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‘Memories still fresh’: Villagers remember 1999 Racak massacre | Kosovo

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Racak, Kosovo –A fresh layer of snow covers the muddy ditch in the hill overlooking the village of Racak in southern Kosovo.

Rocks with red paint pop out of the snow, marking the exact locations where 45 people from this village were killed on January 15, 1999.

Twenty years later, thousands of people in below freezing temperatures paid homage to one of the worst massacres during the 1998-1999 Kosovo War.

The memories of the fighting in the corner of the Balkans, then a province of Serbia after Yugoslavia broke apart in the 1990s, are still fresh.

“I feel like my pain increases every year, maybe because every year I understand better or maybe because of what others tell me about [my uncle] and how he treated us,” Egzon Bilalli, a 21-year-old psychology student, said after this year’s commemoration.





The memorial wall at Racak displays the names and photos of those killed in the village 20 years ago [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]

Only nine months old and hiding in a nearby city when the killings took place in his village, Bilalli remains connected to the events from that day. 

He now lives in Racak and he and his relatives paint red marks every year in the ditch where his uncle and the others died that day. 

Bilalli doesn’t want the village or the rest of the country and world to forget what happened here. 

It was here in the ethnic Albanian village of Racak in southern Kosovo, about an hour from the capital, Pristina, where 45 men, women, teenagers and children were taken from their homes and beaten and shot by Yugoslav security forces in the hills above the village. The remains from one woman are still missing.





Hundreds of people from Racak and around Kosovo visited the cemetery on the 20th anniversary of the massacre [Al Jazeera]

The bloodshed became a turning point in the conflict between the Serb-led Yugoslav security forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the main ethnic Albanian rebel group fighting for Kosovo’s independence from Serbia after the breakup up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. 

Veteran US diplomat William Walker visited the village one day after and publicly declared it as a massacre by Serb security forces, describing a “crime against humanity.” 

This declaration garnered international attention and paved the way for the US-led NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo that began on March 24, 1999, and lasted for 78 days, driving out Slobodan Milosevic’s forces out of Kosovo.

By the end of the air raids, Kosovo was liberated from Serbia. Today, Serbia still does not recognise Kosovo’s independence and claims that the crimes at Racak were staged by the KLA.





Nerxhivane Bilalli, 29, in Racak, Kosovo says it is difficult to live in the same village where her father was killed [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]

Though the KLA dismantled shortly after the war, NATO troops remain in Kosovo to keep the peace and security in Europe’s newest nation. 

Muhamet Bilalli, 61, was one of the KLA soldiers fighting in Recak that morning to protect the residents from the advancing Serb security forces. He and his brother Lutfi Bilalli, Egzon’s uncle, had been working in Switzerland throughout the 1990s like many Kosovo Albanians during that time. 

The siblings returned to Kosovo in 1998 to join the KLA. 

On January 15, 1999, Lutfi was killed in Racak while helping residents to escape from the village.

“It doesn’t feel like 20 years; it feels like it happened today or yesterday. The memories are still fresh,” Muhamet Bilalli said.

He becomes anxious before every anniversary. “Since last night, I couldn’t get any sleep until now. I played the events in my head.”

To date, no one from Serbia has been brought to justice for the crimes that took place in Racak. “This hurts us the most. Where is the justice? Where is the EU and UN?”





Muhamet Bilalli holds a photo of himself when he was a KLA soldier. His brother was killed during the massacre at Racak [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]

Lutfi Bilalli’s daughter, Nerxhivane Bilalli, 29, still lives in Racak. She says it is difficult to live in the same place where her father died. 

“Every morning when you leave the house, you see the place where the massacre happened which brings back the memories. But at least we have freedom.”

The 20th anniversary comes against the backdrop of a new special court set up in The Hague known as the Kosovo Specialist Chambers. 

This week, several former KLA commanders were invited to The Hague either as suspects and witnesses, which has sparked controversy in Kosovo.

The new court will prosecute war crimes allegedly committed by KLA commanders during the war. Many in Kosovo believe that the court is one-sided.





