‘The material damage caused by the floods is far worse than after the war,’ Vedad Pašić from the Tuzla Plenum tells us on Skype, and I’m so shaken by this I hardly hear the rest of what he says.
We’re at a Bosnia Solidarity Meeting at Brighton University; a meeting that was planned long ago, before the disastrous floods had hit large parts of the Balkans. It was supposed to focus on the uprising that erupted with the protests of early February, but is inevitably coloured by the large-scale disaster in the form of the worst floods the region has seen in 120 years.
In the face of tragedy, people rallied together and helped each other without regard for the divisions that had been wedged between them for over two decades. It isn’t just neighbours helping neighbours either. People travel to the affected areas from other parts of the country—among them people who came to Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) during the war or after it, helped rebuild the country then and have already started rebuilding it now.
‘The networks that had emerged with the uprising and the plenums have now transformed into a sort of humanitarian aid organisation,’ Damir Arsenijević tells us, having just stepped out of a relief coordination meeting to take the call with us. ‘The plenums created the conditions for this kind of solidarity.’
Vedad and Damir are among a group of young lecturers and academics who received part of their education abroad before returning to BiH. They’re among a group of people very critical of the political and academic establishments for their corruption and perpetuation of ethnic divisions. This is where the plenum movement came from and this is why all the plenums call themselves ‘plenums of citizens’—because people are fed up with the destructive ethnic divisions that have turned BiH into a democracy without citizens (and if you’re asking yourself, ‘what kind of a democracy is that?’—exactly).
With criticism raining down on the authorities for their failure to warn, prepare and quickly reach out to the population in the affected areas, their depletion of reserves meant for just such disasters and not least their gross mismanagement of natural resources and structures like dams, it seems that the citizens’ networks are the new infrastructure: ‘In fact,’ Damir says, ‘the floods have washed away all distinctions right now. No one cares whether you’re from a party, a trade union, the government, or a plenum. If you can help, that’s all that matters.’
The work ahead of them is tremendous, and the danger hasn’t fully passed yet. Countless landslides across the country have moved mine fields and their markers, further endangering lives. ‘In Tuzla Canton alone, there are 741 active landslides,’ Damir tells us. ‘The whole city is wobbling.’
Even as he talks about the tragedy of the retraumatisation of the population, he seems full of adrenaline. ‘This is going to stay with us for the next 20-30 years. The attention of the international community will wane, but we need to think long-term. Right now, there are 1.4 million people affected, massive areas without drinking water, thousands of dead cattle floating, the risk of disease spreading… the most urgent needs sometimes change by the minute. I guess we’re still in shock,’ he says, probably confirming what everyone in the room is thinking.
When asked about government response, he calls it ‘shabby and slow’ and adds: ‘If it had been up to them, people would be dead.’ However, he says that things were better on the municipal level and that cities were quick to reach out to neighbouring cities.
This year, which has already seen massive changes—first the uprising, now the floods—is also election year in BiH. How is that going to pan out for the establishment? ‘I can’t imagine the ethno-nationalist system being able use its old tropes now, especially after the floods,’ Asim Mujkić, a lecturer from Sarajevo says. ‘One of the greatest achievements of the plenums was to create new channels of communication and diminish the support for ethno-nationalist divisions,’ he explains, pointing out the fact that the solidarity and the way people are organising right now completely disregard those divisions. ‘And the floods, too, will bring new forms of cooperation,’ he adds.
The more regular work of the plenums is not completely halted, however. ‘Six people have been arrested for the February protests and we’re supporting them and their families,’ Damir tells us. ‘At the same time, we have to keep an eye out for any attempt to use this state of emergency to pass dubious legislation. You have to be very vigilant,’ he adds before signing off.
(Photo from 6yka.com)