Sonja Bezjak and Marijana Podhraški
Mura March, Slovenia, 2021

Often called the Amazon of Europe, the Mura River solemnly flows across Eastern Slovenia, nurturing its life, land and people. And yet, during the past decade, it has also become a contested site of ardent protests of heritage CSOs and local activists, who are locked in a battle for the protection of the preservation of the river they call home through civil disobedience. Though praised as one of “the greenest countries of Europe”—a slogan Slovenia itself uses to promote tourism—Slovenian rivers, including Mura, are not spared from hydro-power dam construction by profit-oriented corporate investors, who are gaining multi-million contracts from the state-owned electricity trader Holding of Slovenian Electricity (HSE) established in 2001.

Before Slovenia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, only the military were allowed to access to the Mura River. In the post-WWII era Mura represented a “floating wall” between the socialist and capitalist world and approaching the so-called “100 meters sector” by the river was forbidden, even life threatening. Growing up in the nearby village of Trate, just a stone throw away from the Mura, my childhood memories are full of terrifying stories about Czechoslovakians spending holidays in Yugoslavia, and then, instead of heading back home, trying to emigrate to capitalist Austria or further West by swimming across the river, some even with children on their backs. It was only after Yugoslavia crumbled and the border with the now newly independent Slovenia opened, that many of us started to see the river’s real natural beauty—as free-flowing water, full of life and wonder.

In 2013, a local group formed a civil society organization (CSO) called the Museum of Madness—established in a nearby castle named Cmurek that served as the state’s mental institution between 1956 and 2004. Haunted with stories of people being “disposed” there for decades, the castle was now left to ruin and the idea was to organize a permanent museum in it. The Mura River—which rises in Austria, crosses to Slovenia right underneath the castle’s window, merges with Drava River in Croatia and then the grand Danube before finally reaching the Black Sea—has become one of the points of interest for this project.

Through our initiative of the museum, we soon learned that the government planned to build eight hydro-power plants on the Mura, one of which was set to be in Trate. The investor had already started the procedure to obtain the construction permit for the first plant that was to be built near the renowned natural spa and tourist spot of Radenci only 15 miles from Trate. We knew we had to act in order to keep Mura intact in its immense biodiversity, to raise voices on its behalf, and to speak for nature as well as for ourselves if we didn’t want to lose the river again as it happened during the cold war.

The Museum of Madness joined the My Mura coalition which brought together the local associations and organizations, as well as various specialized CSOs such as the Slovenian Native Fish Society with the common goal of protecting Mura and its extraordinary natural richness. The president of the Slovenian Native Fish Society, Andreja Slameršek, organized the locals in a strong network and helped to garner media interest in the movement. Our message was that hydropower permanently devastates ecosystems and species, and therefore should not be part of Slovenia’s energy future. My Mura coalition also organized the “Save Mura” campaign, which was also led by Andreja.

Even though the investors tried to mislead locals by suggesting that the dams would bring some long-awaited progress to the region and would not harm the environment, the activist coalition knew that the idea of the dams on the Mura was conceived by politicians of the former Yugoslavia. Discrediting nature advocates was part of the old strategies, too. Between 1985 and 1986, the locals living along the Mura organized a series of protests to prevent the construction of the dams. Emphasizing the Mura’s importance for the biodiversity of the region, as well as its little energy capacity, it took only a year and a half then to persuade the decision makers to step back. Our familiarity with this past history further boosted our confidence, especially after Mura’s first protectors joined us recognizing that our current arguments matched their advocacy in the 1080s. Simultaneously, many of the first Mura fighters, who preferred not to be at the forefront, were helping us from the background. To bring to light battle of the 1980s for the protection of Mura, an exhibition in the Cmurek castle was arranged in 2018 (still ongoing), showing clippings and other media publications from 1985 and 1986. Its title, “From Green Gladiators to Ecoterrorists,” juxtaposes the old Yougoslavian officials’ labelling of the Mura fighters as green gladiators with current politicians’ name-calling the environmental organisations as ‘eco-terrorists.’

With the cold war border gone, the perception of Mura as a river connecting Slovenes and Austrians rather than dividing the two neighbouring communities prompted our river-walks, which we organized in both Slovenian and German languages. The threat from an onslaught of dams of Mura’s waterways, was of concern for all of us living by it. Our member, Boris Bezjak, a passionate conservationist, guided us through the lush nature along the riverbank and its backwoods. Around 40 participants came together from both sides of the Mura to discover together the world right on our doorsteps that most of us never knew existed, and it was wonderful. “The Mysterious World Of the Mura River” walks—as we named them—gave us an insight into the different fish species in the Mura. We learned that the Mura hosts as many as 65 different fish species making it one of the most biodiverse European rivers. The children who came with their parents were most excited about seeing the river crabs. Fish migrations which extend all the way to the Black Sea in distant Bulgaria were a great starting point for some important and valuable discussions between the two communities, Slovenians, on the right side of the riverbank, and Austrians, on the left, about open borders and travelling without passports. Our troubled history marked with frontiers and checkpoints, and even with forced relocations of the people from one riverbank to another, had been going on for too long. It was time to move forward, we all agreed. In addition, the newly discovered rich biodiversity of the river became the inspiration of the “The Mysterious World of the Mura River” exhibition in the Cmurek Castle, with the accompanying lecture on fish species in the river Mura presented by the country’s most eminent ichthyologist, dr. Meta Povž. Both Slovenian and Austrian local mayors attended the opening, and representatives of local fishing families, too. As many as eighty residents from both sides of the Mura attended the event. The Museum of Madness exhibition coordinator received an award from the Fishing Association of Slovenia for addressing the Mura fish diversity and realizing the exhibition.

