"The floods came like insatiable beasts"

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“In September 2012, I spent a day in Odžak, Bosnia, reporting a story for the New Yorker about Balkan Endemic Nephropathy, a mysterious kidney disease that only affects isolated agrarian communities in Bulgaria, Romania, and former Yugoslavia. I was traveling with my father, a nephrologist who used to study this rare disease in the late 1980s, before research was suspended by the war.

The Croatian and Bosnian endemic regions were right next to each other, but everything seemed more difficult in Bosnia. Fewer patients had access to kidney transplants. Medical equipment was a bit older. Research was impeded by more bureaucratic obstacles. The nephrologist at the Odžak hospital didn’t speak English, but had hired a translator for the day: Željko Paradžik, a young law graduate from the village of Prud. We spent the afternoon touring the endemic villages together, interviewing patients and their families, and tramping around the cornfields and wetlands, looking for poisonous weeds. Željko was so helpful and conscientious that I put him in touch with the photographer I was working with, and they later toured the region together. They even made a stop at a Bosnian monastery, where I had heard that the monks might have death records with information about the disease. Željko talked his way into the monastery so that the photographer could take a few shots of the death records, before the monks kicked them out. 

Last Tuesday, I woke up to find an email from Željko about the devastation of his village, Prud, by the worst flooding in decades. (All the Balkan nephropathy regions are prone to flooding, and floods may contribute to causing the disease.) He told me that the whole region we had visited together was under water, that he had lost his home, that his three cats were trapped in the attic, and that he was planning a “rescue mission.” In the subsequent days, newspapers have carried reports of “tons of animal carcasses” stagnating in the water, and of twenty-year-old landmines dislodged by the floods. There have also been reports of unexpected solidarity among the region’s once embattled peoples—of Montenegro and Macedonia sending money, volunteers, and diving and medical teams; of the Serbian tennis champion Novak Djokovic donating the prize money from the Rome Masters and raising funds for Bosnia and Croatia, as well as for Serbia. It’s good to know that, even when history seems to be running in a loop, things don’t always happen exactly the same way. In a certain sense, it’s better to lose your home in a flood, than in a fire set by your neighbor. But, in another sense, it isn’t really all that different.

Over the past week, in the downtime from trying to save people and animals, Željko has been writing an account of his experiences. I hope that his moving words will bring support to his home for the long road ahead.”

—Elif Batuman

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Beacon Light from Odžak in Bosnia

BY ŽELJKO PARADŽIK 

Disastrous floods ravaged Bosnia last week. It took cities, villages and everything that was alive and had no chance of escaping such a monstrous pile of water, debris and rain. It looked like the entire atmosphere was against us and was seeking to obliterate us. The thought of salvation was narrowly bright. This was second time the people of Bosnia had to experience something as perilous as the gory war almost two decades ago. The floods came like insatiable beasts who were determined to devour everything—we and our entire infrastructure violently chewed in its mouth.

With their meager defenses, Bosnia’s small communities were hit hardest, especially in the areas surrounded by rivers. When the water wound up in the small municipality of Odžak—a plain area in the North crossed by two large rivers, Sava and Bosna—we were stranded and alone in our fight. We had no means for handling the power of the water, no way of corresponding so as to receive help. We were cut off from others as the two rivers were cataclysmically plunging in with great velocity, along with the water from the rapidly harrowed places in the higher parts of country, which had been hit first.

The long-term consequences are bleak in this place of frail budgetary and industrial infrastructures. Our plight initially received no media coverage, and the situation was mostly in hands of locals and some scarce help from a rescuing team from Croatia. Without anyone to blame, news simply travelled too late. Once the cry was heard, everything had become one big lake.

In my village, Prud, located along two rivers, we felt like cats in a bag that were about to be thrown into a river to drown. We were minuscule before this ancient force. Ground was melting away like ice, and armies of debris took us down. Then the water conquered other villages: Zorice, Vojskova, Dubica, Novo Selo, Osječak, Ada and Svilaj. It hit the neighboring city of Bosanski Šamac in the Republic Of Srpska. All of us were refugees within hours—thousands of people now homeless, sick and socially endangered. After a hectic evacuation, we were embraced and given improvised shelters by the kind people of Odžak, and those in nearby towns that had not been ruined by the storms.

We began to count the human casualties. The majority of the wildlife and domestic animals were drowned. The hospitals were full and staff and supplies insufficient. After three days, Odžak began to get outside help as news slowly spread.

Due to the fact that the Posavina region (comprising Odžak and Orašje) is an area of rivers, animals and forest, there is a great risk that deadly diseases could reach epidemic proportions, given the smothered animals, insects and high temperatures. Most of the water is still there. People are eager to return to their homes, yet the water destroyed dams, bridges, roads, electricity and houses. Resuming normal life seems impossible. The people of Bosnia have once again suffered a collective psychological shock, and many of us are simply too old to begin to build anew without a strong system to reach our hands to.