Photo taken by Rastko’s friend Marko Ristic / 350.org.
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Hundred-year Balkan floods: a report from the ground
Rastko Šejić / 350.org
29th May 2014
Apocalyptic floods have hit the Balkans, causing many deaths and billions of dollars of damage. 350.org campaigner Rastko Šejić from Obrenovac, Serbia, wrote this personal account of the floods - and how they have at least served to re-unite divided communities.
If the water does not withdraw soon this amount of brotherhood and unity will kill us!
It's 6:00 on 16th May when an SMS from my little sister Rastislava wakes me up to a gloomy morning. It's been raining heavily for three days. My sister's message reads, "Our neighbourhood is under water". I call her immediately.
From our third-floor apartment in Obrenovac, Serbia, my sister sees nothing but brown water, more than 1 m high. There is no getting out on foot. No electricity, no running water. My sister woke up from the emergency sirens.
I'm in Bosnia. What can I do? I try to calm my sister down, tell her to pack a few basic things and wait for the rescue teams. Save batteries, rationalise water and food, talk to the neighbours ... then the mobile network goes down. I try again and again to reach family and friends in Obrenovac without success. There is no way of communication.
Not enough boats - but the evacuation proceeds
Two hours later, I see the first image of our house on the Internet. The water has reached the ground floor. I manage to get through to my friend Marko who is a photographer. He is in the deserted streets with his camera. He says it's getting worse by the minute.
I keep trying to phone people. Without success. Hours of silence.
At 18:30 I finally get an SMS from my sister. Rescue teams have evacuated children and their mothers from our building. There aren't enough boats. I want to tell her to be patient but my message doesn't get through.
Calls for help with addresses of trapped people show up on my phone, Facebook and Twitter. I share them with the few people that are in contact with the rescue teams and with volunteers who came with their boats to support the police and army.
I kept on sharing this information for days, until most people were evacuated. It is such a relief to hear that someone is safe, even if all you know is their address and maybe that they are pregnant, children, ill or hungry.
At 2:30 on 17th May, I finally get a call from my sister. She is on a bus. All wet but rescued. Our next door neighbours didn't want to leave. They distrust the government. My sister is safe! I fall asleep on my notebook.
The next day, some of my friends get in touch. They are alive, either rescued or still in their homes in Obrenovac. Friends from all over the region call me to ask about my family, offer their homes and help. Tears, smiles, love and rage at what happened. The Balkan wars and NATO bombings have not killed empathy.
On 18th May, flooding emergency was declared in Brcko, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I currently am. I went here for my grandmother's funeral. She died the weekend before the floods. Heavy military choppers are flying over the flooded areas, saving those trapped in their homes.
From the balcony of the apartment on the fifth floor where my dear late grandmother lived, I see the empty streets of a frightened town that is now divided in two by the Brka river. The floods have completely isolated it from the rest of the world. The nearby villages of Vucilovac, Krepsic and Zabari have already been evacuated.
A few people in the street celebrate the arrival of three lorries with clay for barrages. People have nice conversations and are happy for a few hours of hard labour as a kind of therapy with the team of firefighters, all with moustaches, who have come to the rescue from Istanbul, Turkey.
From the other side of the balcony, I see the flooded Sava river that now threatens the lives of millions of people in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia. On the other side of the river, I can see the water glistening in the flooded village of Gunja, Croatia.
In Brcko, we still have water and electricity. The stores are quite empty but we can meet our basic needs.
United by pain and suffering, love and understanding
The images on the Internet and television are terrible. Lost lives, ruined homes, whole towns under water, landslides even took entire settlements, hundreds of thousands people displaced, children crying, no electricity, no drinking water for millions of people.
The body count is on the rise. Daily. A friend of my late father had a stroke and died within 30 minutes after he had been brought to the sports hall, the rescue centre in Belgrade. I personally know some of the 750 people reported missing.
A large-scale disaster unites three countries of former Yugoslavia in pain and suffering, love and understanding. People across the region are united by empathy towards each other showing their best traits. There are true heroes, real friends.
Disaster strips away everything that's fake, all the make-up of daily politics, the rat race we are all a part of. A feeling that we are all human beings and an understanding for each other prevails.
It's about people - not state, religion, ethnicity
Rescue teams from Macedonia, Slovenia and Croatia came to help in Serbia and Bosnia. But the nation states don't matter. This is about everyday people.
The other day, I was walking around Brcko to see if I could help with the rescue efforts and get a better picture of the situation. You learn not to trust officials or the news here quickly. All of a sudden, the weather changed and rain started pouring out of a clear sky. I was in the middle of a road without shelter.
A muslim Bosnian stopped to pick me up and went out of his way to drive me home. When he learned that I was from Obrenovac, he instantly offered me a place to stay.
Now I am an official refugee in Bosnia, as my grandmother was in Serbia during the civil war. As Croatian writer Vedrana Rudan ironically concluded in her blog: "If the water does not withdraw soon this amount of brotherhood and unity will kill us!"
Six neighbours are among those drowned
My friend Adam, an archeologist, went back to Obrenovac to take care of his dog Garry and help those that stayed behind in their homes. He told me:
"I was in Obrenovac yesterday, rescued Garry and took what I could to uncle Luka, my father-in-law. The police blocked the bridge leading to the power plant.
"I begged them to let me pass, showing a balloon with gasoline for the generator, pounds of dog food, explaining that I carry some batteries for mobile phones, that I need to get cans, batteries, and many other things from my home to give to the people who stayed.
"The police would not let me pass, so I asked them what they would do if I swam across the Sava river. When they replied that they had order not to let anyone go past them, my brother Mark drove me a few hundred metres down the river where I climbed a barrage and ran to the other side. There was still water in front of my house. I picked up as much as I could and went to uncle Luka.
"Disaster awaited me. The water receded but was still between 30-50 cm high. Cars were covered in mud. The apartment of Zarko, my brother-in-law is on the ground floor and full of water. But the family's spirits were high. They tried to clean up what they could straight away. I helped them, then sat down to talk to Zarko to try to calm him down. Garry stayed at Luka's.
"On my way back, carrying about 30 pounds of my belongings on my back, I talked to people in the street who told me that six of their neighbours drowned. Are they among the thirteen fatal victims mentioned in the media reports?"
Why did this happen?
Why did this have to happen? Force of nature they say. Lack of responsibility on all levels of government. People were not warned in time, despite reports from meteorologists. A lack of flood protection and emergency planning. Climate change is hardly mentioned but most true.
Experts say that this has been the worst rainfall since records began in more than a century. Obrenovac is said to have taken the hardest blow. The small suburb of Belgrade produces 60% of its electricity from two coal-based thermal power plants that are more than 30 years old.
The course of the Kolubara river, which destroyed Obrenovac, was changed back in the 1970s, so that more coal could be excavated from the Kolubara open pit mines. All but one of these mines are now flooded. The rivers have brought Obrenovac toxics from more than 1,000 hectares of dumped coal ashes and landfills.
We have engineered nature for ages, exploiting it as if it belonged to us. As if we were not its children. Maybe this is the time for former Yugoslavian states that are totally dependent on energy produced from coal, to start thinking about diversification.
Disaster relief came immediately from all over the world. Our closest neighbours were the first to help with machines, rescue teams, vehicles, food and water. But the struggle to get back to normal life in the flooded areas is only just starting.
We need chemicals to clean up. We need to to rebuild infrastructure and our homes. We need furniture, home appliances, food, clean water, cattle ... We need know-how, projects, best practice and investments to help us stop a disaster of this scale from happening again.
We have lost a lot. Some have lost everything. If you can, please help!
Rastko Šejić is a journalist and campaigner from Obrenovac, Serbia, and a 350.org Global Power Shift participant.
This article was originally published by 350.org.
- UK Red Cross Appeal for the Balkan Floods
- Red Cross for Serbia
- Red Cross for Bosnia & Herzegovina
- Red Cross for Coatia
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