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Massive clean-up in Balkans after flood of the century
by Staff Writers
Maljurevac, Serbia (AFP) May 23, 2014

Traumatised Balkan flood refugees just want to go home
Belgrade (AFP) May 23, 2014 - Curled up on a mattress in a makeshift Belgrade shelter, Jovanka Mitric clutches a grainy black-and-white photo of her family house, now a ruin after the Balkans' worst floods in living memory.

"This is the only thing I took with me when the soldiers came to save me from my house," the 78-year-old whispered, gazing at a photo of her husband and her in front of their modest village house.

"It was our wedding day 55 years ago and we had just moved in. It has survived wars, poverty, two big floods, but now is gone for good," she said, wiping away a tear with her wrinkled hand.

The deluge began last week when record amounts of rain lashed southeastern Europe, turning the Sava river and its tributaries in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia into raging torrents that burst their banks.

Almost 150,000 people were evacuated in the biggest exodus since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, including 30,000 in Serbia. Fifty-seven people perished.

Many in Mitric's village Zabrezje, just a few kilometres (miles) away from Obrenovac, the hardest hit Serbian town, woke up on May 16 before dawn to the terrifying sound of roaring water.

"We could not even open the door to let the chickens out of their coop, poor creatures," said Mitric's neighbour Mileva Rankovic, 65.

It could be weeks before many of the evacuees will be allowed to return. First the debris must be cleared and their houses and farms declared disease-free. For some, there will be no home to return to.

More than a half of Obrenovac's 25,000 inhabitants fled, and many still have no news of friends and relatives -- and pets in many cases -- and the state of their houses, or if they still existed.

Those who had no one to accomodate them were temporarily settled in more than 40 make-shift shelters in Belgrade in sports halls, student dormitories and hotels.

"More than 12,000 people have passed through the shelters in Belgrade and around 4,000 of them are still there," said Belgrade Mayor Sinisa Mali.

- 'You want to cry instead of them' -

Thousands of Red Cross workers, students and professionals are helping the evacuees, distributing food, hygienic necessities, clothes and medicine.

In the sports hall visited by AFP, mattresses covered with light-blue sheets or sleeping bags were carefully aligned on a basketball court, while groups of neighbours exchanged the latest news.

More than 50 psychologists and therapists have joined forces via social media to offer help to those in need.

"They are still in a state of shock and we offer so called psychological first aid," child psychologist Katarina Stevanov told AFP.

The most important was to "tell them that it is normal to feel sad, depressed or shocked," she said. "You listen to their stories and you want to cry instead of them."

- Nightmares -

"Nights are the worst. Three days have passed and I still hear the cries of howling dogs shrieking in the eery silence," said Verica Papic, 52, one of 400 in the Pionir sports hall.

When the waters starting rising, she and two family members, together with 30 neighbours, moved from the lower floors of their building to the loft.

One of the others rescued with her was 29-year old Vesna Pajic, now one of 300 young mothers put up in Belgrade hotels. Their menfolk have returned home to help clear the debris.

"I am calm now, but I still dream of this horrible day me and my 20-month old daughter spent hidden in our attic awaiting rescuers," she told AFP.

The hotel's management set aside a conference hall for children to play in, while volunteers gather groups of older ones in classrooms to do schoolwork and give a semblance of normality.

"It is like we are on a field trip, but I want to go home," said one of them, nine-year old Jana.

The death toll from cataclysmic floods in the Balkans rose by six to 57 on Friday as people returned home to salvage what belongings they could amid a huge clean-up operation.

The task facing the thousands of rescue workers, volunteers and soldiers was immense, with dozens of towns and villages devastated by the region's worst natural disaster in living memory.

"This disaster has entered a new phase. At first it was about saving lives ... now the water is receding, leaving devastation behind it," Bosnia's Defence Minister Zekerijah Osmic said.

Several thousand buildings were wrecked as the river Sava and its tributaries became a raging torrent and burst their banks last week, causing hundreds of millions of euros in damages.

"Houses built 20 to 30 years ago can be dried and renovated but for older ones it might be easier to tear them down and build new ones," Croatian Construction Minister Anka Mrak-Taritas said.

Vast areas still remain under water, and tens of thousands of the nearly 150,000 people evacuated in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia -- the biggest exodus since the wars of the 1990s -- were stuck in shelters.

Those who have come back, if their homes are still standing, were taking appliances and other belongings outside to dry, though many have found everything ruined.

In many areas, homes, schools, shops and roads were plastered with mud and littered with everything from bashed-up cars to bloated dead cows. Health officials were spraying disinfectant to prevent disease.

In the village of Maljurevac south-east of Belgrade, where the water level had risen two metres (six feet), roads were just about passable again as the fire brigade pumped brown water from gardens.

Villager Jasmina Pavlovic, 43, in wellies but with water up her knees, told AFP that apart from their pig and goat, not much had survived, their seven sheep included.

"We've never seen floods this bad. We've lost everything," she said.

