Bosnia under Water

Peter Geoghegan

I had coffee with Sudbin, a human rights activist, in northern Bosnia last month. We met at a roadside bar called Sidro ('anchor') in the village of Carakovo, and talked about the difficulties facing Bosniaks who returned to Republika Srpska after the war. Heavy rain was falling. The River Sana was seeping over its banks. Dark brown water swirled around the wooden stilts that supported a two-storey house beside the river. 'I've never seen it like this,' Sudbin said. 'Nobody, not the government, has done anything to stop it, to make defences.'

The rain in Bosnia and Serbia got worse, much worse. Three months' worth of rain fell in three days, triggering widespread flooding and landslides. At Obrenovac, outside Belgrade, miles of sandbags were laid around the Nicola Tesla power plant, which supplies most of Serbia's electricity. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, 25 people are confirmed dead; the figure is likely to rise significantly in the coming weeks. One million people, a quarter of the population, have been forced from their homes. In Tuzla Canton alone, 1500 landslides were reported. They have buried houses and people, and shifted unexploded mines.

Bosnia can ill afford the damage. Average net income is around £340 a month. Many small farmers have seen their land vanish underwater and their animals drown. There's a shortage of clean drinking water and medicine, increasing the risk of disease.

As floodwaters rose, the international media were criticised for ignoring the story. 'I see on CNN and BBC and other big networks there's a lot of talk about the miners in Turkey and so forth and it's another disaster. But no broadcast about Serbia,' Novak Djokovic said when he won the Italian Open. 'This is the biggest flood that I've ever seen and maybe that Europe has ever seen. This is incredible. So I hope people can find the common sense and broadcast this a little bit and spread the awareness of what's going on.'

People are angry with politicians. In Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, a friend whose house was completely flooded said he had 'no help at all from the government'. He is in his forties, with no insurance: 'It's a total disaster.' He earns £200 a month as a porter, 30 per cent of which goes on child support. In Tuzla, the citizens' plenum that coalesced during anti-government protests in February stepped into the role vacated by the state, organising fleets of volunteers. The Red Cross launched an aid appeal.

'The flood has become another way to score political points for elections next October,' according to the New York Times. Milorad Dodik, the combative nationalist leader of Republika Srpska, refuses to co-operate with the Bosniak-Croat administration in Sarajevo. Bosniak politicians quarrelled publicly as the water rose. The government only began spending state funds on food for flood victims five days into the catastrophe. In Serbia, opposition members of parliament have called for a special session to discuss the failure of local and state institutions in the wake of the disaster.

The floods did manage to do something even the (fading) promise of EU membership has failed to do: bring the Balkans' kleptocratic political class together. The government of Montenegro offered 'all possible help', including volunteers and cheap electricity for Serbia. The minister for Kosovo's security forces said he would lend assistance to Bosnia and Serbia, even though neither recognise his state.

Even Dodik expressed his gratitude to the Muslims who came to help their Serb neighbours in the northern town of Samac. Edhem Camdzic, a mufti in Banja Luka, said that during a tour of flood-hit Muslim villages he had come across an 'honourable man, a Serb, who has been rescuing people with his inflatable boat regardless of their ethnicity'. During the war, Serb forces destroyed all 16 of Banja Luka's mosques. 'Amid this tragedy, I am so delighted to see this solidarity between people who generously helped each other,' Camdzic told AFP. Fans of Red Star Belgrade, long a hotbed of Serb nationalism, tweeted links to emergency efforts in Bosnia and Croatia.

But as the floodwaters recede, questions about the conduct of the relief effort have emerged. It has been suggested that parts of Bosnia were sacrificed to preserve other, more politically important constituencies. Dodik has been accused of using the floods to strengthen his grip on power in Republika Srpska. In Banja Luka, my friend's sister complains that officials are 'playing politics'. The floods filled her house with sewage. As of last week, her family had not received any aid. 'Our house is like a ghost house. I blame the government and all the government agencies.'