Rescue efforts in the flooded Serbian town of Obrenovac. Photo by Giorgos Moutafis
The Balkans is currently suffering flooding of biblical proportions – the worst since records began. Three months’ worth of rain fell in a mere couple of days, sinking around half the country, forcing tens of thousands from their homes and causing untold damage to already crumbling infrastructure. Flooding was worst in provincial towns in Serbia and Bosnia that sit on the banks of the Sava River, but also affected parts of Croatia. Looking at maps of the crisis zone, it looks like the Miocene era Pannonian Sea made a sudden reappearance – a chillingly prophetic image in a week where we were told that the melting western Antarctic ice sheet has passed the point of no return.
In Serbia, the government's response to the catastrophe has been the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters and high school motivational posters. The government sent out a call for volunteers on Friday to fill sandbags, build makeshift river defences and assist in the rescue effort. They expected maybe 500 people to show up, but within a few hours around 12,500 had willingly mobilised in Belgrade alone. People leant boats and cars to rescue teams, Taxi companies waived fares for anyone heading towards a crisis zone, food banks and aid points sprung up in sports halls, tonnes upon tonnes of food, clothing and hygienic supplies were donated – all in a country where the average wage sits at about 350 Euros a month. Hotels opened their doors to house the displaced, Partizan and Red Star’s eternally warring hooligan firms stood side by side on the front, while volunteers were regularly turned away because quotas were full. Russia sent the first international reinforcements, but help quickly came from of Croatia, Slovenia and Albania – countries that were foes a mere 20 years ago.
But Belgrade’s Twitterati have lobbed scorn at the western media for what they perceive as an insulting lack of coverage. Upon winning the Italian Open Title (and donating his entire winnings to flood relief), Serbia’s tennis racket-wielding folk hero, Novak Djokovic, tutted disapprovingly at rolling news networks for treating our sunken populace like a footnote.
Unfortunately there’s not enough awareness of what’s going on,” sighed Djokovic. “I see on CNN and BBC and other big networks there’s a lot of talk about the miners in Turkey and so forth and it’s another disaster, but no broadcast about Serbia… and this is the biggest flood that I’ve ever seen and maybe that Europe has ever seen. This is incredible. So I hope people can find the common sense and broadcast this a little bit and spread the awareness of what’s going on.
And he kind of had a point. For an organisation more accustomed to swatting away accusations of left-wing bias, the BBC absurdly displayed the geographical acumen of Godfrey “bongo-bongo land” Bloom when originally filing their report on the floods under the "Africa" tab on their website.
By Monday, with relief centres were largely over-stocked with free labour and most supplies readily available – baby food, nappies, hygienic essentials, medicine and underwear excluded – local, e-Samaritans focuses their energies toward the PR effort to bring our plight to the world’s attention.
Amongst a frenzy of mass hash-tagging and advertising agency-led social media humanitarianism, online activists even lobbied Google to show some solidarity by donating a Google Doodle to the cause. Unfortunately, Sergey Brin and co. didn’t quite see a once-a-millennium natural disaster as noteworthy as the anniversary of the coldest temperature ever recorded in Canada on the 3rd of February or Dubai’s winning bid for Expo 2020 on the 28th of November 28, 2013. Instead of a Gdoodle, we got a small black ribbon underneath the google.rs search bar that’s only visible if you set your alphabet to Cyrillic. So much for international attention. But that’s kind of understandable – If the World Cup preparations are anything to go by Dubai’s preparations for the Expo measuring contest are probably going to claim more under-paid foreign lives than the average natural disaster. Get in there early, Google!
While these efforts are all very noble, they’re also naïve. Log onto a news homepage on any given day and you’ll have the maimed hands of Syrian children reaching out to smear your retinas with their blood. Just this morning I read about a bombing in Xianjing, China that killed 31 people, and another one in Nigeria with roughly the same head count. The latter is a follow up by militant flavour of the month, Boko Haram, to their double car bomb in Jos, central Nigeria that killed 118 people on Tuesday. Currently, the combined death toll in Serbia and Bosnia officially sits at 25.
I’m not arguing that media coverage of global disasters should be an X Factor style misery contest, where clap-o-meters are replaced with devices that measure the wailing of grief-stricken mothers, but in an era of rolling news and 24-hour web access, our senses are so bludgeoned by tragedy that we have to numb ourselves to human suffering. Technology practically allows me to follow the developments of the Ukrainian conflict in real-time. While I can comprehend it all intellectually, on an emotional level the dead protesters or shot soldiers are barely more real than the hookers I mow down in Grand Theft Auto. Can you imagine how depressed you would be if you really took this stuff in?
I’ve always dodged charity muggers and treat Kony hunters with utter contempt (and will continue to do so), but on Saturday I went to my local supermarket and spent nearly half my monthly salary on two suitcases full of supplies for my local pop-up crisis centre. It wasn’t until I could touch tragedy, until I could cry with co-workers that lost everything, that I was pushed into doing something. We can’t possibly mourn all the bad shit that happens in the world. If we did, reading a newspaper would be more draining than watching Grave of the Fireflies whilst on a come-down.
News organisations are consistently looking for ways to bring their viewers closer to the heart of the crisis, and we might be more informed than ever before, but every technological step forward only widens the emotional demilitarised zone that protects our psyche from our media-saturated environment. Ultimately, this is the crux of the problem for Balkans e-activists, more coverage probably wouldn’t achieve more than pointless clicktivism because we’re past the point of peak grief.
My new found perspective on catastrophe brings me to a worrying conclusion: the difficulty with responding to it only when it has sunk in emotionally is that it’s ultimately a reactive gesture rather than a pre-emptive one. Going back to last week’s news on the melting western Antarctic ice sheet, it's clear that intellectually we’ve been well aware of the threat posed by climate change for a long time, but when that realisation crosses finally makes the leap into our emotions, it’ll be far too late.