Balkans, riven by war, come together to fight floods

Facing their worst tragedy since the end of the sectarian wars of the 1990s, the residents of the Balkans are helping each other without regard to nationality or ethnicity.

Marko Djurica/Reuters
People travel on a truck through a flooded street in Obrenovac, Serbia, today. Soldiers and energy workers stacked thousands of sandbags overnight to protect Serbia's biggest power plant from flood waters expected to keep rising after the heaviest rains in the Balkans in more than a century killed dozens of people.

A billion euros of destruction, thousands left homeless, dozens killed, and the threat of years of economic hardship. The catastrophic floods that have hit the Balkans – the worst on record – have dealt a hard blow to some of Europe’s poorest countries.

But if there is any silver lining, it is the remarkable popular response to rescue and flood defense efforts. The region appears to be pulling together to fight the floods in a way that transcends religious and ethnic divisions, despite a history of sectarian conflict – including a civil war less than two decades ago.

“I’ve truly been touched to tears by the self-organization, solidarity, and humanity that I’ve seen over the past four to five days,” says Danica Radisic, an activist who is involved in a website charting the floods. “Everyone is dead tired, volunteers haven’t slept in days, but everyone is still polite and in good spirits and there to help. It’s fantastic in this region, to see people collaborating.”

Some 34,000 people have been displaced and twenty killed in Serbia alone, a government spokesman told the Monitor, and the estimated damage is at least €1 billion ($1.4 billion). These figures could rise in the coming days, particularly in the town of Obrenovac, 20 miles from the capital, Belgrade.

Most of Obrenovac is submerged. While the majority of the population has been evacuated, floodwaters lap menacingly at the Nikola Tesla power plant, which supplies half the country’s electricity. Parts of mountainous Bosnia are completely inaccessible, and there are serious concerns that landslides are dislodging wartime landmines, undoing past clearance and zoning efforts. 

The floods are a hammer blow to a region still struggling to recover from war. Between 1991 and 1995, Croats, Serbs, and Bosnian Muslims fought as Yugoslavia collapsed. Bosnia was particularly scarred, with 100,000 deaths, widespread destruction, and ethnic divides that remain to this day. Serbia went on to fight and lose another conflict over Kosovo, and was regarded as a pariah by much of the Western world. Slovenia and Macedonia also broke away from Yugoslavia more peacefully, followed by Montenegro.

'Working together'

Local media and people living in Serbia and Bosnia started drawing attention to the flooding last week, after three weeks’ worth of rain fell in three days. Over the weekend, thousands of volunteers took to the riverbanks to fill sandbags and donated food, water, and medicine at collection centers. 

On Saturday, 6,000 people, including many volunteers, troops, and police, worked all night to battle flooding in Sabac, local news source B92 reported. All weekend, young men labored to line the banks of the River Sava in Belgrade with sandbags.

“They seemed like a typical group of young men aged about 20 who would be coming along for a football match,” says Matt Lutton, a Belgrade-based photojournalist.

“There were some older people as well, including women who were trying to direct the traffic and tell people to stay away from the water. People were asking passersby to volunteer," he says. "The most remarkable thing was how people were working together, despite there not being someone apparently in charge. It was just civilians working together, people who were walking by immediately jumped in for a few minutes to pass bags along.”

Ms. Radisic notes that countries have coordinated their emergency response, with Croatian police teams dispatched to Serbia to help rescue operations, and teams from Croatia and Slovenia also helping in Bosnia.

Montenegro, which declared independence from Serbia in 2006, has pledged army, police, and diving rescue teams, as well as volunteers and low-cost electricity, as Bosnian writer Andrej Nikolaidis wrote on the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog. People in Macedonia, another former Yugoslav republic, have gathered water and food packages on the main square of the capital, Skopje. Serbia’s military is preparing to help Bosnia dispose of animal carcasses that could spread disease.

Finally, Arab and South Asian asylum seekers in Obrenovac have helped rescue efforts, despite having encountered hostility from locals – including an arson attack on an asylum center in the town just months ago.

“People are no longer paying attention to ethnicity,” says Radisic.

Planning and responding

Serbia's government has been criticized for its lack of preparedness, and ignoring the effect of mining and urban development on flood plains. Opposition media has also claimed that the government is covering up the number of dead and preventing access to Obrenovac in an attempt to disguise a haphazard response – a charge the government denies. 

In the short term, the focus is on securing the affected areas, and restoring power supply, while raising funds for the recovery.

Both Serbia and Bosnia have scant economic resources at their disposal for the clean-up operation. Serbia has opened a government PayPal account for donations, and the spokesman said it would allow Serbia’s diaspora to donate while bypassing complex banking procedures and taxes.

The European Commission expects Serbia and Croatia to make applications for money from the European Solidarity Fund, from which a total of €500 million is available this year. The Fund is intended to finance public expenditure in the wake of crisis, particularly in infrastructure. The EC may also look to target other funds the countries have access to in order to support recovery efforts.

While Bosnia is not eligible for money from the Fund itself as it is not an EU member or official candidate, the EC is considering ways of delivering money through other mechanisms. [Editor's note: The original version misstated how much money Europe could make available to the flood-struck countries.]

Serbia will also turn to other international organizations for funding, and may seek help from Russia, which rapidly deployed a humanitarian response, and the UAE, a newer ally.

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