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44 dead, thousands flee historic floods in Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Monday, 19 May 2014 - 9:25am IST | Place: Sremska Mitrovica (Serbia) | Agency: AFP
  • Members of the Bosnian armed forces use an inflatable boat during an operation to evacuate residents from homes surrounded by flood waters in the village of Topcic Polje, near the central Bosnian town of Zenica. AFP

Thousands crammed into boats and army trucks as they fled their homes in Serbia and Bosnia on Sunday after record rainfall turned the Sava river into a deadly torrent and caused the worst floods in more than a century. Officials say the disaster has killed at least 44 people so far. Some towns have been completely cut off and rescue teams feared the worst as they were finally able to move in.

Some 10,000 people have been evacuated so far from the worst affected areas of northern Bosnia, but in some places like the town of Samac, hundreds of stranded people were still waiting to be rescued.

"We sent rescue teams into a part of the city we had not been able to access so far. They are entering those areas fearing what they might discover," Mayor Samo Minic told reporters.

Rescuers who arrived found widespread devastation. 

"It looks like a tsunami and earthquake occurred at once. Water carries everything. Corpses of animals could be seen floating everywhere," said Nedeljko Brankovic, who was among rescue workers who managed to reach the village of Krupanj in western Serbia after two days. "We found some 50 people gathered in the highest house. They had neither electricity nor drinking water. Telephones did not work. We evacuated them 10 by 10 in a huge boat," Brankovic said.

Besides the flooding, the worst rainfall since records began in the late 19th century also caused landslides that brought more destruction and also prompted a landmine warning.

Bosnia's demining agency said residents around the towns of Doboj, Maglaj and Olovo – which saw fierce fighting during the Bosnian war in the 1990s – should be particularly wary of landmines that may have been dislodged by the floods. Twenty of the 27 deaths recorded in Bosnia occurred in Doboj while on the other side of the Sava river, in Serbia, at least 16 bodies were found.

In "Obrenovac alone we recovered 12 corpses," Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said of the town 30 kilometres (18 miles) from Belgrade, bringing the toll in Serbia to 16. "Unfortunately there are estimates that the death toll will be higher," he said.

Croatia has also confirmed one casualty, as a result of bad weather that engulfed much of central and parts of eastern Europe at the weekend. Ukraine's emergencies ministry said heavy rain and wind had cut power to about 100 villages but no casualties had been reported.

Once in 1,000 years

In the Serbian capital Belgrade, dozens of schools and sport centres were turned into shelters for the thousands evacuated by boats, buses and helicopters.

In one sports hall, 73-year-old Vojislav Majstorovic recounted his family's escape from their house in the suburb of Obrenovac as water reached the first floor. "The water was two metres high in less than an hour," he said. "We did not have time even to pack basic things. We just ran to the first floor and waved a white sheet to alert rescuers." His wife Minka said they lost everything. "It has all gone. We had 20 pigs and 50 hens. I do not know if any of them survived. However, at least we are all alive," she told AFP.

Images on state-run RTS television from Obrenovac, showed half a dozen cows standing on the roof of a barn while rescuers threw them hay from a helicopter. A desperately barking dog stood on an overturned car was seen being picked up by rescuers in a boat.

In the southern Serbian village of Sremska Raca, buses were evacuating the entire population of 700, although not everyone was keen. "Do not force me to leave, I beg you," 50-year-old Milorad said in tears as police tried to convince her to come with them.

Six men, in good humour with cans of beer in their hand, say they will brave the storm to ensure the clean-up gets going quickly. "Someone should be here to the get to work immediately when the wave has passed," said Radenko Savic, 52. "They tell us the wave will be a metre high, but that doesn't scare us."

According to Serbia's prime minister, the biggest problem was still along the Sava river. "An evacuation is under way in Sremska Raca. In other areas it's getting better," Vucic said. "What happened to us happens once in a thousand years, not hundred but a thousand years."

Humanitarian aid, technical equipment and teams from Russia, the European Union, the United States and neighbouring Montenegro and Macedonia were pouring in, authorities said.

Expressing his gratitude to all foreign countries for the aid, Vucic said Serbia now needed "food, baby food, diapers, all kind of clothes, medicaments, bottled water, disinfection and hygienic resources."

Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic, in Italy where he has reached the final of the Rome Masters, on Saturday posted an appeal for "support and solidarity for my people in Serbia!" on his Facebook page, where he has more than four million followers.


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