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Life on the Sava

A journey of almost 1000 km along the Danube’s greatest tributary kindling a dialogue between man, nature and neighbours.

June 28, 2019 - Dan McCrum - Stories and ideas

Looking across from Slavonski into Bosanksi Brod, the far side of this apartment block is still habitable. We were told money had been offered for renovation from a Scandanavian country but was turned down for 'political reasons'. Photo: Dan McCrum

I’m very interested in our attachments to places and memory, and rivers are one of the most important places on Earth, they flow like arteries across the continents, unlike other Places they aren’t static. Our collective memory affects who we are and the societies we live in, our personal memory affects who we are and the lives we wish to lead. Together, our surroundings and our memories are in my opinion the most critical factors in human life and the only way to evolve them is through discourse with others who see from another perspective. This is what the documentary project conceived by myself and my colleague Matthew Somerville is all about.

Sava affects millions of people across her four nations and has been a social, economic and cultural influence on her lands for millenia. The greatest tributary of the Danube and geographically the defined border between the Balkan Peninsula and the Pannonian Plain, and once the longest river of the former-Yugoslavia and now a thread through her former republics of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia. Historically she was the temporal frontier between two competing empires, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman, today she is the frontier of the European Union. Sava is a Place in many many Places, she’s a conduit that connects and a boundary that divides.

We call our project All Along the Sava and upon completion next spring it will be a stimulating and meditatives production that takes the viewer on 990 km journey kindling a dialogue between, man, nature and neighbours.  We are outsiders looking in, offering our perspective, whilst our insiders are those we meet along the way and Sava’s voice and spokesperson is actress Mira Furlan. As one of this trio who wishes to take viewers on a  poignant and emotive journey along one of our continents lesser known, but more profound rivers, I offer now to take you on a brief but insightful journey All Along the Sava.

Our journey starts close to both the Austrian and Italian borders, at a jade pool in a valley flanked by the Karavanke and Julian alps. These idyllic surroundings are utilised by both skiers and hikers and maintained by park rangers all year round, older rangers remember when skiing in Slovenia was popular with everyone, not the preserve of tourists and rich folk. Our river grows joined by tiny tributaries streaming in off the mountains we come to our first town, Jesenice, a former mining and steel producing hub. A short man who spent his life at the heart of the towns industrial life, we first met him at the towns industrial museum which he frequents when not in the surrounding hills smoking his pipe. Proud of his towns past, he also remembers its failings – the creation of The Dead River, due to toxins released by Jesenice’s steelworks.  He is proud to have lived across two eras, but misses the communal life of the past.

The Zelenci (Jade) Pool in Northwestern Slovenia is the the official source of the Sava River. Photo: Dan McCrum

Moving downstream the river is the archetypal alpine river of deep choppy waters, perfect for sustaining the endangered Huchen (or Danube Salmon, where it is no longer found). Fishermen in Slovenia, like their Bosnian and wider Balkan counterparts, join with other activist groups in the fight to save the Huchen from extinction. Hydropower changes local ecologies significantly, creating lakes behind their dams and releasing a daily rush of water, not to mention the detrimental effects of their construction. “When you look around Slovenia you see a green and pristine land, but this is not really the case and it’s the other side of this story that we need to tell” says a young woman with the activist group Save the Blue Heart of Europe.

We pass several dams on “Lake Sava” skirting Ljubljana and through the Sava Hills in Eastern Slovenia where we meet another man who’s dedicated his life to rivers, Martin Strel, the Big River Man who has swam the Danube, Yangtze, Missisipi and the Amazon – recollects with us his motivations and fears for the future of the worlds waterways. The river here has ended it’s alpine phase and is widening as hills give way to plains, the last dam on the Sava at Brežice meeting the first of many skela (ferry) operators as we approach our first border.

