Skopje, December 15, 2017. (AFP / Robert Atanasovski)

The city hidden underneath

Skopje -- When I want a breath of fresh air in the winter, I head out of my city, the Macedonian capital of Skopje, and up to the surrounding hills. It used to be that I would see nothing but a blanket of pollution-choked clouds. But now that a few skyscrapers are going up, you get a sense that there is a city hidden underneath.

When I was a kid, a thick fog would descend on Skopje in the winter. It got so thick at times that you literally couldn’t see a meter in front of you. If you had to drive, you needed a person to walk in front of you to show you the road.

A person walks on a bridge through dense fog in Skopje on December 24, 2015.Skopje, December 24, 2017. (AFP / Robert Atanasovski)

Skopje lies in a valley hemmed in by mountain ranges in the north and south, which form what’s known as a “structural basin.” You can think of it as being in a bowl. In weather terms, that means that once the fog or the clouds roll in, they’re trapped and can stay for several days.  Same goes for pollution.

I don’t remember much talk or concern about air pollution when I was young.  Now it’s among 10 cities in Europe with the highest concentration of harmful fine particles, according to the World Health Organization.

A picture taken from Vodno Mountain shows the tops of some of the city's highest buildings above clouds in an area with a high level of air pollution in Skopje on December 15, 2017. (AFP / Robert Atanasovski)

Over the past 10 years the issue has become one of the most talked-about topics here. You can’t find a person without an app on his or her mobile phone that tracks air pollution levels in Macedonian cities.

The pollution usually descends on the city in the winter, when the heating systems come to life.

A picture taken from Vodno Mountain shows smoke rising from chimneys of a factory in an area with a high level of air pollution in Skopje on December 15, 2017. (AFP / Robert Atanasovski)

Studies indicate that half of the air pollution is caused by household heating systems, most of which use wood, fuel oil and coal. The poor insulation in many buildings adds to the problem.

After years of neglect, the government has now started paying attention to the problem. There are plans to switch most heating to gas. Restrictions on car use are regularly imposed during the winter months.

The air quality is so bad that it is not only seen, but felt. It used to be that colds would go away after three or four days. Now it can take three weeks or more in winter. Sometimes when you breathe, you get a burning sensation in your throat. Masks have become a regular part of the wardrobe. You won’t see a bike rider in the winter without one. My colleagues and I joke that masks are now the must-have fashion accessory. It used to be scarves, now it’s masks.

People wear face masks to protect themselves against air pollution in Skopje on December 14, 2017.Skopje, December 14, 2017. (AFP / Robert Atanasovski)

Kindergartens and schools now buy air-filtration systems and households have started stocking up as well. It used to be that to get a breath of fresh air, you'd go outside. Today in Skopje it's the opposite -- you get indoors.

But me, I still head to the hills.  Not only do I get to breathe a bit of fresh air, with the construction of the skyscrapers I can take some nice photos showing the city hidden underneath the smog.

This blog was written with Yana Dlugy in Paris.

(AFP / Robert Atanasovski)

 

Robert Atanasovski