The heaviest rainfalls ever recorded in the Balkans have led to catastrophic flooding in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Swelled by weeks of rain, the devastating floodwaters swamped more than 60% of the country last month, killing 24 people, destroying more than 100,000 homes and displacing around 950,000 citizens. The floods also damaged vital infrastructure, destroyed industrial assets and killed livestock. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s preliminary estimate put the damage bill at about 1.3 billion euros.
The emotional cost is harder to calculate. The violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the subsequent war in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995 took the lives of more than 100,000 Bosnians and left two million homeless. Two decades later those survivors have been forced once again to abandon their homes – this time by floodwaters rather than bullets.
Adding to the misery of ordinary Bosnians, the murky floodwaters have washed up old military hardware such as hand grenades and landmines. More disturbingly, they appear to have unearthed the skeletal remains of some of the thousands of people who went missing during the four-year conflict.
The floods have clearly reawakened the trauma experienced by survivors of the conflict among Bosnians at home and members of the large diaspora around the globe. Yet they also appear to have re-united communities which had been divided on ethnic and religious lines since the war.
Unity of people re-emerges
Over the past weeks media outlets have been flooded with stories and images of bravery, camaraderie and community spirit where ethnicity suddenly became irrelevant. “Serbs”, “Bosniaks” and “Croats” have become “people”. The appearance of volunteer brigades, particularly those made up of students, which travelled across the Inter-Entity Boundary Line, also seemed reminiscent of the old Yugoslav doctrine of “brotherhood and unity”.
While brotherhood in post-conflict Bosnia is a nostalgic illusion, the term unity has recently made a new appearance in public discourse. Many people affected by the floods over the past fortnight have been forced into inter-ethnic contact, either accepting help or offering it to those in life-threatening situations.
Merisa Krivdić, who helped to send a relief truck to Bosnia from the Bosnian Cultural Centre in Aachen, Germany, described how a local man claimed that the floods had opened his eyes. The man from the town of Prijedor said:
I did not realise that I don’t hate my neighbour until I actually spoke to him.
Ethnicity as political capital
The recent spirit of unity presents a threat to Bosnia’s nationalist political elites. Political leaders have fostered and relied on the myth of ancient ethnic hatred to stay in power since the end of the war. Critics claim persuasively that the politicians use division as political capital to distract the population from issues such as corruption, which many allege was and continues to be particularly widespread during the selling of state-owned companies and assets.
The political elites have also had to face recent protest movements. In February 2014, a number of demonstrations and riots spread through Bosnian towns and cities. The marchers demanded the resignation of a corrupt government they feel has betrayed, abandoned and humiliated them over the last two decades.
In a country where the official unemployment rate sits at 44%, the slogan of the day was “I am hungry in three languages”. This came to symbolise the beginning of a unification process by the impoverished people of Bosnia in their struggle against divisive political leaders.
Floods as a catalyst for change
Analysts and ordinary Bosnians now say the floods have the potential to speed up that process.
Sudbin Musić, the secretary of the Association of Concentration Camp Survivors “Prijedor 92”, says he actually wishes the floods came sooner. Unlike Krivdić, Musić returned to his birthplace in Prijedor in 1998, after fleeing Bosnia in 1992 to avoid the violent forces of ethnic cleansing.
Prijedor was one of the most violent towns during the war. It housed the infamous Omarska, Karaterm and Trnopolje concentrations camps set up by the local Serb authorities in 1992 to imprison the Bosniak and Croat population. Musić’s father was murdered in the town outside the Musić family home.
Yet despite the past and being unsure of how he will afford to renovate his flood-damaged home, Musić believes the floods have brought unity:
I am going to be blunt and say that I wish that these floods happened earlier. We needed this and I needed this feeling of unity and I needed these thousands of examples of human solidarity of Serbs, Bosniaks, Croats and all others.
It remains to be seen how this feeling – shared by many others – can be harvested to mobilise the people of Bosnia ahead of the general elections in October. Such a movement would have the potential to force corrupted political elites into the corner by draining them of their political capital.
At the same time, this would create an opening for a frank and honest dialogue about Bosnia’s bloody past – including perpetrators, bystanders, victims and all those in between. This would be the only solid foundation that could secure the future of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina.