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Feature 19 May 17

Spark Fades Away in Bosnia’s Last Match Factory

Only a dozen workers remain in the Dolac match factory, Bosnia’s last, which has been churning out matches using a secret recipe since the days of the Emperor Franz Joseph.

Igor Spaic

Generations of workers have passed through the Dolac match factory since it opened in 1901, when Bosnia was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The company has survived the Habsburg empire, two world wars, Yugoslavia, as well as the bloody war in Bosnia from 1992 to 95.

Although business is no longer flourishing, the local tradition of production remains a source of pride in the tiny village of Dolac, near the central Bosnian town of Travnik.

The walls of the factory may be high and grey but the mood is far from gloomy in the large factory room.

Spread around, a handful of workers assume their stations and do their part. They do not seem to mind the sound of continuous hammering in the background as they chat and joke with each other.

In one corner, Emina sits arranging wooden chips destined to become matches. A black-and-white picture of her grandfather, working a large machine in the same room, hangs on a wall next to her and a co-worker.

“Apart from Dolac, people from Travnik and [nearby] Novi Travnik, and all the surrounding villages have all worked here. This is simply our life,“ Haris Kulaglic, who has been with the factory since 1980, told BIRN.

In the yard, large pieces of wood soak in a pool - preparation for further processing. 

“You would never think making matches takes so much work,” the factory's director, Ljubinka Lesic, exclaims, while Kulaglic explains it all.

In one shift, the production line can produce between 200 and 250 cartons, each filled with 100 packets of matches. Businesses buying the packets can also get company advertisements printed no them.

The wood alone must go through a long process for it to be properly dried and refined before it is then ready to meet with a set of chemicals. The exact recipe for the construction of the matches is a business secret.

The factory is a museum of technology. The old production line is still visible under a layer of cobwebs that have been spun since the mid-1980s when it was replaced by new machinery.

It sits in a room together with other long-outdated pieces of equipment that the workers still keep.

But demand for matches in general is fading, and that has been hard on the factory. More and more people use lighters to smoke, and Kulaglic says matches are today mainly used only in villages.

As well as matches being increasingly difficult to sell, Kulaglic said another problem is foreign competition.

“Matches are being imported a lot from places like China or Russia. Our government should do more to protect what is produced in Bosnia,” Kulaglic said.

The factory was bought in 2003 by the local Best store chain, and according to Lesic, this is the “only reason it has managed to survive at all.

“They did not do this because it was profitable but to maintain a certain tradition,” she said, of the takeover.

About 200 people used to work in the factory until Best took over. Kulaglic says the chain paid off all the accumulated debt and offered the surplus workers jobs elsewhere in the chain.

The matches are only now sold in Best’s stores, making just enough to regularly cover the salaries and pension contributions of the 12 workers that are left today.

Another thing that has helped the factory continue its long tradition is that it has taken on a few more products in recent years, such as long matches used for lighting fires, and plastic matches that can be used instead of fuel tablets.

The workers themselves designed the machine that produces the long fireplace matches, which have become quite popular. “I am not sure these [fireplace matches] are produced anywhere else in Europe,” Kulaglic says.

Kulaglic says a lot of foreigners now buy the matches only as souvenirs.

Some Bosnians remain true to their old matches. Benjamin, a man from the town of Bugojno in his mid-twenties, is one of the few who still prefer matches to lighters. He says he likes the aroma much better when he lights up a cigarette.

“Most of all, the long matches are much more practical for starting a fire,” he adds.

But even Benjamin had no idea that the matches he cherishes are produced in Bosnia, and by the only such factory left in the region.

Not many Bosnians do.

Sarajevan Nedim uses lighters. But he said he would have looked out for the matches had he known about their rich legacy - if only to support the local factory. “I didn't know we have something like this. That's pretty cool,“ he said.

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