zijin Mining.

Zijin’s subsidiary, Serbia Zijin Copper, acknowledged the problems and has agreed to relocate the community. This week, Zijin agreed to stop driving large trucks through the village. Residents temporarily lifted the blockade to allow the company to complete some work.

Some villagers have already been relocated by the company, but the majority of the remaining population in Krivelj are Vlachs – Orthodox Christians who have preserved their own language and customs through centuries. They want to move as one.

Zijin has stated it is “dedicated to formulating relocation plans with transparency and fairness” and is in contact with all parties involved. A local official said they hoped the move would be done by the end of 2025.

“We are defending our village and houses where we were born. I feel so sorry about our beautiful village, I am not sure I will survive the move,” said Stana Jorgovanovic, a 79-year-old housewife as she stood at the barricade.

Fifteen of the women agreed to have their portraits taken by Belgrade-based Reuters photographer Marko Djurica, and to share their visions of the future. They posed in places where they said they felt safe: on the hills above the village, in their living rooms, classrooms and gardens – or at the barricade itself, one arm held high in defiance.

Some feared the trucks that shipped materials and waste to and from the mine may run over their children. Others do not grow vegetables anymore because authorities said the soil was contaminated. All are determined to make their voices heard.

Zijin said it has invested over $100 million in environmental protection measures to minimize the impact on Krivelj. “These concerted efforts have directly contributed to improving the environment of the Krivelj village,” the company said in a statement to Reuters.

“I want a new village of Krivelj. I need a piece of land, a church and a cemetery,” said Milosava Fufanovic, an elementary school teacher, as she sat on a sofa in her house. “If all the people leave the barricade I will be the last standing.”

(Writing by Edward McAllister; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)