By Emilia Dungel, SEESAC Junior Project Officer
Your dog is shaking and whimpering. Your child jolts slightly for every ‘Bang!’ that fills the night. You comfort them because while fireworks are dangerous, you know you usually don’t have to worry about them hurting you if you keep a safe distance. And you’re smart, so you do just that. You gather your friends to watch the fireworks from the safety of your home as you make half-hearted promises to yourself to hit the gym more in 2016.
But another distinct instrument complements the cacophony. You recognize it from movies or even years past, and you hurry your pet and other loved ones away from the windows as your neighbour marks the New Year by firing off a few rounds from his AK-47.
The original notion behind celebratory gunfire in the Western Balkans was to alert good news to neighbouring villages. The practice was outlawed by the respective authorities during the Cold War but during the 1990s, it saw a revival that increased with the rise of social unrest and conflicts. Due to these events, there is a widespread availability of arms in the region which – more than anything – is the reason for people continuing to pull their triggers at parties today, shooting aimlessly at the sky.
But what goes up must come down.
On New Year’s Eve in Skopje in 2004, a 19-year old woman was fatally struck by a stray bullet. In Tirana on New Year’s Eve in 2013,20 people were injured by celebratory shooting; a young woman was injured in the arm by a bullet on New Year’s Eve 2014 in Pristina; a 14-year old girl was wounded by a bullet marking the birth of a child in a neighbouring family in Crvenka, Serbia; a wedding photographer in Bar, Montenegro was injured in the chest while photographing a wedding, holding his four-year old daughter by the hand as she accompanied him on the job; and a football player in Sarajevo played an entire game before realizing he had been hit in the head by a bullet from a nearby wedding.
UNDP’s South East Europe arms control programme SEESAC is spreading awareness of the dangers of celebratory shooting in its regional online campaign Don’t Ruin The Party, urging societies in the region to ‘celebrate with your heart, not your gun.’
We’ve tried to come up with compelling images and messages to make people think twice this holiday season, but we need our friends in the region to support this initiative by targeting the gun culture at large as well. As we’ve said before, change starts at home. While we urge you to stay away from danger during festivities, you can help out by not placating perpetrators when their guns are silent. So when your buddy is sharing a totally awesome story about that time they blasted off an arsenal into the nothingness, share the examples from above. And when they tell you that they would never fire a weapon in someone’s direction, ask them if they were listening just now when you shared all those examples. When they retort by telling you how well they know how to handle their gun, point them in the direction of a certified shooting range. Then share the examples again.
Celebrations should be celebratory, festivities should be festive. Bullets and gunfire have no place in your time for joy. Let’s leave them in 2015.