In 2018, to make our movement even more visible and to increase the pressure on decision-makers, we decided to stage the grand spectacular “Mura March” or “Marš za Muro.”  Through local radio stations and social media, people from all over Slovenia were invited to walk together with us along the river. During the preparations, a local group of older women who regularly meet and socialize while knitting, crocheting and embroidering, joined our initiative. We together designed a distinct yellow and brown wool hat, yellow as a sign seen from afar and brown as the colour of our river, and the “Knitting for Mura” took off. After posting hat knitting instructions online, even more women took part. In just a couple of months about 150 hats were made and they were gone in an instant. We also had brooches and badges printed reusing the slogan of the 1980s protests: “Let’s Save Mura, Save Energy.” The motif of a stork on a yellow base was reprinted too, since storks symbolize the world—the community, the flora, and fauna—along the Mura.

As we were looking through the archive of the 1980s protests trying to decide what to reprint for our movement, our group became divided as we came across the badges that said, “Mura Fuck Off,” a cult rock concert that took place in 1986 in Murska Sobota, in one of the central towns of the region. Some of our members found it too vulgar, but in the end, we repeated it with the author’s permission, because after all the DNA of the Museum of Madness is crashing taboos and pushing boundaries. Besides, the attention-grabbing slogan offered a great opportunity for us to tell people more about the first Mura defenders. On the big day more than 400 supporters marched with us, out of which two thirds were the locals from both the Slovenian and the Austrian riverbanks. We had an original marching song titled “My Black River” made especially for this day by a local band, dr. Zero. Two of the musicians from the legendary Murska Sobota concert, Vlado Kreslin and Jani Kovačič, with some well-known younger musicians, came and played to the audience. The representatives of the Ministry for the Environment and the Ministry for the Infrastructure responded to the invitation and were there to witness from close up our unity and determination.

In the meantime, the offices of these two crucial ministries which for the most part played a key role in preparing and approving the documentation for the construction of dams were engaged in presenting the “National Renewable Energy Action Plan 2010 – 2020” that would authorize          dams as source of the renewable energy. They kept repeating that as a member of the EU, Slovenia required to comply with Brussels and implement this plan or else sanctions will follow. At one of the public presentations the attending representatives of environmental organizations and local CSOs were mocked with arrogant remarks: the politicians claimed that our voices didn’t count since this was a political document and we were not a political party with seats in the parliament. They also tried to compromise our integrity and commitment to nature by cynically asking how many of us walked or used a bicycle today instead of coming to Ljubljana with a car from north-eastern Slovenia (appr. 170 km). It became apparent, the politicians and the dam’s investors were working together. Before becoming the Minister for the Environment in 2020, Andrej Vizjak was employed at the Sava River hydropower plants. In his role as a minister, he stated on many occasions that he could not imagine Slovenia’s energy future without the planned hydropower plants. By labeling us as a “group of bird, fish and mosquito lovers” with some romantic views of the Mura River, state officials tried to undermine the role of civil society the entire time. Even though dams don’t offer new employment opportunities, their accusations that we are trying to hinder the development of the region and prevent the creation of new jobs were especially harmful. This set off some passionate dam supporters to verbally abuse us on social media. The President of the Slovenian Native Fish Society, Andreja Slameršek, even received a threat letter to her home address; her car was broken into and banners taken.

Uneducated on the topic, the mainstream media was at first just repeating the state’s policies on how dams are essential for progress. Our work was focused on showing that there was another side to this issue. Within our “Save Mura” petition (signed by 77 000 people), we talked directly to hundreds of people, one on one, taking time to explain all the aspects which would make them better understand why Mura needed to be protected. To express support for Mura in diverse ways, we also invited an international group of female artists to paint murals for Mura without dams. The artists were shocked to hear how dirty the politicians’ and lobbyists’ attacks on us and other activist groups were. They also felt the pressure of the stressful situation and the responsibility of the task. However, following two days of intense discussions of the issue, they created four very strong and thought-provoking art works in the municipalities of Šentilj, Gornja Radgona, and Radenci, through which the Mura River flows. One of the murals was showing Mura carrying a lifeless body of a nude female surrounded only with dead fish and bland waters with a text: “Behind the dam’s walls there will be only dead Mura left.” All four murals continue to hail the passers-by, one also from a private house of a young local family who let us use the facade of their house for the mural. The mural images were also printed as postcards and hundreds were sent to the Minister of Environment.

The Mura River is the source and central connecting thread of life in the Pomurje region of Slovenia. Nature and its people shaped it together. We know how to take care of its distinct  agricultural landscape made of rivers, wetlands, extensive floodplain forests and exceptional cultural heritage. With this message we requested to meet the Minister of Environment who was at this point willing to listen to our arguments. Moreover, on July 25, 2018, at the annual UNESCO “Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme” conference the Mura Biosphere Reserve was declared, making Mura one of the most important biosphere areas in the world. The environment minister, who was replaced in 2019, then promised there would be no dams on Mura. The construction of all eight planned dams was abandoned, but the story is far from over for the locals as the investor still has a valid concession to build eight plants. Besides, the new government is very much in favour of using hydro-electric power. But we will not give in. My Mura coalition with its president Samo Tuš seeks to permanently protect Mura. We will also keep working on bringing closer the communities from both sides of Mura. After decades of division, we want to build a new community based on dialogue, friendship and respect.