Devastating Floods Have Uncovered Land Mines and Mass Graves in the Balkans

After years of grappling with a dark history, a natural disaster is a reminder of Bosnia's ruinous past.

Mostar area, Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Photo: Etienne De Malgaive/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Jun 30, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Less than two decades after one of Europe’s most horrific conflicts came to a close, remnants of past destruction have resurfaced in Bosnia and Herzegovina thanks to the worst flooding the region has seen in more than 100 years. Floodwaters in the area have slowly receded since the end of May, dislodging land mines and unearthing a mass grave of ethnic-cleansing victims from the early 1990s that have been stark reminders of a conflict that Bosnians need no help remembering.

“This disaster comes just 17 years after an absolutely destructive war. Bosnia had terrible human loss and then had terrible loss of infrastructure,” said Gordan Srkalovic, president of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

While this kind of destruction would overwhelm any community, it is particularly challenging for a country with an already weak economy. Only months ago, frustrated Bosnians took to the streets to protest the corruption and political gridlock that has worsened income inequality and contributed to an unemployment rate of nearly 30 percent. Many people didn’t have property insurance, leaving them with nothing when floods destroyed their homes.

The three months of rain not only displaced 1 million Bosnians, floodwaters also shifted the dangerous terrain of carefully marked minefields. About 120,000 mines linger in these Balkan soils from the early 1990s, creating decades of risky work for organizations such as Bosnia’s Mine Action Center, which works to survey, mark, and remove the mines.

According to the United Nations Development Program in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosnia is the most mine-polluted country in Southeast Europe. Since the end of the conflict, leftover mines have claimed the lives of approximately 2,000 people.

In the flood’s aftermath, one mine exploded in the northern city of Brčko in late May. While no one was injured, the incident heightened concerns that more devices could detonate without warning as the cleanup process continues. Some of the thousands of remaining mines are made of plastic, which means they can easily be washed down the Sava River with the floodwaters.

Experts from the international community are working together to locate and mark the dislodged mines and educate those who have returned to flood-ravaged homes to begin to rebuild. Meanwhile, the UNDP and the Red Cross have mobilized relief efforts across the affected region.

Srkalovic was visiting the country from the U.S. for the academy’s annual meeting when the floodwaters broke, wreaking havoc throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Croatia.

“After 17 years, we could see that the infrastructure was at least partially rebuilt, and now we have another catastrophe. This was really a double whammy of biblical proportions,” Srkalovic said.

Although humanitarian aid is not a primary goal of his group, when Srkalovic and his colleagues found themselves in the midst of the flooding, they immediately kicked off a fund-raising campaign, collecting donations online. Srkalovic anticipates that most of the money will go to longer-term rebuilding efforts, with an emphasis on health care and medical infrastructure.

Other local organizations have focused on immediate emergency relief. In neighboring Slovenia, humanitarian nonprofit Zavod Krog worked with a host of organizations to collect more than 146 tons of donations for displaced survivors of the flood.

While these and other organizations sprang into action, many people, particularly in North America, remained oblivious to the tragedy that displaced tens of thousands of people and took more than 75 lives in the region. Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic implored viewers of the Italian Open semifinals to pay attention and took mainstream media such as CNN and the BBC to task for their minimal coverage of the floods. More than 20,000 people signed an online petition urging CNN to increase national coverage, pointing out that its home base of Atlanta is also the home of one of the United States’ largest populations of Bosnian refugees.

“There was a genuine effort by American media to cover [the flooding],” Srkalovic said, noting that a local TV station in his town of Lansing, Mich., reached out for an interview. “But there needs to be more now, particularly in the post-tragedy period, to help people understand and increase donation efforts.” In a world of competing disaster coverage, one event rarely gets the spotlight for long.

While some American media outlets could have paid more attention, Emina Hadžić, director of Zavod Krog, felt the local media presence was almost too strong. “At times there were six to eight journalists from one [Slovenian] TV station. This was too much,” she said. “But the problem will come in August and September, when everyone forgets about this.”

As people in Bosnia slowly return to their homes, a long road lies ahead. “They are cleaning their houses, their cities; they are doing their best. They are really patient,” said Hadžić. “But I know that they will need a lot of help.” The flooding wiped out the country’s main agriculture industry in the north and decimated its transportation infrastructure, with estimated recovery costs exceeding $36 million.

Though the flood’s impact is catastrophic, Srkalovic sees a bright spot for a country that has been torn apart by intolerance and tension between ethnicities. “There was no division among Serbs, Croats, and Muslims; everyone was running to help each other.”

“It was a kind of blessing in disguise,” he said. “I think [the flooding] helped people to understand that they have to live together and help each other, because when catastrophes like this happen, you cannot wait and look to the sky or look 1,000 miles away for help. Help comes from your neighbors.”