"The city does not exist anymore" - those were the words I was hearing for days from people running across a bridge over the Kolubara River, which burst out and flooded Obrenovac, a small town of 25,000 people not far from Belgrade. No one expected what came next - neither water management services, nor police and army, let alone the citizens who had been fleeing Obrenovac for days.
The night before the first alarms were sounded, meaning that water defences had been breached and the situation got serious, I was in Obrenovac. I felt the rain that had been pouring for 24 hours. I felt the cold, but not nearly as badly as the people of Obrenovac who spent hours, some even days, waiting for rescue services. I saw how roads became impassable after the breach, how water levels rose by a metre in just 10 minutes’ time and how people wrestled with floodwaters, carrying their children in their arms.
Several hours later, water was everywhere and Obrenovac fell. Witnesses said that it all happened suddenly that they did not realise what was going on because the water hit their houses in seconds.
Many will never forget the sound. First, there was the sound of water hitting a house, and then a crumble. You cannot imagine what a house collapsing under the force of water sounds like unless you have heard it.
Many fled to upper floors, if they had them. Those living in single-storey houses went up on their roofs and waited to be rescued. They waited in fear and without electricity. It was pitch black. Then people had to listen to the sound of drowning animals - yelping, howling and growling. Dogs, cats and cows disappeared in the river. No one could help them.
While I was waiting to do my live report, I listened to people telling stories with tears in their eyes about how they lost everything in a moment, about how they watched life boats flipping over. They proudly talked about rescuers who came to help them and about thousands of those who were heading to Obrenovac, using their private boats to reach those in peril. Then, I heard stories of rescuers who were trying to convince some people to save themselves, and yet they refused to leave their homes. Later, they cried for help facing the rise of the rain-swollen river.
Flooding happened in a matter of moments. But rescue operations lasted for days. Local rescuers covered a huge region, but they shared the burden with their counterparts from Russia, Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia, who devotedly jumped into the water, saving people and carrying them on their backs for several hundred metres.
They became heroes not only of Obrenovac, but many other towns across Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. Selflessly, they spent numerous sleepless days in cold water, saving people and giving water, food and medicines to those who remained.
It was horrible to watch people getting on trucks or cramming into buses that were taking them to temporary shelters because they do not know when they will leave, let alone be able to go back to their homes.
After the floods, as the water recedes, only wasteland remains, along with the memory of how everything was all right just 10 days ago and how it all changed in the blink of an eye.