A member of the Serbian photography collective reports from the frontlines of the rescue mission
The river Sava, which runs through the Balkans before discharging into the Danube in Belgrade, Serbia, is raging, fit to burst. Thousands of families have already been displaced from their homes and the death toll stands at around 50 as water courses through the region, tearing apart buildings and lives in the process. The floods are devastating Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia after record rainfall transformed the Sava into a lethal weapon.
We spoke to photographer and volunteer Nemanja Knežević, who has been helping take in evacuees at a rescue centre called FMP at the entrance to Belgrade. Knežević is a member of the Serbian photo collective Belgrade Raw, but this week he's put aside his camera and devoted his life to helping his fellow countrymen as they deal with one of the worst natural disasters the region has ever seen.
"Serbia is fucked up, but we are trying our best," he says. "People are organising themselves, giving their best to help everywhere and in every way." Obrenovac is the worst affected part of Serbia. The town is 30km southwest of Belgrade, and it's been sealed off by the army. Essentially it's just a ghost town now.
"The impact of the flood was strongest in Obrenovac," says Knežević. "At least one-third of the people who came to this centre told us that they don't know where their family members are at the moment."
An additional concern of the flooding is the displacement of landmines, a legacy of the 1992–95 Bosnian war. Heavy landslides have moved minefields in Bosnia, where around a third of the country is underwater, and it's estimated that near to 120,000 landmines remain. Around 600 Bosnians have been killed by mines since 95 and the indiscriminate weapons remain an extreme threat to people living in the region.
"Mines are a huge problem over in Bosnia," Knežević says, "but it can be also problem for Serbia because the river Sava can bring a lot of those mines here. It's absurd. Mines can travel in the water and pose extreme danger. No one knows where they will end up."
Serbia is no stranger to hardship. In 1999, Nato bombings devastated the region. Over the course of the campaign, 14,000 bombs were dropped, mainly in what was then known as the Republic of Serbia. "I remember when the 1999 bombings were going on," Knežević says, "but this new situation has amazed me once again in a positive way. People have realised that they can organise themselves, and they did it in such a short period of time. Of course there are a lot of problems with coordination, but what's most important is that things are happening and the job is getting done, step by step. Younger people are doing most of the jobs, collecting food, clothes, making food and selecting clothes."
While the majority of the expected rainfall ended on Monday, the disaster is far from over. Flooding is expected to rise through Belgrade on Thursday. "Hundreds of thousands of sandbags are being places next to the river Sava here in Belgrade because it might get really bad, especially for the part of the city called New Belgrade which was built after World War II, says Knežević. "Everything is flat over there – on one side is the river Sava, on the other there's the Danube, and both rivers are going strong these days."
Knežević considers the rescue operation to have been successful so far, but a nationwide disaster always comes with its stories of trauma. He recalled some of the most upsetting sights from his time spent working this week: "There was a man who turned up at the centre with just a dog and a parrot. A young girl came and told us that she'd lost everything, but she was so calm while she was saying it. You can see that all these people are stressed out in a really strange way. They're happy to be alive, but they also realise that their lives will never be the same again – they've lost their houses and the people dearest to them. I met some people from Obrenovac who had seen everything. There was a lot of trauma in their eyes."
The army have been evacuating people stranded in their own homes, people who may never see the places that they live ever again. Payment of the humanitarian aid to flood victims in Serbia with PayPal has been enabled today, according to Serbian Ministry of Finance. You can help here.