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Thousands flee deadly Balkan floods

© SASA DJORDJEVIC / AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-05-18

Packed into buses, boats and helicopters, carrying nothing but a handful of belongings, tens of thousands fled their homes Saturday and Sunday in Bosnia and Serbia to escape the worst flooding in a century.

Rapidly rising rivers surged into homes, sometimes reaching up to the second floors, sending people climbing to rooftops for rescue.

Hundreds were also evacuated in Croatia after a sandbag levee broke, according to FRANCE 24's Balkans correspondent Laurent Rouy. 

Authorities said Sunday that 44 people have died but warned the death toll could rise.

Landslides triggered by the floods also raised the risk of injury or death from land mines left over from Bosnia’s 1992-95 war. The landslides swept away many of the carefully placed warning signs around the minefields.

Tens of thousands of homes were left without electricity or drinking water.

Three months’ worth of rain has fallen on the region in three days this week, creating the worst floods since records began being kept 120 years ago.

For Serbia, an impending disaster

The disaster is far from over. In the eastern Bosnian town of Bijeljina, some 10,000 people were being evacuated Saturday after the rain-swollen Sava River pushed through flood defences, endangering four villages outside the town. The peak of the Sava flood wave was expected in Bijeljina later Saturday, before advancing to Serbia.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic told a press conference that a new wave of flooding on the Sava River will hit Sunday evening.

Officials said more than 16,000 people have been evacuated from flood-hit regions in Serbia, many finding shelter in schools and sports halls. Lines of mattresses covered the floors of Belgrade schools, with frightened survivors describing unstoppable torrents that surged in a matter of minutes. Eight deaths were reported and emergency crews and soldiers were using boats and helicopters to rescue thousands trapped in the town of Obrenovac, near Belgrade.

The flooding is also threatening the Nikola Tesla power plant, Serbia’s biggest. Plant capacity had already been cut after a nearby coal mine was flooded and authorities urged residents to save energy to avoid brown-outs.

“Our primary concern is to protect the power plant,” said Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic. “We are doing all we can.”

Thousands of volunteers responded to government’s appeal to build up flood defences along the Sava. Bussed in from all over the country, the volunteers worked around the clock, stacking up sandbag barricades with soldiers and emergency crews.

“Dozens of soldiers are on the field, with volunteers, who are also here in numbers. They've managed to build kilometres and kilometres of levees,” said Defence Minister Bratislav Gasic, who called the situation “stable.”

FRANCE 24's Laurent Rouy said he saw "exceptional solidarity" on the ground.

International help poured into the two nations. A Russian team joined the rescue efforts in Serbia. Rescue teams from Luxembourg, Slovenia and Croatia were already in Bosnia, and others from the UK, Austria and Macedonia were expected.

“Horrible catastrophe” for Bosnia

Officials in Bosnia say 17 people died and more bodies could be found as water recedes from dozens of cities. In some places, people had to be rescued by helicopter from their roofs.

Observed from the air, almost a third of Bosnia, mostly its northeast corner, resembled a huge muddy lake, with houses, roads and rail lines submerged. Admir Malagic, a spokesman for Bosnia’s Security Ministry, said about a million people, over a quarter of the country’s population, live in the affected area.

Many in Bosnia lost homes they had only just rebuilt after the war, which claimed 100,000 lives and devastated the impoverished country.

“Bosnia is facing a horrible catastrophe,” said Bakir Izetbegovic, the chairman of the Bosnian three-man presidency. “We are still not fully aware of actual dimensions of the catastrophe ... we will have to take care of hundreds, thousands of people ...”

The rain caused nearly 300 landslides in Bosnia, burying dozens of houses and cars and further complicating relief efforts.

“They come unannounced in just a few seconds,” said Fahrudin Solak, a Civil Protection official.

As the waters mostly withdrew from the town of Maglaj on Saturday, the town was covered in mud and debris, with residents checking damage and bringing furniture out in the streets to dry.

“Everything is destroyed, but we are happy to be alive,” said Maglaj resident Zijad Omerovic.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

Date created : 2014-05-18

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