'We Are Left With Nothing, Again'

First ethnic violence, now flooding. Can Kosovar Serbs catch a break?

BELGRADE, Serbia — As Bozidarka Vuckovic sat on a donated mattress on the sticky floor of a Belgrade shelter, she found herself displaced for the second time in 15 years. Around her were rows of mattresses identical to hers, strewn across the floor, covered with dozing families and plastic bags of salvaged belongings. The velour sweat suit she wore was frayed at the edges and deep, dark circles framed her eyes. Occasional sobs shook her rail-thin shoulders as she rocked her three-year-old son Darko in a bid to soothe him. Since the floods, all the boy wanted to do was sleep. But often he woke up screaming, dreamed he was drowning.

Two weeks earlier, during the catastrophic flooding that swept through the Balkans, Vuckovic had watched as the rising waters submerged her house in Obrenovac, about 18 miles southwest of Belgrade. Vuckovic, a Kosovar Serb, had come to the town in 1999, seeking refuge from the ethnic violence that gripped Kosovo at the time. Now, the life she had built there, with her two children and their father, was swept away in the worst floods to hit Serbia in more than a century. Vuckovic had ended up in a crowded makeshift shelter yet again.

"I have survived a lot. I survived Kosovo, I survived the bombings, and now I survived the floods," said Vuckovic, 36, with eyes fixed on a cell phone video of her flooded one-storey home, only the red tiles on the roof visible above the muddy water. "But I don't think I can survive any more. We are left with nothing, again. There are no windows, no doors, no walls. It feels like we keep losing everything, again and again."

In mid-May the amount of rain that the Balkans usually sees in three months came down in just three days, triggering the floods. As many as three million people across the region were affected and at least 74 died. In Serbia, Obrenovac was hit the hardest as the swollen Kolubara River burst its banks and submerged the area. The municipality's 70,000 residents were evacuated, many after waiting days to be rescued by boats. Others, like Vuckovic and her family, were trapped in the town and had to be flown to safety with choppers.

The floods completely destroyed 92 houses and rendered 161 residential buildings uninhabitable, according to Serbia's Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic. Since then, the waters have receded and the international media has moved on to other crises, but those who lost everything are still reeling from the blow.

Many of those hit hardest by the floods are, like Vuckovic, Kosovo refugees thrown into displacement for the second time in a decade and a half. As a UN resolution ended decades of persecution of Albanian Kosovars by Serbian forces in 1999, extremists seeking revenge retaliated with riots, kidnappings, and brutal attacks aimed at ethnic Serbs and Roma. As a result, an estimated 210,000 fled Kosovo and sought refuge in Serbia to escape the violence. 

But Serbia, still struggling to cope with the half a million refugees who poured into the country from Croatia and Bosnia in the mid-90's, had little to offer the new wave of displaced. Many were crammed into makeshift temporary shelters in schools, living with poor sanitation and little humanitarian aid. When the state began to return the shelters to their original uses, some refugees were left with no choice but to sleep in city parks.

"In Serbia, the refugees have been long neglected by the state," said Florian Bieber, a professor and the director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz in Austria. "They were kind of an unwelcome reminder that the wars were lost."

The refugee population has been fragile since they arrived in Serbia. According to UNHCR data, 242 "extremely vulnerable" refugees from Kosovo had settled in Obrenovac prior to the floods, but the agency says the number is much higher when unregistered refugees are taken into account.

Through intensive integration programs and concerted international efforts, their situation seemed to be slowly improving in recent years. In the last decade, the Serbian government has invested roughly $76 million into integrating and housing those displaced by the Balkan conflicts of the 1990's. The country is also set to spend another $450 million building housing for refugees over the next three years through the Regional Housing Programme, a multi-donor project involving partners like the European Union, the U.S, and UNHCR. With the help of such programs, most of those who fled from Kosovo to Obrenovac had secured some form of housing and stability. But many have been thrown back into uncertainty by the floods.

"In the last 15 years, they tried to get themselves in a better position, get some kind of jobs, become citizens of Serbia," said Sladjana Dimic, a spokesperson for Red Cross Serbia. "Now they once again have to start from the very beginning. It's the story of many, many people in Obrenovac." 

But a month after the floods, few strides have been made getting refugees resettled. About 1,500 people still remain in the 24 temporary shelters across Belgrade. Another 17,000 are being housed by relatives and friends, according to the Red Cross. Last week, authorities began moving the displaced to yet another facility, a set of former army barracks in Obrenovac, where 460 adults and 71 children now live in cramped conditions.

