Belgrade, Serbia – The hoarse but calm voice of rescuers is coming from a small device. They tell each other which parts of the town need to be visited, who needs to be evacuated and by what means. Although the floodwaters have receded, the tragedy is continuing – as is the fight to save human lives.
“… I have been trying to send you an ambulance …That is what people need …Wasn’t it agreed that they get transported by tractor?… A tractor won’t do as the lady is in such a condition that this is not possible …The ambulance cannot approach … it has to be a tractor.”
“The ambulance is near the gas station …We need some sort of a vehicle, something big, can we get it …Hello, can you hear me …”
“Did you hear that you need to pick up a woman with six children …”
Nenad Supurovic is a member of the Radio Amateur Union of Serbia. Having listened to conversations of professional rescuers via radio, Supurovic and another union member headed for the town of Obrenovac, to help ease communication between rescuers and crisis staff. These radio amateurs transmit pieces of information received from crisis staff, such as who needs to be evacuated from flooded houses and apartments, and how.
Al Jazeera: How did you reach Obrenovac?
Nenad Supurovic: I drove here in my own car. The road is passable up to a point. Where it isn’t, the police don’t let you through. We showed our radio transmitters and they immediately let us through, as if we were ministers of state. Of course we registered earlier at the crisis centre, saying we wanted to help. My brother, who is an activist, offered to programme their radio stations.
Al Jazeera: What is the town like now?
Supurovic: Well, there is the bridge where they bring evacuated people, then comes the roundabout towards which everybody is directed, and there is the Landmark Hotel, now a lodging for rescuers. Everything is flooded.
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Al Jazeera: Who welcomed you there?
Supurovic: Nobody welcomed us. We went and reported to the radio amateur just finishing his shift; there were four of us. The first problem which occurred was that those who weren’t radio amateurs couldn’t remember their call signs. So we called each other Brother-1, Brother-2, Brother-3 and Brother-4. The four brothers. We were an alternative link for the rescuers. It meant the crisis centre sent us addresses [of people who needed to be evacuated], we informed the boat crew where to go, and each crew had to have a local who knew his way around.
Al Jazeera: How do you communicate with the boat crew?
Supurovic: We run to the boat when it arrives.
Al Jazeera: The boats don’t have their radio stations?
Supurovic: No, they don’t. That’s exactly where the radio amateurs kick in and make their contribution. We simply don’t have enough equipment. When the boat arrives, we tell the crew where to go next. One radio station was given to the truck crew, the truck that picks up the people, because it can pick up many people. It advances fearlessly, like a tank.
Al Jazeera: Have you seen the people to whom you have sent the boats?
Supurovic: Yes, when they bring them in the boats, they pass by me. We give them drinks, water. Many of them are hungry and thirsty. And when they get here, you can clearly see that some have already received water, because they decline it. And some of them come and drink with joy, because they were obviously thirsty; help hadn’t reached them.
Al Jazeera: What shape are people in?
Supurovic: Most of them are in pretty good shape. At the beginning it looked like they were just really tired, like they’d spent the whole day on public transport. Only when you gave them water, food, some of them started to cry, they ‘broke down’ – because in a way, that was the point when they realised that because of that aid they were refugees.
Al Jazeera: What happens next?
Supurovic: We tell them to go to the hotel. There are other volunteers who take care of them, and they send them to the next place. Now, some came and said that they had an aunt or mother in another boat, so they wanted to wait for them. One man stayed the whole day, because he was waiting for his wife, and he kept saying she’s coming, she’s coming … and I saw him at 11pm still waiting by the fence and his wife hadn’t arrived, so you know …
If everyone did that, it would be a problem. That is something we can tolerate, but it’s better if he leaves with rescue teams. There’s electricity and phones in shelters. They can look for each other there, and it’s easier to find someone there.
Al Jazeera: Is there a scene that you will remember in particular?
Supurovic: A man gets off the boat holding what I thought were two sheep under his arms. White, huge, I’m watching them and I can’t believe what I’m seeing. Muzzles everywhere, black eyes too. It turns out they are dogs. Another man carries six Maltese, those little dogs – white, puffy-looking ones. All curly like lambs. And he has six of them – three under his left, three under his right arm. No bag, no laptop, he didn’t bring any belongings like some others did. And when he got off the boat, a woman went past him, probably his wife, and she was holding three of the same Maltese. They had nine Maltese dogs and they were the only goods they saved. This is the most remarkable thing I remember.
Al Jazeera: What is the most important thing to do in a situation like this, when you try to send information out there?
Supurovic: No need to rush. On the contrary: You need to be steady and talk slower than usual. If you go faster, they don’t understand you well, so you have to say it again, so that way you waste time and airtime. Simply be without emotions, no matter how well-intentioned they are. Rescue teams are trained for that. I was pretty excited. It wasn’t easy: You get a street, for instance Nikole Poznanovica, that you’ve never heard of, street, number 97, and two minutes later you can’t remember whether it was 97 or 91. And then they give you two more addresses …
Al Jazeera: How do the boatmen know where the streets are where they need to go? How do they get around?
Supurovic: I have no idea how they get around, and I do admire them. They have to have guides. I heard people talking over the radio about water levels being so high that you couldn’t read the street name, or street number, and then people were saying – make a turn at that tree, they give each other specific details that they can use for orientation. They were looking for street numbers on other buildings so they had to guess where the number they were looking for was.
There is no one to ask, no passersby. Really, I take my hat off to them. It seems like mission impossible, but it still works.
Al Jazeera: What is the hardest thing in what you do?
Supurovic: The hardest thing is when you can’t explain where the rescuer needs to go to save people. It happened that the street numbers on the buildings were submerged: Number 19, Savska Street. Two immobile people upstairs and the boatman can’t see the number, and I don’t know how to explain to him where to go. The number doesn’t mean a thing to him, so he had to circle back a few times. So, who should decide what to do next? And who am I to judge that?