A boy stands at the gravesite of a loved one at Racak [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]

Back at the Racak cemetery, residents continue to heal from their recent wartime past as they visit the graves of their relatives.

Beqe Beqiri, 40, a mechanic and former KLA fighter, lost his father and two brothers at Racak.

“It was a big tragedy when they killed my father and siblings, but having this tragedy happen to my family gave me some sort of strength.” 

He and others from the village “still have pain from our wounds” from that day.

“The hardest and most humiliating part was knowing and not being able to stop the Serbs from putting the dead bodies into plastic bags and dragging them up the mountain so that they could cover their crimes,” he said. “It was very hard for me to see my dead father and brothers in that way.”

For Racak’s youth, they will continue to preserve the memories for future generations in order to remember the past.

“Even though most of us lost someone in the massacre,” said Egzon Billali said, “we still feel proud that they were the reason for us to keep living; we have to keep going.”

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Canadian report reveals spike in food-related litter during pandemic

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TORONTO — Restaurants’ inability to offer their usual dine-in service during much of 2020 may explain why an unusually high amount of food-related litter was found across the country, a new report says.

The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup (GCSC) is an annual program in which volunteers are encouraged to clean up green spaces and other natural areas.

Last year, single-use food and beverage containers made up 26.6 per cent of waste collected through the program – nearly twice as high a percentage as in 2019, before the pandemic.

“We suspect the change may be one of the many implications of COVID-19, including more people ordering restaurant takeaway and consuming more individually packaged foods,” GCSC spokesperson Julia Wakeling said in a press release.

While food- and beverage-related litter accounted for a greater percentage of waste uncovered by GCSC than in the past, it wasn’t the single largest category of items picked up through the program last year.

That dubious honour goes to cigarette butts and other smoking-related paraphernalia, which comprised nearly 29 per cent of all items collected. There were more than 83,000 cigarette butts among the 42,000 kilograms of waste found and clean up last year.

So-called “tiny trash” – little pieces of plastic and foam – also accounted for a sizeable share of the waste, making up 26.8 per cent of the total haul.

In addition to smoking-related items and tiny trash, the main pieces of litter removed by GCSC volunteers last year included nearly 22,000 food wrappers, more than 17,500 pieces of paper, more than 13,000 bottle caps and more than 10,000 beverage cans.

Discarded face masks and other forms of personal protective equipment were also detected and cleaned up, although not tallied in their own category.  PPE waste has been repeatedly cited as a concern by environmental advocates during the pandemic; a robin in Chilliwack, B.C. is the earliest known example of an animal that died due to coronavirus-related litter.

The GCSC is an annual program organized by Ocean Wise and the World Wildlife Fund Canada. Its operations were disrupted by the pandemic as well; only 15,000 volunteers took part in the program last year, versus 85,000 in 2019, due to delays and public health restrictions making large group clean-ups impossible.

Still, there was GCSC participation from every province and the Northwest Territories in 2020. Nearly half of the volunteers who took part were based in B.C., where the program began in 1994.

Data from past GCSC reports was used as part of the research backing Canada’s ban on certain single-use plastic items, which is scheduled to take effect by the end of 2021.

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Canada: Significant Changes To Canada’s Federal Environmental Protection Regime Proposed

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On April 13, 2021, the government of Canada proposed significant changes to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (“CEPA”)1 through the introduction of Bill C-28, Strengthening Environmental Protection for a Healthier Canada Act (the “Amendments“).2

With these Amendments, the government hopes to modernize Canada’s environmental regime which has not undergone significant change in over 20 years. CEPA is the primary statute through which the federal government regulates and protects the environment. CEPA and its accompanying regulations regulate among other things the treatment and disposal of chemicals and hazardous waste, vehicle and engine emissions, equipment and other sources of pollution, and the prevention and impact of environmental emergencies such as oil and chemical spills.

This bulletin provides an overview of the major changes to CEPA that have been proposed.

