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As Government Backs Down, Serbians Call For Ban On Lithium Mining
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BELGRADE -- Environmental activists took to the streets in Serbia for the third consecutive weekend to protest plans for the development of a large lithium mine despite winning some government concessions.

The demonstrators blocked traffic in several cities on December 11 to demand that global mining giant Rio Tinto halt its work at the mine in western Serbia.

“The one and only request is to oust Rio Tinto from Serbia and adopt a law banning lithium exploitation,” Aleksandar Jovanovic, the organizer of the protest and the head of Ecological Uprising movement, told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service.

Fewer people took to the streets this weekend after the government gave in to some of the activists’ demands.

On December 8 the government announced it was withdrawing from parliament a bill on land expropriation critical for the development of mines, saying it would revisit it for possible changes with input from civic professionals and civil society.

Two days later, the parliament passed a law on referendums that included recommendations proposed by activists.

Development of the mine would be a boon for Serbia's economy. Lithium is used in the production of batteries and its demand is expected to surge over the next two decades as automakers shift to producing electric vehicles.

The production of lithium and batteries could generate billions of dollars in revenue for Serbia and create hundreds if not thousands of jobs. Rio Tinto has said it would strictly follow Serbian ecology laws.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who backs the projects, called the protests "political." Vucic, an authoritarian leader, is up for reelection in April.

Protesters in Belgrade, the capital, blocked a highway for an hour on December 11. There was no visible police presence and no incidents were reported.

Demonstrations were also held in Nis, Subotica, Kragujevac and Uzice.

Environmental problems are becoming more urgent in the Balkans where lax regulations and corruption have led to high levels of air and water pollution, endangering the health of citizens.

Roza Shovkrinskaya's father, Yusup (right), was arrested in 1937 and died in a gulag camp some years later.

Last month, the Russian government initiated legal proceedings aimed at shutting down Memorial International and the Memorial Human Rights Center, venerable nongovernmental organizations devoted to researching and memorializing the crimes of the Soviet Union, as well as to promoting human rights in former Soviet republics today.

The Russian Supreme Court will resume hearing the case against Memorial International on December 14, and the Moscow City Court will hold hearings on the Memorial Human Rights Center on December 16.

Among Memorial International's many projects, the group has been collecting and preserving oral histories of the aging victims of Soviet-era repressions since 2008.

"The memories of witnesses of this epoch are among the most important sources conveying a sense of how prisoners of the gulag lived and survived and of what it meant to be a citizen of a totalitarian state," reads the project statement on Memorial's website. "For now, those sources remain available to us. So it is our primary goal to collect and preserve these statements while the witnesses themselves are still alive."

In addition, the NGO maintains an archive containing the personal files of more than 60,000 repressed Soviet citizens, as well as photographs, the personal files of Soviet dissidents, and other materials. There is also a library with more than 40,000 books and other items on Soviet history and a museum devoted to life in the gulag system and the experiences of repression victims.

Memorial International also maintains a database of victims of Soviet political repressions with more than 3 million entries, as well as a database naming more than 41,000 people who worked for the NKVD Soviet security organ from 1935 to 1939.

Millions of people were killed, persecuted, orphaned, or otherwise victimized in the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc between 1917 and 1991. Historian Robert Conquest estimated in the 2007 edition of his book The Great Terror that at least 15 million people were killed "by the whole range of the Soviet regime's terrors" during the 1930s.

In advance of the Memorial closure hearings, Current Time -- the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA -- published a tiny selection from the oral histories in Memorial's archives. The passages have been edited for length and clarity.

Yelizaveta Rivchun, 2008

The daughter of prominent Russian jazz composer and bandleader David Geigner recalls her father's arrest at the height of Stalin's Great Terror in December 1937 and what followed. Geigner was arrested in Moscow's Metropol restaurant shortly after a concert. He was accused of espionage and planning a terrorist act. He was executed on January 8, 1938, and posthumously rehabilitated on December 8, 1956.

Yelizaveta Rivchun's parents, Cecelia and David Geigner.
Yelizaveta Rivchun's parents, Cecelia and David Geigner.

It has been more than 70 years, but all that is so seared into my memory that it seems like just yesterday. They woke me up sometime after 1 a.m. I was 13 and I was sleeping on a chest. There were five of us living in a 13-square-meter room. Me, my mama and papa, my brother, and a nanny. It was a communal apartment with five or six rooms. There was one small kitchen for all of us. In the middle of the room, there was a cot where my brother slept. I slept on a chest. Mama and papa had a bed near the wall. The nanny slept on another chest right near the door.

When those two men came in with mama, they simply froze. They had just seen papa in his tuxedo on the stage and my beautiful mother in her evening gown, singing. And suddenly they arrived and saw this arrangement, the rooms and the cots. They froze and one of them asked: "Did Geigner live here?" "Did" – not "does," but "did." They asked the nanny and she said, "Yes."

They stood as if petrified while the cots were folded away, and my brother and I were roused. They were standing; my mama was standing pale as a canvas in a semiconscious state, leaning against a cupboard. They began rifling through the chest that I slept on. They found some ragged clothes and nothing more.

Sixteen years later -- no, 19 -- in 1956, we found out that papa was shot to death one month after his arrest.

