The perceptions and experiences of three different generations of women of Maglaj’s flood recovery.
Foto: Jim Marshall
Maglaj owes its very existence to the Bosna River and the fertile floodplains surrounding it as it flows towards the Sava River, around 90km to the north. Though the old town of Maglaj is situated safely on a hill above the river, the new town is built on one such plain. Since 1956, Maglaj’s economy has been greatly based on the “Natron” paper and pulp factory, with the obvious exception of the period from 1992-95, during which time the town was so isolated that food had to be airdropped into it.
Industrial activity has often had a devastating effect on water and air quality along the Bosna River valley. Accordingly, many people in the area believe that last year’s flooding was greatly intensified by aggressive, often illegal, deforestation of the hills surrounding the river, and by decades of waste being dumped into the river. Whatever the case may be, when the river rose up last May it did so to an extent never witnessed in the town’s recorded history..
Tons of debris in the same playground, May 2014
It was during the days and weeks following the May flooding of Maglaj that I first met Ševala ‘Lala' Begičević (born in 1954), Admira Bradarić (born in 1976) and Amila Omersoftić (born in 1997). It was during the evening of the 14th of May that the town flooded.
Was the town prepared for the floods?
“We were aware that there had been localised flooding in Zenica and we expected that the river might spill over the bank onto the roads that run parallel to it,” Lala recalls. “But simply we felt no serious threat because no public warnings were issued by any authorities in the town and no sirens were sounded. After the water overwhelmed the town, the last information I received from my daughter in Sarajevo was that helicopters and boats were being dispatched and I should put out a white sheet to alert them. But I stayed in my house which was flooded for three days and without electricity for three weeks.”
Lala at her home, July 2014. The line on the wall above her head was left by the floodwaters.
Amila attended a concert by Divanhana on the evening of the 14th of May. “When we got home there was already water in our basement. Within no time at all the water was a metre deep. My grandmother is invalid and my father suffers from diabetes, and it just so happened that we had no bread or water in the house. So when my father heard firemen outside in the dark he yelled to them to provide assistance because of my grandmother’s situation. But the reply came that we shouldn’t worry, it would all pass during the night and we should sleep easily. So we were left alone for three days, at which point they came for us in boats. Evacuations carried out by volunteers were effective, even if they didn’t know the geographical layout of the town. Otherwise, the official evacuation effort was a mess. People were told to hang out white sheets to signal an urgent need for help but this was then changed to red sheets. And all of this was immaterial because the emergency phone number was constantly unavailable. Informal groups of citizens, particularly online, proved far more effective at informing citizens of the situation than official channels and sources. For instance, Antenna Radio from Jelah was more dedicated and effective than all of the relevant authorities combined.”
Amila, September 2015
“Not only were we unprepared in the days and hours leading up to the floods, we also were never taught in school about the potential for flooding in Maglaj,” observes Admira. “It was always interesting to me that the railway here is raised and heads away from the river before it enters Maglaj. It is said that the railway has never once been flooded. Perhaps homes should never have been constructed in the space between the railway and the river.”
Admira, September 2015
After the waters receded, hundreds of volunteers descended daily upon the town to assist in the clean-up operation and to provide supplies, replacing rafters who had rescued people and distributed vital supplies during the flooding.
The clean-up operation, May 2014
As the days and weeks passed, more aid poured into the town through larger charitable and international relief organisations.
“People whose garages were not even flooded would run for the trucks, there were all kinds of tricks and games going on.” Amila remembers.
“For me it was awful that humanitarian support, given out of goodwill, would be transferred to warehouses and sold,” Admira agrees, “And how religious charities would selectively distribute aid. There were lots of dirty games and dealings after dark.”
Signs requesting help remain visible in abandoned buildings, 16 months after the floods
How effective has the distribution of recovery support been?
Lala is unimpressed. “I received 1,000 KM from the Red Cross but the local municipal authorities, whose headquarters are situated at the end of the street I live on, have never sent anyone to analyse or evaluate damage to homes on our street. So, like other people, I had to rely on support from informal, external sources.”
Lala at home a year after the floods, May 2015
“Some people are only now renovating their homes,” Amila notes. “The municipality claims that everyone received 1,000 KM and yet some people claim they received nothing. And TIKA, UNDP, Islamic Relief, and Catholic Relief Services would visit the same people in need, make promises and deliver nothing. Then you would find out that someone whose house was dilapidated before the floods because of the owner’s neglect, would be fully reconstructed to the highest standard of quality, by agencies such as these.”
Amila, September 2015
“There has been a total lack of coordination between these agencies, which has allowed abuse of the system,” claims Admira. “A house was renovated close to mine in which nobody lived before the floods. Now the owner wants to rent it out. I must say that these agencies produced great results in terms of large infrastructure projects such as schools, but their support to renovating private homes has been chaotic and mismanaged.”
Admira, September 2015
A renovated school, September 2015
“Last Wednesday morning 49 families blocked the entrance to the municipality building,” Lala observes. “One man had been promised support of 35,000 KM and has received nothing. People are of course desperate as they head towards another winter. They previously blocked the main road that runs past Maglaj. I hope that all such issues are settled as soon as possible.”
Admira remains disheartened by the ugly sides of human nature that have been evident over the period of the last 16 months. “It is a shame that greed and dirty tendering processes have resulted in undeserved gain for some and a total lack of support to others. But it was only to be expected, as, after all, it all began with exhausted rafters sleeping for 15 minutes only to have their boats stolen as they slept.”
In a world where climate change is producing more extreme climatic events on a far more frequent basis, have lessons been learned?
Amila is sceptical. “The only visible change is that an electronic display has been mounted on the bridge across the Bosna River, to display various parameters such as the depth of the water. But it already fails to function properly.
Amila by the Bosna River, September 2015
Admira concurs. “There is clearly a problem with the sewage system, which they say cannot be easily cleaned. It’s just an example of many problems that should be addressed but are not. A great many people, sitting in their armchairs, are ignorant and uneducated. They will only enter into trade that will directly benefit them individually. Everything else is of no concern to them.”
Admira at Galerija AB, her gallery in Maglaj, September 2015
Lala is in no doubt that Maglaj has learned little from the natural disaster that struck 16 months ago. “We have learned that humanitarian support mostly reaches a small elite. And, as we are increasingly a town devoid of young people, who will change such attitudes in the future?”
Lala, while visiting her daughter in Sarajevo, September 2015
Lala has one more observation on the events of the last 16 months. “My daughter saw my name on a list produced by Civil Protection that I had been evacuated, with details including my home address. So I went to tell them off and to ask to be removed from such a list, as this is absolutely untrue. I was informed that it could be to my benefit in the future if I were to remain on the list. However, I still insisted upon being removed.”
Maglaj, September 2015
This article was made as a part of the project "Investigative stories: Reconstruction after the floods in BiH". The project is implemented by Mediacentar Sarajevo and Transitions. The author of the article is responsible for the content. The stands in the article do not reflect the stands of Mediacentar Sarajevo and Transitions.