A skela utilises the rivers current to transport people, cars and traditionally freight from bank to bank, this one is located just north of Sisak. Photo: Dan McCrum

On the northern bank of Sava, at the edge of Zagreb a group of young men discuss their role in Croatian counter-culture. For Zagreb, Sava is an often overlooked element of the city. Dividing Zagreb from it’s socialist era Novi Zagreb. Away from mainstream city life is Močvara, an alternative club by the river. Here members of a Croatian drag queen collective regularly perform their humorous and subversive shows which rail against the re-traditionalisation and populism of current Croatian politics, a growing trend across the continent.

The river leaves the urban sprawl of Zagreb behind, the land on her banks becomes marshland, then farmland until we come to the industrial town of Sisak, ancient Roman Segestica. From this point the river is ‘navigable’, but not many boats today journey from Sisak all the way to Beograd and the Danube.  There’s a rumour amongst the Zagreb art crowd – (or maybe one of us dreamt it) – that a man journeyed from there to Slavonski Brod wearing a suit and using a lilo, but I’ve never been able to find any hard evidence of this. Where the Kupa meets the Sava we enter the historic military frontier of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the wetlands of Lonjsko Polje, at a small village called Krapje we meet a veteran.

He struggled to find work after leaving the army, so moved to his fathers old home and began selling handcrafted souvenirs to fellow Croatians visiting the ethno-tourist sites of the national park. He is disappointed with Croatia’s ascent to European Union membership, though not necessarily against it. For him Croatia is European regardless, the EU may help Croatia in some ways but he is fearful that “Europe will use us, as we’re so immature and frivolous, they will easily do this”.

On the border with Bosnia and the frontier of the EU is another tourist site, the Stone Flower Spomenik (memorial). This site remains a contentious place for the former-Yugoslav countries, a memorial built on the site a WWII era concentration camp, many today are trying to downplay the sites horrific past. Spomeniks are today a draw for Western tourists thanks to photographer Jan Kempenaers and the excellent Spomenik Database. But what is perhaps most interesting about them, is their failure, the architect of the Stone Flower spoke of his hope to terminate “the inheritance of hatred that passes from generation to generation”. Sadly this ambition didn’t come to pass in Tito’s Yugoslavia, not inherently due to spomeniks, but their part in the rememberance of past atrocities and the failure for society to talk about them openly and frankly, to grieve and mourn publicly. Crossing the river we enter Bosnia.

The contentious Stone Flower was completed in 1966 and memoralises the atrocities of the Ustase concentration on this site during WWII. Photo: Dan McCrum

Well not quite, we enter one of her two political entities, the Republika Srpska – Serbian Bosnia. This region is not homogeneously Serbian, but majority and politically Serbian-Bosnian controlled. There is a standout settlement on this divided stretch of river, Brod, who’s name (boat) suggests it has been a crossing point on the lower Sava for a very long time. A tale of two towns, “it was one city before the war”, now split into Slavonski and Bosanski Brod. On the Bosnian side is the Russian owned oil refinery which operates outside of EU restrictions to the ire and detriment of those living in both Brods, though the Bosnians have more reason to hold their tongues – the refinery is the towns biggest employer. Across the bridge are a hospital and university, pollution from the Bosnian side floats freely in all directions, but for those in Bosanski Brod the closest accessible hospital is 70km away and university 110km in Banja Luka.

The riverside promenade/flood defense in Bosanski Brod was brightened up by locals who invited neighbours and children to take part in decorating the pathway. Just one rule, no politics. Photo: Dan McCrum

This stretch of river, from Krapje all the way to Jamena where we enter Serbia, is for me the most interesting and wonderful part of the river, and also the saddest. I remember the apprehension I felt several years ago when in my early twenties we first visited Bosnia – the Bosnia I had in my Western-centric psyche. My prejudices have since been completely shattered in iconoclastic proportions. In both Brod and Jamena we’ve made friends with Croatians, Bosnians and Serbs who’ve welcomed us into their lives with the most hospitable ease and generosity. Across this stretch of we’ve been frequently welcomed into homes, feasted on sarma, cevapi and kulen and drank home brewed rakija derived from every imaginable fruit.