Two months [after papa's arrest], I was in school when my teacher said to me: "Lizochka, the director wants to talk to you." My legs were shaking as I went to his office. I was a thin, tiny girl. I walked in and shuddered involuntarily. He hugged me and held me close and said: "Why are you crying? Why are you crying?" The first thing he asked me was: "Is your mother at home?" I didn't understand at the time what that meant. Now I know that he wanted to find out whether my brother and I had been left alone. I said: "Yes." He said: "Thank God! Why are you crying?"

I told him: "I'm afraid that the others will find out that papa has been arrested." And he said: "You silly! Don't be afraid. In your class, already half of them don't have fathers at home, just like you." His name was Trofim Nikitch Polishchuk. My whole life I have remembered his name because of the kind words he spoke to me that day.

Nina Smirnova, 2008

Nina Smirnova was born in 1923. Her family were deemed to be "kulaks," or relatively prosperous peasants, and were dispossessed under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's policy of de-kulakization in the 1930s. They were sent to Krasnodar Krai, where she still lived when Memorial interviewed her.

Nina Smirnova (file photo)
Nina Smirnova (file photo)

My mother was from Ukraine, Donetsk Oblast, and my father was from Voronezh Oblast. She came to Voronezh and married my father. They had children and lived, as the saying goes, by the sweat of their brows.

They fed the whole family with their own work, and there were 10 kids. Two of them died. They had to feed that whole family and pay the taxes on the land they rented. But we ate -- we weren't hungry -- and we wore clothes of rough cloth.

But in 1930 they began the campaign against kulaks…. My mother tied our best clothes onto our bodies so that they wouldn't pull them right off us. Papa had his boots stolen right off his feet -- that's how de-kulakization happened. I was just over 3 years old.

My mother's family was called Kutnyak. I know that my grandfather's name was Serhiy because her name was Anna Sergeyevna…. I don't remember my grandmother's name.

In 1930, our family was de-kulakized. They decided we were rich so we must be kulaks. But we were only rich in children! There were so many of us. But a meeting of poor neighbors decided to de-kulakize us, to seize everything and "liquidate us as a class." That's the way they write about it in the archives. It means destruction. So they sent us to Siberia.

They loaded us into cattle cars. I was little, but I remember the darkness in the train. I remember sitting on straw or on some dirty old rags.

Then they loaded us on sledges. The kids were covered in hay and rags. We were taken to a sorting station, half naked. I remember how the adults were running after the sledges. Their heads were covered with frost. The people were all white and icy in front of my eyes. I remember it all. We were crying in those sledges. We were wet and cold. It was about minus 50 degrees Celsius. We were crying terribly. Now I sometimes wake at night and wonder how my mother's heart could stand seeing her children like that.

In those days -- around 1934 -- I was nothing but bones covered in leathery skin. My stomach was like a drum. I had rickets. My eyes were shining. I was the smallest, but I was weak and I got the most. Until the age of 12, we wandered around with pot bellies….

Once we were sitting around and mama wasn't there. There was a pot on the stove with some warm water in it. My sister Irinka said: "Let's put some salt in it and eat it." So we salted the water – yes, we had salt -- and three of us girls ate that water. We ate it with spoons until we were full.

[During World War II] there was no bread. We went through the fields with shovels, digging around to find places where mice might have hidden something in their burrows. After the war, we were afraid to speak of those times. If someone reported you, said something against you, you could disappear without a trace. No court, no trial. Straight to [the remote Gulag camps in] Kolyma, missing in action.

[Soviet founder Vladimir] Lenin died in 1924, before I was born. Stalin did all this to us.

Roza Shovkrinskaya, 2009

Roza Shovkrinskaya was born in 1930. Her father, Yusup, fought in the Russian Civil War and was a Communist Party official in Daghestan. He was arrested in 1937 and died in a Gulag camp near Vorkuta.

Roza Shovkrinskaya (file photo)
Roza Shovkrinskaya (file photo)

Mama told us that papa went on a business trip. But we never saw papa again. He sat for three years in a prison in Makhachkala. They tortured him for three years, various investigators. He wrote this down and smuggled it out through some of the guards.

Papa spent three years there, alone. And after three years, they began his trial. Thirty-six people signed statements against him, but none of them were still alive. But thanks to their testimony, the tribunal convicted him and sentenced him to eight years. Eight years.

He was sent to Siberia. From the north, from Pechlag [a Gulag camp in the Komi region], we received the only letter that we ever got from him. He described the nature there, saying that everything around him was covered in snow, describing the polar bears and the rock ptarmigans. He wrote about how they were building things that were needed for our Soviet family -- how badly our family needed that railroad. I have no idea what sort of railroad it was.

After that letter, we never heard from papa again.

We didn't get any more letters, but a year later, in 1941, we were informed that papa had died in a hospital. No one was allowed to come to his wake. The village council set up a guard so that no one would come to us.

Mama and the children wept for papa alone. No one in the collective farm would speak to mama. They wouldn't let us go to school.

Mama never blamed anyone, never blamed Stalin. She said: "Stalin couldn't do this. Stalin couldn't know about this. Stalin isn't to blame."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by Bogdan Orlov

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