“The air is unbreathable”: because of pollution, a family leaves Serbia and settles in Montreal

Inconvenienced by extreme air pollution, a family chose to leave Serbia to settle in Montreal. Coal-fired power stations among the most polluting in Europe, open dumping and government inaction have made the country’s air “unbreathable”.

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From October to April, Serbia is suffocating. Many cities, including the capital, Belgrade, are covered in a thick yellowish haze formed from a mixture of humidity and pollution.

The winter months are synonymous with smoke, the smell of burnt plastic and respiratory problems, testifies Mia Markovic, 35 years old.

Mia Markovic

“It’s really scary to smell and see pollution, when you know the impacts on health,” she argues.

A month ago, the Montrealer of Serbian origin entered Quebec with her husband and their two young children. After 10 years in Belgrade, the seventh most polluted city in the world, the poor air quality had become intolerable.

“Headaches, sore throats, coughs, panic attacks, the feeling of suffocation, it has become commonplace,” says the English teacher. “It’s downright hard to breathe. It hurts. Often, you had to leave town altogether. We were going to the mountains, but even there the air is unbreathable.

“Even my 5-year-old daughter understood it,” she adds. “If we ask her why we moved, she answers that it is to have clean air.”

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Coal poisons Serbia

In the Balkan country, in southeastern Europe, the concentration of fine particles greatly exceeds the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Mia Markovic

Coal-fired power plants and private heating installations are the main culprits of air pollution, according to the National Ecological Association (NEA). And they are among the most polluting in Europe.

By way of comparison, the 16 power plants in the Balkans emit as much CO2 than the other 250 factories across the continent, says a report by the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL).

“People use whatever they can find for warmth. In the poorer neighborhoods they started to burn very poor quality lignite [un charbon riche en carbone]“, details Mia Markovic.

Mia Markovic

“I decided to come back to Montreal because I didn’t want my son and my daughter to live in this environment,” she continues. “In winter, all the children are sick. They constantly cough, they have a fever. My daughter would wake up in the morning saying her throat was hurting.

But air quality is not the only problem. And pollution isn’t just felt in the winter months.

“The country is like a mountain of waste”

The largest open landfill remaining in Europe is in Serbia. Thousands of tonnes of rubbish have been piling up at the Vinča site, near the capital, for nearly 50 years.

“There are often fires in the landfill,” says Mme Markovic. “The toxic fumes mix with the city’s smog and worsen the already horrible air quality.”

Mia Markovic

Moreover, Belgrade is the only European capital to discharge its untreated wastewater into the Danube, the second longest river on the continent.

“The whole country is like a mountain of waste,” she says. “We haven’t had clear drinking water for 20 years. It is yellow and tastes like metal.”

Like several environmental activists, she denounces the inaction of the authoritarian pro-Putin government of Aleksandar Vučić, who has just been re-elected for a second term, on April 3.

A pre-election billboard of re-elected Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic


A pre-election billboard of re-elected Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic

Serbia hopes to join the European Union by 2025. Its candidacy is still under consideration, but its environmental record could get in the way, among other things.

Mia Markovic does not intend to return to live in her native country.

“The country has always been polluted, she says, but it has increased a lot in 10 years. I was choking. I was having panic attacks, I was taking medication.”

Mia Markovic

Since returning to Quebec, the anxiety has disappeared.

“My children haven’t been sick since we’ve been in Montreal. The windows of the house can be opened without danger. We can take steps”, she rejoices. “My daughter tells me the air is cleaner here.”

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