The Right to a Healthy Environment and Certain Soft Rights

Significantly, the Preamble under the Amendments will officially recognize Canadians’ right to a healthy environment. Section 2 of CEPA will require the government to protect that right when making decisions relating to the environment.3

The Amendments set out specific obligations the government must undertake to safeguard this right, including developing an implementation framework to set out how this right will be considered in the administration of CEPA as well as conducting research, studies and monitoring activities to support this goal.

In addition, the Preamble will recognize some additional considerations, including confirming the government’s commitment to implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as well as recognizing the importance of considering vulnerable persons, reducing or replacing the use of animal testing, and the right of Canadians to have access to information on product labels.

Project Impact Assessment

With respect to risk assessments under CEPA, under the new provisions the federal government must consider impacts on vulnerable populations and possible cumulative effects of the proposed conduct. Vulnerable populations will include groups of people with elevated biological susceptibility, such as children, and groups with elevated exposure risks, such an indigenous communities. Consideration of cumulative effects of proposed conduct takes a holistic approach to substance management by considering the compounding risks of exposure to various chemicals during daily life rather than looking at substances on their own.

Chemicals Management

The federal government has identified the management of chemicals as a key target area under the new CEPA.

The Amendments thus propose to overhaul this regime in order to better protect Canadians from the evolving risks of harmful chemicals and pollution. To accomplish this, the government has proposed wide ranging changes relating to risk assessment, public accountability, management of toxic substances and new substances, which are discussed in turn below.

Risk Assessment

The government must consult, develop and publish a Plan of Chemicals Management Priorities which will set out an integrated plan for the risk assessment of various chemical substances currently being used in Canada. The Plan will establish priorities for the management of substances, taking into account a number of factors including among others the views of stakeholders and partners, public comments, the effects on vulnerable populations, the toxicity of the substance, the ability to disrupt biological reproduction or endocrine systems, and whether there are safer and more sustainable alternatives.4 The government will also be empowered to make geographically targeted regulations to address pollution “hot spots”.

Additionally, the Amendments will establish a mechanism through which any person can submit a request to the Minister to assess a substance to determine its toxicity and risk to the environment. The Minister must provide a response within 90 days, indicating whether they intend to assess the substances and their reasons for their decision.

Public Accountability Framework

The Amendments intend to increase transparency and public participation in risk assessments by the government for the categorization and management of potentially toxic chemicals. Currently, CEPA contains a public accountability framework under section 77 and provides time limits for the government to assess substances under sections 91 and 92. However, these provisions only apply to certain risk assessments being conducted by the government such as substances placed on the Domestic Substances List that in the opinion of the Minister present the greatest potential for exposure to Canadians or are persistent or bio-accumulative. The proposed Amendments plan to amend section 77 to expand these transparency and accountability measures to all substance risk assessments for toxic or capable of being toxic substances, with the exception of assessments for new substances.5

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Scientists, Homalco First Nation team up to probe massive B.C. landslide — and its impact on salmon

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When the side of a B.C. mountain gave way on Nov. 28, 2020, crashing into a glacier fed lake and creating a 100-metre high tsunami, no one was around to see the destruction or hear the sound of rocks and trees tearing through the valley below. 

But scientists say the force, which was picked up by seismographs across North America, was the equivalent of a 4.9-magnitude earthquake. 

Fortunately, no one was in the slide’s path, but experts believe that a melting glacier likely contributed by making the slope less stable — and climate change means it is a growing risk. 

As more of Canada’s glaciers recede, scientists say there is great interest in finding out what exactly triggered this slide, and how the rocks and sediment have impacted the salmon population of nearby Elliot Creek and Southgate River. 

The mountain, which is located about 220 km north west of Vancouver, is on the traditional territory of the Homalco First Nation. 

It’s an area of remote wilderness, only accessible by air or by boating 80 km up Bute Inlet.

When the slide hit last year, more than 18 million cubic meters of rock barrelled down the slope hitting the lake within 30 seconds. 

“That is the equivalent of all of the cars in Canada coming down the hill at once,” said Marten Geertsema, a geomorphologist who works with the B.C. government studying landslides. 

He is one of several scientists, along with members from the Homalco First Nation, who have been studying the landslide and its cascading environmental impact on the watershed and salmon habitat. 

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