Serbia: “Hour by hour there was more water”

On 13 May the heavens opened across the north-west Balkans. Three days later and three month’s worth of rain had fallen, the heaviest downpour the region has experienced since records began 120 years ago.

Houses remain submerged after the worst flooding in Serbia's recorded history
Houses remain submerged after the worst flooding in Serbia’s recorded history

Rivers broke their banks; there were thousands of landslides.

Waves up to two metres high washed away rural villages and submerged low-lying homes; entire towns had to be evacuated and hundreds of people were left stranded.

Marina’s story

Marina is 17. She was one of 34,000 people in Serbia alone who were evacuated following the flooding.

“It was raining a lot but we didn’t expect it to flood,” she tells me as she fights back tears. “We thought that it would stop. I heard something coming towards the house and when I opened the door water rushed in around our legs.”

She and her family realised they were trapped. “We started panicking. We were all crying. We were afraid. Hour by hour, there was more water.”

Rescue

Fortunately for Marina and her family, the Government and volunteers had mobilised a rescue operation for those stranded and they were rescued just a few hours later. “We saw a small boat coming. It was like in the film Titanic. Everyone was waving their arms and screaming: ‘Over here. Help me, help me!’ ”

Now Marina is in a large exhibition centre that is being used as temporary shelter for over 700 evacuees. They share one communal space and just 8 toilets; mattresses line the floor as far as the eye can see.

As I walk around the centre I hear many stories like Marina’s but some of them did not end nearly as well.

Over 700 people share a roof at the largest evacuation centre in Belgrade
Over 700 people share a roof at the largest evacuation centre in Belgrade

Returning to look for loved ones

One young man told me how, in the chaos, he had become separated from most of his family. Once he realised they hadn’t been evacuated he returned to join the rescue effort in a bid to find them.

After two days, his 67-year-old mother was found alive up a tree: she had tied the strings of her apron to the branches so she wouldn’t fall off and waited patiently for help.

Tragically, he was unable to find either his wife or his small child; both are still missing and feared dead.

Returning home

The evacuees have begun to think about what happens next. Thousands of homes have been destroyed and many of those now staying in centres like this one have lost all their worldly possessions.

With the waters beginning to recede, more people are starting to attempt to return home. They don’t know what to expect when they get there but are hopeful that the damage won’t prove catastrophic.

For Marina and her family, though, there is no hope of returning home. “Our house was destroyed. We have lost everything. There is nothing left.”

Mark Kaye is in Belgrade, Serbia to work on Save the Children’s emergency response to the floods. Follow his updates on Twitter: @mk8287

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