After the Balkan floods: Unity and compassion

The Balkans floods have unleashed an unprecedented humanitarian response that cuts across borders.

In Bosnia, thousands have volunteered time and resources to help those affected by the floods [EPA]

During the last week, countries in the Balkans have experienced extremely heavy rain – the amount of rainfall expected over the period of three months, fell on the region in only three days, bringing about catastrophic floods. The rain has stopped, but the force of water has caused horrific destruction. Bosnia and Serbia have declared a state of emergency, and flooding has in recent days also reached eastern parts of Croatia. Entire cities are submerged. The map of the flooding shows that large parts of Serbia and a third of Bosnia and Herzegovina are under water; a territory larger than Slovenia is currently flooded. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, more than a million people live in the affected areas.

Consequences of the floods

The floods have caused not only infrastructural destruction. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced across the region. Al Jazeera Balkans has reported that over 16.000 people have been evacuated in Serbia, 10,000 in the Bosnian town of Bijeljina alone, and hundreds in Croatia. The number of victims has still not been released. As the water recedes, it is expected that more bodies will be found and the death toll will rise.

The rains have brought not only flooding, but also landslides. The poorest are often the ones who are hit the hardest during natural disasters, and this one was no different. It is heart-breaking to see that the people who have been rebuilding their houses after the war have now lost everything again. Entire villages in Bosnia have been buried due to landslides and there is nothing but the rooftops emerging from the ground to testify that these places were once inhabited. More than 200 active landslides have been identified in the eastern part of Bosnia.

The water has also inundated minefields in Bosnia, a remnant from the 1992-1995 war. The unexploded devices are likely to become a problem during the clean-up. Economic losses and health consequences are also a concern. Thousands of hectares of agricultural land in Bosnia and Serbia have been flooded, which will have an imminent impact on food distribution and prices this year. In the future, recovery of agriculture in these areas will likely be a challenge, as the soil has been contaminated by the flood water. The disaster is also expected to have epidemiological consequences, due to the shortage of clean drinking water and medicines.  

Finding unity in the face of disaster

Although the destruction and loss brought by the floods have caused much pain and suffering across the region, the citizens’ voluntary mobilisation has been overwhelming. Images of this disaster have motivated thousands to join the relief efforts by donating, collecting the essentials, and distributing food, water and medicine to the affected people. The response has served as an example of unity, solidarity and humanity.

Toll mounts as thousands flee Balkan flooding

In Serbia, thousands of volunteers have joined the police and army in building barriers which have prevented the river Sava from overflowing in the town of Sabac. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, although the politicians still remained in their respective areas, rescue troops and rafting teams crossed the real and imagined borderlines, going from Bihac to Doboj, and from Foca to Zenica, in order to help their fellow citizens, regardless of their ethnicity or political party affiliation.

Soldiers in both countries have been working around the clock for days to help with the evacuation, food, water supplies and shelter. Students and youth organisations in Bosnia have organised volunteers to assist with the clean-up. On May 18, 500 students went from Sarajevo to help with recovery of Maglaj, Zavidovici and Olovo. Buses, trucks and essential aid have been provided by local transport companies and private businesses.  

Hotel owners have provided free accommodation for the displaced. Initiatives of private individuals have also sprung up on social media; people throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina have offered through Facebook, shelter to those who have lost their homes. Diaspora in Europe and abroad immediately responded with contributions. Convoys of humanitarian assistance collected by Bosnians, Serbs and Croats living abroad are waiting to cross the borders and reach affected areas.

Regional solidarity at this time of need has been just as heart-warming. Neighbouring countries have sent rescue teams and humanitarian assistance. The solidarity which has emerged from the disaster has been uplifting. After the 1990s war and 20 years of hate speech, humanity still prevails. Montenegro has put all their resources at disposal of Bosnia and Serbia, and Macedonia has sent in rescue teams, humanitarian and technical assistance. In just one day, citizens of Macedonia collected more than $60,000 for Bosnia through humanitarian phone lines. Croatia, whose border towns have also been flooded, declared that, together with Serbia and Bosnia, they will apply for European Union funds for the post-disaster recovery, in order to assist the three countries in dealing with the consequences.

In Bosnia, the United Nations has given $400,000 in financial assistance for relief efforts and EU Forces have assisted rescue work in the country. Rescue teams from Slovenia, Luxembourg, UK, Austria and Russia have also joined in.

What can you do?

The disaster has caused terrible floods, and our neighbourhoods, villages and towns have been completely submerged. Livelihoods and homes have been completely destroyed. As we await another wave of floods, we take refuge in the humanity, empathy and solidarity we have witnessed so far at home and abroad. It will take years, and billions in financial aid, for Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia to recover from the disaster. Funds will be needed for medical treatment, clean-up and sanitation of the affected areas and re-building of both houses and lives.

There are various ways to help and get involved, either by actively assisting those in need, if you are in the area, or through donations. Many reputable organisations have opened accounts for this purpose, including the Red Cross Bosnia, Red Cross Croatia,  Red Cross Serbia, Novak Djokovic Foundation, Government of Serbia, and Association Pomozi, just to mention a few. Please visit their websites and contribute what you can, or at least – help spread the word.

Lana Pasic is an independent writer and analyst from Bosnia and Herzegovina.