(INTERVIEW) Sonja Bezjak: Guardian of the river Mura
Sonja Bezjak grew up in a place called Trate, just a stone throw from the Mura river. Her time spent along the river banks is full of fond memories. When she talks about Mura, it sounds as if she was talking about a very dear person, a close friend even. Her moving to Ljubljana for studies and work didn’t break her away from her river. Today she’s one of the fiercest campaigners for Mura’s natural and cultural heritage preservation.
Interview by Marijana Podhraški
Why do you love Mura so much?
Well, for many years I was not really aware of her beauty and importance. Throughout my childhood the river symbolized the forbidden zone, a dangerous area, because it was a border between Yugoslavia and Austria. We were not allowed to go to the river, there was a so-called 100 meters zone in which only soldiers were allowed to be.
I remember hearing stories about the people from the Czech Republic who would spend holidays in Yugoslavia, and then on their way back home they tried to immigrate to Austria by swimming across the river. Stories about men and women crossing Mura with children on their backs, hoping to find better life in the West, were very common back then.
Therefore, I was afraid of the river. Luckily, I have a brother who is a passionate fisherman; his experience with the river and the stories about Mura brought positive reflections.
When did you become part of Saving Mura campaign and why?
Although I was studying sociology in Ljubljana, I was still very much interested in the history of my village. I grew up in a remote rural area, but there were three very impressive historical buildings in my village: the medieval castle Cmurek, the 19th century mansion Novi Kinek and the early 20th century mill. I have always dreamed about how vivid and interesting life had to be in Trate decades and centuries ago.
However, in my childhood not only the river was a forbidden place, but also the medieval castle above it, where one could not enter. It was an ‘Institution for mentally ill’, where people were placed by the state, and where they usually stayed their whole lives. In 2004 the so-called madhouse was closed down and its residents were moved to smaller flats.
Unfortunately, with Slovenia joining the EU, our small village didn’t gain much. The cultural and natural heritage was laying out there without anyone seeing its value and potential for the development of this rural area.
In 2013 I have gathered a team, my friends, neighbours, my sister and my brother and together we established the Museum of Madness (Muzej Norosti). From then on, I have learnt so much about my river and its value for the animals, vegetation, people and the whole community.
When the state’s threats about constructing a hydroelectrical power plant (HPP) on Mura became very realistic, I just couldn’t stand aside. I was not alone. My brother Boris was already very familiar with the negative impacts of HPP’s on fish, and my friend Darja explained to us about how people already back in the 1980’s fought against constructing ideas. And they succeeded!
There were already so many people involved in the battle, they knew so much about very different negative impacts of the HPP’s on the water, on the forests, on various animals etc. I thought we should also raise voices for the local people and their right to enjoy the fresh free-floating water. It was not only about the water that we need for life, but also the biodiversity, beautiful nature that we still count on to bring new jobs in this underprivileged area of Slovenia.
That’s how I became part of the campaign. A sociologist in the team of biologists, engineers, environmentalists.
So, what does it take for an active citizen to save a river from state’s megalomaniacal projects (such as building HPP’s on it)?
First of all, it is very important to be part of the community, that you have people to share the information and knowledge with. Then you also need an expert who will lead the community through all the procedures, where you can formally fight for your rights and protect your living environment against the devastation.
There is a legal ground, the so-called Aarhus Convention, which gives people the right on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, which obliges states to include people and communities in big projects with big impact.
If people join, then they become very powerful and can influence the decision makers. However, these battles are never simple, short or pleasant. But it is worth it!
What’s the current status of the campaign and its latest activities?
As I already mentioned, people were fighting against HPP already in Yugoslavia. In only a year and a half, they succeeded to convince the politicians that the river is too precious and they will not get much energy from it. So, the decision makers cancelled the project.
In 2005 a new project appeared with the plan to build 8 big HPP’s on the Mura river, but the investors were not so active in the beginning. In 2014 we joined the campaign, in that time the official procedure for the first HPP was already going on. As Museum of Madness, we organized several walking tours on the river bank, and taught locals about the importance of the river, we opened the fish exhibition, organized several lectures and concerts. In 2018 we opened the exhibition about the battle for the river in the 1980’s.
It is so important to know the past. In our case we learnt that the first battlers used the same arguments as we use! In the campaign we were part of the bigger family of individuals and NGO’s joint in the ‘My Mura campaign‘, which was run by the remarkable Andreja Slameršek, president of Slovenian Native Fish Society. She took care about all legal procedures, organized the locals in the strong network, talked to media, she was the real charismatic lead! The battle took us years and it is not finished yet!
In terms of biodiversity Mura is one of the most undiscovered rivers in Slovenia. What’s the reason we know so little about it?
The Mura river flows in the north-eastern Slovenia, the region is “far” away for people from Ljubljana and Primorska region. Waters of the Mura river are sometimes grey, sometimes brown, they are not as blue as the Soča river is – the colour which I believe runs through the hearts of almost all Slovenians.
However, our river is mystical, sometimes it appears dangerous, then again peaceful and beautiful. It is rich in biodiversity, it is inspiration for many renowned Slovenian artists born in the region, such as Vlado Kreslin, Feri Lainšček, Vlado Žabot, Denis Škofič … Through their artistic works I believe people became more interested in the region and its river. But there is still much to do to present the river properly.
In the Museum of Madness, we recently prepared another exhibition about the paleontology, visitors can see the fossils which were uncovered by the waves of Mura. Not far away from the Cmurek castle you can visit the old river mill and you can take a ride with the old ferry, which was once common for passing the river.
Beside these social and cultural aspects, one can enjoy the rich biodiversity of the river, there are for example 65 different fish species only in this river, and many of them are on the red lists of the European rivers.
The free-floating river is a unique ecosystem that we have to keep as intact as possible for the future.
How important is Mura for the locals today?
I believe that river is today much more important for people than 10 years ago. I see that people are walking beside the river, jogging, searching for the peace and fresh air, watching the waves, children collecting stones and building the castles, in the summer some people even take a swim in the river.
But there is still a lot of space for raising awareness, for example about the importance of the free-floating river against the climate warming. In some villages people already established small enterprises with services for tourists.
And what we have learnt together through the campaign is that we should be respectful and take care for the river, to fight also against over exploitation and mass tourism. I see our future in green tourism and sustainability. But the popular “green” terms are not always simple to be brought to life.
Would you like to add anything else about Mura, the environmental activities, Slovenia maybe?
You asked why I love this river. The more I fought for her, to keep her free floating, the more I respected her as our companion, our breadwinner, our guardian … When I was tired of all the dirty things, I just set down and watched her, listened to her and she calmed me down and gave me new energy.
The river is our future, it gives us water, freshness, fish, woods, symbols and it is our bridge to the past and to the future. That’s why I love and respect her!