Dispatch

‘We Are Left With Nothing, Again’

‘We Are Left With Nothing, Again’

BELGRADE, Serbia — As Bozidarka Vuckovic sat on a donated mattress on the sticky floor of a Belgrade shelter, she found herself displaced for the second time in 15 years. Around her were rows of mattresses identical to hers, strewn across the floor, covered with dozing families and plastic bags of salvaged belongings. The velour sweat suit she wore was frayed at the edges and deep, dark circles framed her eyes. Occasional sobs shook her rail-thin shoulders as she rocked her three-year-old son Darko in a bid to soothe him. Since the floods, all the boy wanted to do was sleep. But often he woke up screaming, dreamed he was drowning.

Two weeks earlier, during the catastrophic flooding that swept through the Balkans, Vuckovic had watched as the rising waters submerged her house in Obrenovac, about 18 miles southwest of Belgrade. Vuckovic, a Kosovar Serb, had come to the town in 1999, seeking refuge from the ethnic violence that gripped Kosovo at the time. Now, the life she had built there, with her two children and their father, was swept away in the worst floods to hit Serbia in more than a century. Vuckovic had ended up in a crowded makeshift shelter yet again.

"I have survived a lot. I survived Kosovo, I survived the bombings, and now I survived the floods," said Vuckovic, 36, with eyes fixed on a cell phone video of her flooded one-storey home, only the red tiles on the roof visible above the muddy water. "But I don’t think I can survive any more. We are left with nothing, again. There are no windows, no doors, no walls. It feels like we keep losing everything, again and again."

In mid-May the amount of rain that the Balkans usually sees in three months came down in just three days, triggering the floods. As many as three million people across the region were affected and at least 74 died. In Serbia, Obrenovac was hit the hardest as the swollen Kolubara River burst its banks and submerged the area. The municipality’s 70,000 residents were evacuated, many after waiting days to be rescued by boats. Others, like Vuckovic and her family, were trapped in the town and had to be flown to safety with choppers.

The floods completely destroyed 92 houses and rendered 161 residential buildings uninhabitable, according to Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic. Since then, the waters have receded and the international media has moved on to other crises, but those who lost everything are still reeling from the blow.

Many of those hit hardest by the floods are, like Vuckovic, Kosovo refugees thrown into displacement for the second time in a decade and a half. As a UN resolution ended decades of persecution of Albanian Kosovars by Serbian forces in 1999, extremists seeking revenge retaliated with riots, kidnappings, and brutal attacks aimed at ethnic Serbs and Roma. As a result, an estimated 210,000 fled Kosovo and sought refuge in Serbia to escape the violence. 

But Serbia, still struggling to cope with the half a million refugees who poured into the country from Croatia and Bosnia in the mid-90’s, had little to offer the new wave of displaced. Many were crammed into makeshift temporary shelters in schools, living with poor sanitation and little humanitarian aid. When the state began to return the shelters to their original uses, some refugees were left with no choice but to sleep in city parks.

"In Serbia, the refugees have been long neglected by the state," said Florian Bieber, a professor and the director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz in Austria. "They were kind of an unwelcome reminder that the wars were lost."

The refugee population has been fragile since they arrived in Serbia. According to UNHCR data, 242 "extremely vulnerable" refugees from Kosovo had settled in Obrenovac prior to the floods, but the agency says the number is much higher when unregistered refugees are taken into account.

Through intensive integration programs and concerted international efforts, their situation seemed to be slowly improving in recent years. In the last decade, the Serbian government has invested roughly $76 million into integrating and housing those displaced by the Balkan conflicts of the 1990’s. The country is also set to spend another $450 million building housing for refugees over the next three years through the Regional Housing Programme, a multi-donor project involving partners like the European Union, the U.S, and UNHCR. With the help of such programs, most of those who fled from Kosovo to Obrenovac had secured some form of housing and stability. But many have been thrown back into uncertainty by the floods.

"In the last 15 years, they tried to get themselves in a better position, get some kind of jobs, become citizens of Serbia," said Sladjana Dimic, a spokesperson for Red Cross Serbia. "Now they once again have to start from the very beginning. It’s the story of many, many people in Obrenovac." 

But a month after the floods, few strides have been made getting refugees resettled. About 1,500 people still remain in the 24 temporary shelters across Belgrade. Another 17,000 are being housed by relatives and friends, according to the Red Cross. Last week, authorities began moving the displaced to yet another facility, a set of former army barracks in Obrenovac, where 460 adults and 71 children now live in cramped conditions.

"The idea is to remove them from Belgrade to Obrenovac," said Dimic. "But there is no capacity in Obrenovac to accommodate them and they don’t have any possibility to go back to their homes because, for many of them, there is nothing left."

For most of those now living in shelters, the cost of rebuilding what they lost is impossibly high. Many barely scrape by with their monthly earnings, yet now will have to cope with losses totaling between $9,500 and $16,000. But recovery is likely to be an even bigger feat for those experiencing displacement for the second time. More than 40 percent of Kosovo refugees in Serbia live on $120 to $230 per month, according to a 2011 report by the UNHCR. A third are also unemployed, compared to an average rate of 19 percent among the general Serbian population. The displaced are also more likely to suffer from long-term unemployment: 69 percent have been out of work for over a year. 

"In a certain way, the floods compounded what was an already precarious situation in Serbia," said Bieber, who has worked extensively on minority issues in Serbia and Bosnia. "The refugees were already at the margins of society…Many are without income and the floods have made it very difficult for them to re-attain the little that they had. The floods just gave them another push downward."

Although the Serbian government has not offered special help to refugees, it has promised extensive assistance to those affected by the floods. As of June 6, $33.41 million  in aid had been transferred to the accounts of the Serbian government for flood relief, according to figures released by the Ministry of Finance. Crews also began visiting affected communities and evaluating the damage in early June, but it’s still unclear when and how the aid will be distributed.

But many of those familiar with displacement remain skeptical that the money will trickle down to them at all. Branislava Nedeljkovic, a Romani who also fled Kosovo in 1999, is afraid they will be forgotten once the panic around the floods dies down. With no income, she has no way to rebuild her Obrenovac home, which was completely destroyed by the floods.

"They just make big promises, but they don’t care what happens to us," said Nedeljkovic, 58, from the makeshift shelter in Belgrade’s Pionir Arena two weeks after the floods. "Our house is broken to pieces, the whole thing collapsed. We have nowhere to go. We have to rebuild our lives again and how do you rebuild when you have no money?" 

The concerns of those like Nedeljkovic aren’t unrealistic. According to Bieber, refugees may, in fact, get passed up for government assistance because they often lack proper documentation of what they have lost.

"A lot of the housing that refugees built was informal, illegal or not properly documented," he said. "There are usually no insurance policies, no proper records, which makes it difficult for the state to act. I would share the concern of those affected by the floods that they may not get much help."

Vuckovic, too, worries how she will recover once again. Her family doesn’t have an income and she said they cannot afford to repair the damage to their home. With two small children, Vuckovic is afraid to end up on the street.

"We have nowhere to go and that scares me," she says. "I’m not scared for me because I have been through worse. But I am scared for my children."

Additional reporting by Milica Vukelic.