Next door Dejan and Jana Milosevic, 46 and 44, have filled a trailer with items from their house -- a sodden mattress, a broken television and a hoover, all destined for the dump.

"We still have no electricity," the husband said.

In the northern Bosnian town of Doboj, where nine people died, 80 lorries full of rubbish have already been collected, some of it then deposited at temporary sites because the municipal tip was full.

Complicating the clean-up operation in Bosnia was the possibility that some of the more than 120,000 landmines still littering the country 20 years after the war may have been dislodged.

Meanwhile on Friday the operator of the Nikola Tesla power plant, which produces around half of Serbia's electricity, would be running at full capacity from the weekend.

The floods, which earlier this week threatened the plant itself, had cut its output to below 20 percent.

- Rain forecast -

Fresh rain was expected at the weekend, and although it was not expected to be heavy, forecasters warned that it could create fresh landslides in some areas.

"The soil in these areas cannot receive a single drop of water more. There is a big risk of new landslides," meteorologist Ibrahim Hadzismajlovic said.

Authorities were also struggling to cope with recovering and incinerating thousands of animal carcasses. Burying large numbers runs the risk of contaminating the soil.

Many animals were still alive but needed to be fed and in some cases rescued, presenting further problems.

"Yesterday, pigs and dogs bit four of our men," Vinko Prizmic, head of the Croatian Mountain Rescue Service, told state television.

One woman in Serbia, Vesna Prokopjevic, has taken in at least 70 dogs of all shapes and sizes.

"The dogs were traumatised, scared, wet and muddy. We gave them food, water -- and a hug," she told AFP.

Locals still found reasons to laugh, despite the devastation.

"Humour helped people during the war," said Colonel Mirsad Adzic, organising operations in the Bosnian town of Samac.

"That's the pool for the local water polo club," he told AFP, pointing to the submerged football pitch.

Serbian seeks to get tails wagging again after floods
Drazevac, Serbia (AFP) May 23, 2014 - It's been busy and emotional time for Vesna Prokopjevic, a Serbian dog-lover seeking to reunite bedraggled pooches with their owners after they were separated by devastating floods in the Balkans.

"The dogs were traumatised, scared, wet and muddy. We gave them food, water -- and a hug," Prokopjevic told AFP at her noisy makeshift dogs' home in her garden in the small village of Drazevac outside Belgrade.

Since Saturday, when the floods forced half of the 20,000 population of nearby Obrenovac to be evacuated, rescuers have brought at least 70 dogs of all shapes and sizes to her shelter.

"We were the closest and they knew I would take care of all of them," the 55-year old Prokopjevic said, fielding constant phone calls by people searching for their four-legged family members.

Helped only by her family, a few friends and volunteers and a local vet working for free, Prokopjevic has been working like mad providing basic care "until the owners who lost everything in this horror settle somewhere."

"Each owner who comes to pick up the dog gets food, medicine and a leash for the dog, the basics just to set them up," she explains.

Human visitors, greeted by a cacophony of barking, get suspiciously sniffed by the boarders when they arrive before the dogs, having established they are not going home, return to playing and digging.

Some of the older ones don't even bother to come and investigate, raising a weary, greying head to see if their human has come before slumping back down for another 40 winks.

"They are all hoping to see their owners," Prokopjevic says.

- Cats, dogs and a mink -

Aside from the humans of course, it is not just dogs that have been affected by south-eastern Europe's worst natural disaster since records began more than a 100 years ago.

Many farm animals that didn't drown -- thousands have, posing a major potential health risk as their carcasses rot in the summer heat -- have been left with no one to look after them.

Austrian animal welfare group Vier Pfoten ("Four Paws") has sent a 20-strong team to the region, using boats to distribute animal feed such as hay and setting up a mobile veterinary clinic in the village of Zvecka.

"In such a situation people don't have any resources to support their animals. Our relief mission has a dual purpose as we are helping animals and humans at the same time," said team leader Amir Khalil.

"When a natural disaster strikes, a few days can make all the difference between life and death."

Meanwhile, Belgrade's vet institution has organised rescue teams to pick up pets left behind in Obrenovac's apartment buildings and houses. Owners leave their keys and address and teams go collect the animal, if they can.

"Only this morning we brought four cats, eight dogs and a mink," Sreten Kostic, a veterinary technician, told AFP.

"More are yet to come, but we also fed 22 dogs and some chickens," he added.

A website has also been created by private individuals where pet owners can leave information on their animals, addresses and chip numbers so that rescuers can try and pick them up.

Back in Drazevac, everybody claiming to be the owner of a dog has to prove it, Prokopjevic insists. "Nobody can take a dog from here without a proof of ownership."

"If the dog is chipped it is easy, we match the data, but even if it is not, dogs recognise their owner, it is so emotional, you can hardly mismatch them," said her friend Milan Cosic, a retired policeman.

"One woman burst into tears and her dog yelped when they met."


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Deadly floods recede to reveal Balkan desolation
Belgrade (AFP) May 22, 2014
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