"The idea is to remove them from Belgrade to Obrenovac," said Dimic. "But there is no capacity in Obrenovac to accommodate them and they don't have any possibility to go back to their homes because, for many of them, there is nothing left."

For most of those now living in shelters, the cost of rebuilding what they lost is impossibly high. Many barely scrape by with their monthly earnings, yet now will have to cope with losses totaling between $9,500 and $16,000. But recovery is likely to be an even bigger feat for those experiencing displacement for the second time. More than 40 percent of Kosovo refugees in Serbia live on $120 to $230 per month, according to a 2011 report by the UNHCR. A third are also unemployed, compared to an average rate of 19 percent among the general Serbian population. The displaced are also more likely to suffer from long-term unemployment: 69 percent have been out of work for over a year. 

"In a certain way, the floods compounded what was an already precarious situation in Serbia," said Bieber, who has worked extensively on minority issues in Serbia and Bosnia. "The refugees were already at the margins of society...Many are without income and the floods have made it very difficult for them to re-attain the little that they had. The floods just gave them another push downward."

Although the Serbian government has not offered special help to refugees, it has promised extensive assistance to those affected by the floods. As of June 6, $33.41 million  in aid had been transferred to the accounts of the Serbian government for flood relief, according to figures released by the Ministry of Finance. Crews also began visiting affected communities and evaluating the damage in early June, but it's still unclear when and how the aid will be distributed.

But many of those familiar with displacement remain skeptical that the money will trickle down to them at all. Branislava Nedeljkovic, a Romani who also fled Kosovo in 1999, is afraid they will be forgotten once the panic around the floods dies down. With no income, she has no way to rebuild her Obrenovac home, which was completely destroyed by the floods.

"They just make big promises, but they don't care what happens to us," said Nedeljkovic, 58, from the makeshift shelter in Belgrade's Pionir Arena two weeks after the floods. "Our house is broken to pieces, the whole thing collapsed. We have nowhere to go. We have to rebuild our lives again and how do you rebuild when you have no money?" 

The concerns of those like Nedeljkovic aren't unrealistic. According to Bieber, refugees may, in fact, get passed up for government assistance because they often lack proper documentation of what they have lost.

"A lot of the housing that refugees built was informal, illegal or not properly documented," he said. "There are usually no insurance policies, no proper records, which makes it difficult for the state to act. I would share the concern of those affected by the floods that they may not get much help."

Vuckovic, too, worries how she will recover once again. Her family doesn't have an income and she said they cannot afford to repair the damage to their home. With two small children, Vuckovic is afraid to end up on the street.

"We have nowhere to go and that scares me," she says. "I'm not scared for me because I have been through worse. But I am scared for my children."

Additional reporting by Milica Vukelic.


Democracy Lab

In Yemen, A Revolution in Reverse

A fuel crisis prompts worries that the old regime is exploiting instability to bring itself back to power.

SANAA, Yemen — On June 10, tribesmen in Yemen's Marib province attacked a power plant that supplies Sanaa, the capital with the bulk of its electricity, plunging the city into darkness. A day later, as diesel power generators ran out of fuel, festering frustration with the deteriorating security and feeble economy boiled over. Groups of young men started blocking off first small side streets and then major roads in Sanaa with barricades of burning tires. Plumes of smoke rose above the city as those cars that had fuel found themselves snarled up in seemingly never-ending traffic jams. Soldiers appeared on the streets clad in riot gear, firing live ammunition over the heads of protestors at Tahrir Square in central Sanaa.

For many in Yemen, the past few months have been an increasingly unwelcome reminder of the darkest days of 2011. Then, as infighting between former allies in the regime of President Saleh threatened to tear the country apart, the economy ground to a halt. Supply of electricity, fuel, and water dwindled, and prices shot up -- at least, where basic goods were available. Neighbors fought one another over liters of water. The poverty rate rose above 50 percent, where it has been stubbornly stuck ever since. Three years on, lines over half a mile long stretch out from gas stations in the capital, Sanaa. Electricity supply is erratic at best. In some parts of the city, lights flicker on for a few minutes at a time before cutting out again. The cost of black market fuel has doubled, as has the price of non-government supply water.

The security situation is also unsteady. The military has been fighting two inconclusive campaigns, against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the local franchise of the radical Islamist group, in the south, and the Houthis, a militant Zaydi Shiite revivalist movement, in the northern province of Amran that borders Sanaa. Assassinations, terrorist attacks, and kidnappings are a day-to-day occurrence across the country.

