SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — It’s past midnight and a van stops on a hilly Sarajevo street. The side door slides open quietly and four dogs jump out. The van makes a U-turn and disappears into the dark.
A few moments later, animal protection activist Amela Turalic is awoken by a phone call, and a female voice informs her that another “delivery” has just been made.
The city that was the scene of some of the worst warfare during the Balkans wars has unexpectedly become a safe haven – for stray dogs facing death elsewhere in the country.
Bosnia passed a law nearly four years ago banning the killing of strays, alarmed at a sharp rise in canine slaughter as wild dogs proliferated on Bosnian streets. But people ignored the law, largely because authorities failed to provide alternatives such as sterilization.
Animal rights activists such as Turalic believe the government should have trained vets to neuter the animals and built shelters so they could be adopted or released to live out their lives without reproducing.
Since March, Sarajevo has become the only city in Bosnia where the law is respected – thanks to a new city-funded dog shelter run by Turalic that performs sterilizations.
It means that people around the country have taken to collecting strays and dumping them on the streets of Sarajevo, confident that Turalic and her team of animal lovers will pick them up and provide care.
“We have a perfect law,” said Turalic. The problem, she said is that, “the law was adopted almost overnight without anybody providing the conditions for its implementation.”
Since the country remains deeply divided along ethnic lines, different parts of Bosnia deal with the problem of strays in different ways. That’s because the 1992-95 war between Bosnia’s three groups – Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats – ended with a peace agreement that divided Bosnia into two semi-autonomous regions, linked by a weak central government.
It’s an arrangement that allows some local governments to pass their own dog-killing laws that contradict the nationwide ban.
“Dogs and also cats are treated as communal waste here,” said Bogdana Mijic, from the animal protection group Noa, based in Banja Luka, the administrative capital of the nation’s Bosnian Serb region.
In Sarajevo, where animal activists are the loudest, it took Turalic’s teams three months to get the problem of strays under control last summer with the shelter and sterilizations.
“But then we started noticing `new faces’ on the streets daily and people started telling us about overnight deliveries,” she said.
It has turned Sarajevo into a stray dog haven. “Let them come,” Turalic said. “People do this with best intentions.”
Not everybody in the capital agrees. And in the suburb of Dobrinja, people are getting angry.
“I was picking up my grandchildren from school,” said resident Harun Cindrak, “when one bit me.”