Photos: In Serbian village, women fight to escape encroaching mine

Before dawn, 78-year-old Vukosava Radivojevic prepared breakfast for her husband and then walked to guard a barricade in her village in eastern Serbia to stop trucks from entering an open-pit copper mine that residents say is contaminating the land and water.

Radivojevic is among two dozen women who, since January, have taken shifts by day and night on a small bridge in Krivelj to protest against the mine, run by a subsidiary of China’s Zijin Mining, that dominates the surrounding countryside and encroaches on their homes.

The women are fighting to persuade the company to relocate their village away from what they describe as an incessant din, shaking and pollution.

Zijin has already relocated many of the villagers. But the majority of those who remain are Vlachs – Orthodox Christians who have preserved their own language and customs through centuries. They want to move as one.

“We are forced to block the road because we are poisoned, everything is polluted, we can’t grow vegetables any more,” Radivojevic said as she stood at the blockade.

Zijin’s subsidiary, Serbia Zijin Copper, acknowledged the problems, which it said it inherited from a local company when it took over operations in 2018.

Mining began in Krivelj in the 1970s when Serbia was still part of Yugoslavia. The concentration of sulphur dioxide in the air became so high that it burned holes in women’s nylon tights, residents said.

Standards have since improved, but production has quadrupled since Zijin took over, meaning more trucks and more dust, they said.

The landscape is scarred by piles of mining waste. Lines of orange trucks snake up the brown valley. The walls of houses are cracked from tremors caused by underground explosions, residents said.

The number of schoolchildren has dropped by two-thirds, retired teacher Aleksa Radonjic said, as young families have moved away.

The barricade, erected in January, became a symbol of Krivelj’s defiance. Over time it turned into a second home for the women: the inside was heated by a wood stove and had a television. Neighbours stopped by with snacks and coffee. Sometimes dogs kept them company.

“One day I was standing in the centre of the village, and I kept seeing truck after truck driving through. The small bridge was swinging under their weight,” Radivojevic said.

“And then I told my granddaughter, something needs to be done.”

Housewife Marija Bufanovic, 53, was among the first to build the barricade. “There is no life here,” she said. “We want to move together.”

Meanwhile, villagers discuss where they may end up. The company has proposed an area near another Zijin mine, said community leader Jasna Tomic.

“We want that new village to be called Krivelj as well. Of course, there will be no river there, but we want to move the church, the library and the school.”

According to a study commissioned by the company and published in December, Krivelj’s small river is polluted with heavy metals. Increased quantities of lead, arsenic and cadmium were found in the soil.

“The site suffered from severe direct emissions of gases and wastewater, resulting in highly polluted surroundings including air, rivers, and soil,” the company said in a statement to the Reuters news agency.

It said it has invested more than $100m to reduce the environmental impact, including improving wastewater recycling.

This week, Zijin agreed to stop driving large trucks through the village, Tomic said, in a sign the women have had some success. Residents temporarily lifted the blockade to allow the company to complete some work.

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