In 2011 protestors called for a new president and system; on June 11, they called for the restoration of Yemen's old order. Some demanded that Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Yemen's president since February 2012 who has been overseeing a troubled transition to federal democracy, step down. Others took aim at the country's interim prime minister, Mohammed Salem Basindwah, who has come to symbolize the weak management of Yemen's economy. "Salam Allah al-Afash," came another chant: "May Allah's Peace be on al-Afash." The chant was a reference to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh's proper surname, which was a state secret for much of his time in power, but is now used to signal his humble origins and his status as a man of the people as he undergoes a remarkable reinvention from despised autocrat to fondly remembered former leader.

This new unrest is creating an opening for Yemen's many opposing factions to pick up where they left off three years ago, and will potentially bring the country's experiment in political transition to a sudden halt. It is, says one observer, "2011 in reverse."

But not everyone buys this story. People in Hadi's camp see the current crisis as a carefully orchestrated attempt to bring down the president -- who formally succeeded Saleh in a one-man election in February 2012 -- and derail Yemen's internationally-backed political transition. According to several people with knowledge of the president's thinking say, Hadi is convinced that groups linked to Saleh are behind the attacks on a vital oil export pipeline and a power station in Marib, a view that is backed by officials at the state oil company that operates the pipeline. "These attacks are coming from groups who are being paid by people with interests in seeing big problems in Yemen," an executive at the oil firm says.

The attacks have cut off a vital revenue stream from oil exports. Additional attacks on the country's main refinery in Aden have forced the government to import fuel from international markets and sell it at a loss at heavily subsidized prices, incurring considerable losses. These tribesmen, backed by shadowy interest groups in Sanaa, are the ones causing the fuel crisis and wider economic woes, officials at the finance and oil ministries say.

People close to the president are clear on who is to blame for the burgeoning crisis. "There is no doubt," a senior presidential advisor, who asks to remain anonymous, told me, "that what happened [on June 11] was in preparation for a coup. It was organized by a certain group within Saleh's circle."

According to the advisor, whose claims are supported by several other government officials, this group bussed people into Sanaa the night before the protests and distributed the tires used to set up the roadblocks at strategic points across the city. (In the photo above, Yemenis construct roadblocks at the start of the June 11 protests.) They also printed thousands of posters featuring Saleh's face in preparation for what they hoped would become a huge protest movement, the advisor said.

Hadi's response to the protests was to reshuffle the cabinet to bring in new ministers of finance, oil, electricity, and foreign affairs, including several people he believes are loyal to him. He promised to bring fuel and power back to the capital, and sent members of his presidential security detail to shut down Yemen Today, a television channel run by Saleh's General People's Congress (GPC) party. The channel had been used to direct the protests, the advisor claims. "They were announcing that on Zubairi street there are no demonstrations and so on," he says. "They were sending a message telling people where to go."

Two days later, Hadi sent loyalist troops to seize control of Ali Abdullah Saleh Mosque, the former president's $60 million monument to himself that towers over the Sanaa skyline. According to the advisor, the mosque and its grounds were used to plan and stage the June 11 protests, and were being used to store broadcast equipment that might have been used to return Yemen Today to the air. "They wanted to take the equipment out, but the army prevented them," he says.

The protests have abated, for now at least. Yet the fact that Hadi can do little to stop the attacks, or to bring Saleh properly to heel, speaks volumes about the precariousness of his position. The government continues to pay tribesmen in Marib tens of millions of dollars to stop the attacks and allow engineers to repair the damaged infrastructure without fear of harm. Many tribesmen call the oil and electricity ministries hours before the attacks to let them know they are coming, sources at the electricity, oil, and interior ministries say, but the military does nothing. Rather than arresting the people behind the June 11 unrest, Hadi is said to be in negotiations to allow Yemen Today to return to the air after moderating its content.

While the economic crisis may well be man-made, it is still very real and continues to threaten Yemen's stability. The fact remains that two and a half years after Saleh agreed to step down, Yemenis have seen little improvement in their day-to-day lives, leaving many yearning for the return of life before the Arab Spring and a strongman in Saleh's mold.

Saleh's people may have started the unrest on June 11 but many of those who took the streets had nothing to do with him or his party, and this is something that should trouble Hadi. "Under Saleh, things were bad, but now they are so much worse," said Ahmed, a 23-year-old from Taiz who took part in a protest near Yemen's Tahrir Square. "I took part in the protests in 2011 and I don't want him to come back, but we need someone like him: Someone strong."