Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bosnia: After the Flood

Ordinary people inspired to help one another across old divides, leaving nationalist politicians to worry about risks of too much cohesion.
By Maja Bjelajac
  • The high watermark on this building in Doboj in northern Bosnia plainly shows the scale of the flooding. May 20-21, 2014. (Photo: Sanja Vrzić)
    The high watermark on this building in Doboj in northern Bosnia plainly shows the scale of the flooding. May 20-21, 2014. (Photo: Sanja Vrzić)
  • Doboj after the floodwaters receded. May 20-21, 2014. (Photo: Sanja Vrzić)
    Doboj after the floodwaters receded. May 20-21, 2014. (Photo: Sanja Vrzić)

Amid the destruction and chaos caused by surging floodwaters across Bosnia, a new spirit of cooperation emerged as people found it within themselves to forget old differences and give their neighbours the help they needed.

Government agencies and volunteer workers are still battling to clear debris and restore communications and services two weeks after the flooding in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), which affected some 1.5 million people. (See Bosnia Counts Costs of Deluge  for an earlier report on the flooding.)

In Bosanski Samac, a northern municipality in Republika Srpska (RS), one of Bosnia’s two administrative entities, aid came from Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks, as well as from neighbouring Croatia.

“I would like to tell you that we owe you our lives and will never be able to repay you,” Savo Minic, mayor of the predominantly Serb town of Bosanski Samac, told Bosniaks who came from the nearby town of Gradacac to help during and after the floods. “It is my obligation to thank you, on my own behalf and on behalf of the residents of Bosanski Samac, for all that you have done for us.”

A group of mountaineers from RS’s main city, Banja Luka, rushed to Tisina, a half-Serb, half-Croat village in the Bosanski Samac municipality, to offer their specialist expertise.

Ranko Djordjevic, a 21-year-old member of the team, told IWPR how the Serb climbers got up onto balconies to rescue trapped people, and lowered them into boats steered by Croats which transported them to dry land.

In Doboj, a mainly Serb town in RS, local people expressed gratitude for the assistance that came in from Bosnia’s other administrative entity, the mainly Bosniak and Croat Federation.

“The local authorities have failed us completely,” Dusanko Kitic, a policeman from Doboj, told Radio Free Europe. “Had there been no help from the Federation, we would have died of thirst. People from the [Bosniak] town of Tesanj saved us with the bottled water they sent us.”

Although adversity blurred ethnic divisions on the ground, nationalist politicians in the RS, led by its president Milorad Dodik, appeared unwilling to accept the fact.

Touring areas where the floods had receded in Doboj, Dodik said that despite “all the efforts of the international community to use the deluge to strengthen BiH as a state, that is not going to happen”.

“My message to all of you is that you should not waste your time on this. We are sorry about all the destruction that the flooding caused in the Federation and we will help if we can, but RS will remain strong, functional and united,” he told reporters in Doboj.

Slobodan Popovic, an independent member in the RS parliament, said Dodik used every opportunity to emphasise that his government was able to deal with the crisis on its own.

“Dodik acts as though RS were his own private state, and as if strengthening BiH institutions in such a crisis would jeopardise that,” he said.

Popovic said this kind of attitude was not unique to RS, and was evident in the Federation as well.

“The entity governments are afraid of the interethnic cooperation and solidarity which was so evident during the deluge, because their own role has been marginalised,” he explained. “All of a sudden, entity lines have been erased and people have started working together. That’s exactly what nationalist leaders fear, because it creates a situation in which people of different ethnic backgrounds are no longer enemies and these nationalist politicians have no one to ‘defend’.”

At the peak of the flooding, the RS government and the media outlets it controls focused only on the situation in their entity and in neighbouring Serbia – which was also badly hit by flooding – and ignored the situation in the Federation.

On May 17, the Federation government asked for a state of emergency to be declared across BiH. The government of RS refused, and proceeded to declare its own emergency.

For Bosnia-wide state of emergency to be declared, a request has to be sent to the BiH Council of Ministers, but RS delegates did not do this, so each entity ended up with separate states of emergencies.

This show of disunity alarmed observers who warned that Bosnia might not be eligible for international aid unless there was a nationwide state of emergency.

United Nations officials dismissed these fears, however.

“The fact that a state of emergency was not declared at the national level did not obstruct or block UN assistance to BiH,” Pavle Banjac, a UN communications officer in Bosnia, told IWPR. “Available UN assistance is not conditioned by the declaration of a state of emergency at the national level but by the magnitude of the crisis. Some assistance mechanisms required a formal request by BiH, which was submitted by the ministry of foreign affairs.”

Nevertheless, Banja Luka economist Svetlana Cenic warned that the lack of state-level unity in a crisis of this magnitude was likely to have serious consequences for future rebuilding work.

“If a state of emergency was declared at the national level, entity governments would have to be synchronised, which would be far more efficient and simplify things. Now they’re acting separately,” she said. “It’s in the interests of all citizens of BiH to get as many resources as possible for reconstruction, regardless which entity they live in.”

Djordjevic recalled a moment of light relief in Tisina as Serb climbers and Croat boatmen worked together during the flood disaster.

“Three people asked to be evacuated. We headed towards them and saw an elderly woman named Ana waving a Serbian flag in order to get our attention,” he said. “The Croats who were with us in the boat – which was flying the Croatian flag – jokingly told her, ‘Grandma, if you want to get into this boat, you’ve got the wrong flag.’ And the grandma replied, ‘Give me the Croatian flag and I'll wave that too if I have to.”

Maja Bjelajac is an IWPR reporter in Banja Luka. 

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