Across the Adriatic from Bari in southern Italy is the tiny nation of Montenegro, largely rural and mountainous, and exquisitely beautiful. At its center is a huge mountain plateau called Sinjajevina – one of the most wonderfully “undeveloped” places in Europe.
By underdeveloped, we must not mean uninhabited. Sheep, cattle, dogs and herders have lived in Sinjajevina for centuries, seemingly in relative harmony with – indeed, within – ecosystems.
About 2,000 people live in Sinjajevina in some 250 families and eight traditional tribes. They are Orthodox Christians and work to maintain their festivals and customs. They are also Europeans, engaged in the world around them, with the younger generation tending to speak perfect English.
I recently spoke via Zoom from the United States with a group of people, young and old, from Sinjajevina. The only thing each of them said was that they were ready to die for their mountain. Why would they feel compelled to say that? They are not soldiers. They said nothing of a will to kill. There is no war in Montenegro. They are people who make cheese and live in small wooden cabins and practice old habits of environmental sustainability.
Sinjajevina is part of the Tara Canyon Biosphere Reserve and bordered by two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. What the hell is he endangered by? The people who organize to protect her and ask the European Union to help them would probably defend their home if it were threatened by billionaire hotels or villas or any other kind of “progress”, but it turns out that they try to prevent Sinjajevina from being turned into a military training ground.
“This mountain gave us life,” Milan Sekulović tells me. The young man, president of Save Sinjajevina, says farming in Sinjajevina paid for his university education and that, like everyone else on the mountain, he would die before allowing it to be turned into a military base.
In case this sounds like baseless talk (pun intended), it’s worth knowing that in the fall of 2020, the government of Montenegro attempted to start using the mountain as a military training ground (including the artillery), and the mountain dwellers set up camp and stood in the way for months as human shields. They formed a human chain on the grasslands and risked a live ammunition attack until the army and government backed down.
Now two new questions immediately arise: why does the small peaceful nation of Montenegro need a giant mountain war rehearsal space, and why hardly anyone has heard of the brave successful blockage of its creation in 2020? Both questions have the same answer, and its headquarters are in Brussels.
In 2017, without a public referendum, the post-communist oligarchic government of Montenegro joined NATO. Almost immediately, news began to spread about plans for a NATO training ground. Public protests began in 2018, and in 2019 parliament ignored a petition with over 6,000 signatures that should have sparked a debate, merely announcing its plans. These plans have not changed; so far, people have simply prevented their implementation.
If the military training ground was only for Montenegro, people risking their lives for their grass and their sheep would be a great human interest story – one we would probably have heard of. If the training ground was Russian, some of the people who had prevented it so far would probably be on their way to becoming saints or at least National Endowment for Democracy grants.
Everyone from Sinjajevina that I spoke to told me that they were not against NATO or Russia or any other entity in particular. They are just against war and destruction – and the loss of their home despite the absence of war near them.
However, they are now faced with the presence of war in Ukraine. They welcome Ukrainian refugees. They worry, like all of us, about environmental destruction, possible famines, incredible suffering and the risk of nuclear apocalypse.
But they also face the major boost given to NATO by the Russian invasion. Discussions in Montenegro, as elsewhere, are now much more supportive of NATO. The Montenegrin government intends to create its international training ground for more wars.
What a shame it would be if the disastrous Russian attack on Ukraine succeeded in destroying Sinjajevina!