Ivan’s garden, the yellow duck and the investor from the Emirates

In Belgrade the Serbian state and an investor from the Emirates started to build one of the biggest development projects in all of Europe. For this the waterfront of the Sava river has been razed to the ground. The whole waterfront? Not quite. A pensioner and a duck don’t just stand back and watch. Some notes on an unusual encounter in an unlikely garden.

Ivans Haus Belgrad

In the heart of Belgrad, on the bank of the Sava river, a massive void stretches on for several kilometers. An area of almost 200 hectares has lately been cleaned by heavy construction machinery. Right in between spoil heaps, crush barriers and the shells of two 20- storage high buildings, there is little house. And in front of this house, there is a garden, in which peach trees, tomatoes and roses flourish. Here lives Ivan Timotijevic with his family. Their house is the last reminder. Until recently 227 families had their home on this former railway area. All other families except Ivan’s had been displaced. Their homes had been demolished to make way for the massive development project.

The old man and the investor from the Emirates


Ivan seems to be unimpressed by the construction work done around him. He is standing at his garden gate to chat with a group of construction workers passing by. In German he asks us to come in for a cup of coffee. Forty years ago, he tells us, he worked in Frankfurt as a mechanic. Now, at the age of 68, he does not want to be uprooted again. He shows us the place under the roof, where his bees had a hive until they fled because of the noise of the construction machines. Back in his sparsely furnished living room he proudly shows us a honey press that he bought in Germany for the price of two month’s salaries. If he looses the house, Ivan says, he will loose everything. Instead of giving up to the seemingly unalterable progress, like all his neighbors did, he chose to fight for his right in court. For three years now he is trying to prove that he has a legal title for the property. But as in a lot of cases, after a wild process of privatization in former Yugoslavia property issues are often unclear. Ivan’s former neighbors paid a high price for this. Facing a seemingly hopeless choice, they settled for moving into apartments with only short term leases.

On the 177 hectares of the former railway site a gigantic urban development project has been planned. Countless billboards and an info container advertise the project with pictures of shiny new buildings, happy families and luxury apartments. In order to implement this vision, almost 3 billion euros are to be invested over the next 15 years.

Waterfront Belgrade

Image: Showroom of „Waterfront Belgrade“

The large-scale project is being pushed forward by a consortium of the Serbian state and Eagle Hill, an investor from the United Arab Emirates. The investor set up its representative headquarters in an costly reconstructed bank building located in the Savamala district of Belgrade. For a time, the Gestapo headquarters were located in this same building. Today, young friendly women in ironed uniforms show us a two-by-five-meter model of the „Belgrade Waterfront“. The elaborate and oversized model shows the vision of a new city consisting of one million square meters of luxurious living, five-star hotels, the tallest building of the Balkans, the largest shopping mall in Europe and an opera.

The yellow duck: Don’t let Belgrade drown

ne davimo beograd

Image: Action of Ne Davimo Beograd on the Sava, nedavimobeograd.wordpress.com

Ivan’s house and garden  appear to be lost in the face of the size and the violence of the forces that cross the riverbank like an unstoppable flood. What could a pensioner possibly do against the combined forces of the Serbian state and an investor whose international reputation was established with the construction of the tallest building and the largest shopping mall in the world

But Ivan does not stand alone. Ivan’s cottage is a symbol of the protest movement that has been growing since the plans of the large-scale project for the city at the confluence of the Sava and the Danube has been made public. One criticism among others, is that the project has been secretly planned, therefore bypassing all existing procedures due to its alleged state importance. The constitution, the existing laws and the development plans have been circumvented or adjusted after the fact. On a fundamental level people question the necessity of a city for the rich in a country with an average income of 350 € per month. Meanwhile, the details of the contractual arrangements between the state and the investor have come to light. The promise that the investor would carry sacks of petrodollars into the Serbian capital has turned out to be a chimera. Eagle Hill intends to lend Serbia 270 million euros and only invest 140 million euros of the total investment sum of 3 billion euros themselves. Nevertheless the leasing contract lasts 99 years and ensures the investor 68% of the profits.

Ivans Haus

Image: Ivan shows pictures and newspaper excerpts from the struggle for keeping his family  house

Ivan shows us pictures and newspaper reports of the day, when the foreclosure was announced last summer. In addition to dozens of journalists, the images also show many supporters who gathered in the garden and in the adjoining street to prevent the home’s demolition. Despite the ongoing court case, this form of solidarity seems to be necessary. The people remember the day all too well, when a group of masked men came with construction machines to tear down a house in Savamala in the middle of the night, even though the tenants still lived in there. The police did not show up.

The protest against the megalomaniac project is carried out by the group Ne Da(vi)mo Beograd (Don’t let Belgrade down / drown). A yellow duck is the symbol of the movement. Humor is the weapon of choice. In Serbian  “Duck” also means fraud and penis. Ne Davimo Beograd regularly mobilizes several tens of thousands of people on the streets of the Serbian capital. Their goal is to end the plundering of the city at the expense of the community. First they made a 3-meter-high duck out of styrofoam. After this duck was taken in police custody and disappeared for good, they ordered a new one. Now an 8-meter-high inflatable duck leads the protest.


Image: nedavimobeograd.wordpress.com

Although the first shells of two building at the Belgrade Waterfront have already been erected, Ivan and many others believe that the project will sooner or later fail due to its hubris. If, as in the case of Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, holding a referendum would have been a possibility, the project might have been buried by the people before it even began. Even though the project could not be put to a stop, Ne Da(vi)mo Beograd changed the discussion in the city. When asked, „Who owns the city?“, the crowd replies, „The city belongs to us!“. Instead of deals negotiated in the backrooms of investors and politicians, they demand the voices of the residents must be heard in the planning processes. The city should be built for the people, not for the rich.


Image: mural in Savamala district Belgrade

Fearless Cities

Like Ivan, Belgrade is also not standing alone. In cities everywhere we witness resistance to projects being planned and implemented from above. These struggles articulate a different answer to the question “Who owns the city?” A demand for democratic planning of our living environments. This does not stop by protestation. The platform Barcelona en Comú has successfully shown what the step from the street to local politics can look like. Born out of the 15-M protests and the collective fight against forced eviction, the movement elected the activist Ada Colau at the mayor’s office of Barcelona, the second largest city in Spain. This model inspires others. A few days ago Zagreb je NAŠ (Zagreb belongs to us), which has emerged from the right-to-the-city movement, gained 7% of the votes in the municipal elections. Around the world, towns and cities are standing up to defend human rights, democracy and the common good. To bring these experiences together, Barcelona en Comú organizes an international summit on municipalism this June. The title: Fearless Cities. Among the more than 500 activists the organizers also expect representatives of Ne Da(vi)mo Beograd as well as delegates of right-to-the-city initiatives in Berlin. Defending the right to the city is not a struggle to protect your own backyard. We may be witnessing the birth of an international movement of people and groups actively engaging in a  vision of a city for all. And as in the case of Ivan’s house, the forces we face may seem unstoppable at first glance. But there is no reason to be fearful, if we stand in solidarity and as long as a yellow duck watches over us.

* Numerous initiatives support Ne davimo Beograd, et al. the INURA network. Within this framework, we also sent a support video as neighborhood academy.

** In the neighborhood academy last year, we showed Michelle Teran’s documentary „DIGNIDAD“ about the movement of the people affected by mortgages and forcedeviction in Spain. The film can be viewed online here.