One of the nicest stories we find concerns that of another former-soldier, this guy isn’t a veteran, he’s to young to have fought in any wars – but he is a Serb. A proud young man who has helped us on each of our visits to Serbia. On our next trip we will again meet him in his grandmothers home in Jamena, but this time he won’t be driving from the barracks in Beograd. He’ll be driving All Along the Sava from Slovenia and the home of his mother, who went to work there illegally and was then granted the right to stay, encouraging her son to also apply for a visa and leave from the Serbian army.

Sava ceases to be a border when the Drina meets her, the landscape becomes a dull flat agricultural expanse. The cities west of Beograd are defunct industrial powerhouses. Sremska Mitrovica is one of these, once a former Roman capital of Pannonia named Sirmium, it has fallen on hard times in recent years. One of it’s most famous sons is Branislav Ivanovich, a Serbian international footballer, the club he learned his trade, like the factories, sits derelict on the banks of the Sava. As a kayaking coach flatly tells us “now, after the transition period [my emphasis] of the 1990’s, all the factories are closed, and we are just a small town in Serbia”.

A lot of investment into Serbia comes from a multitude of sources, and perhaps we can draw parallels in how the incumbent president Vucic plays these forces against each other with the game Tito played with the USA, Western Europe and the Communist Bloc. As we near Beograd a new bridge is being built over Sava for a new highway linking Beograd with port city Bar in Montenegro, from the river banks it is possible to hear the workers shouting to each other, in Chinese – part of China’s Belt & Road Initiative. Russian soft power enters the country through the Orthodox church and renovation projects, European Union money is invested in infrastructure and agricultural projects as highlighted by the signage ubiquitous across the countryside and vanity projects made possible with the petrodollars of Gulf States proliferate on Sava’s bank through the Belgrade Waterfront project. It is the later of these that draws most of our attention.

A group of squatters and anarchists have come to be based on a wrecked steamboat across the river from the Belgrade Waterfront. Dragor once belonged to King Karadjordjevic, then Tito “and a number of other criminals”. The de facto captain sleeps in the old master bedroom, just a mattress on the floor surrounded by books. He thought the projects and events him and his small group put on would be of interest to fellow Belgraders, but in fact has drawn more support from outsiders who’ve decided to stay and help fix the boat and grow the community. The captain thinks locals are wary to get involved because of repeated defeats inflicted on grassroots and leftist organisations by the state and local government, they are in a word, demoralised.

The Captain doesn’t see himself as a river man, he had no association with rivers before they occupied the boat. But “there aren’t many things better than the living by the river. Whether you want to do something, to rest, concentrate, or just refill your batteries. That is least how it was supposed to be. But now with this rampage and erecting places for the elite, bourgeois and nouveau riche, that won’t be possible anymore. Those who want to find peace will find it, but that is not enough, man needs to fight for the preservation and promotion of what is good”. A few hundred metres downstream we meet and join the Danube.

All Along the Sava people spend leisure time with their friends and family. Here a group of men from Samac sing songs as they wait for the barbeque. Photo: Dan McCrum

According to Simon Schama and his book Landscape & Memory “the cultural habits of humanity have always made room for the sacredness of nature”. But our world today is very different from the world he perceived not so long ago, in 1995. It seems to me from my experiences on the Sava, daily life and the technological barrage of recent years that that sacredness is being lost, day-after-day. With our film we hope to bring understanding of the river and the regions past, to create a discourse of its historical and contemporary situation with the vain hope that by talking about what how we got here we might figure out how to enter a future that isn’t our enemy.

We are currently crowdfunding to help us complete filming this Summer, you can help in anyway and watch the trailer here.

Dan McCrum is a history graduate with an interest in documentary film, heritage studies and living political ideas. His long term project is All Along the Sava.

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