“Baker from Lajkovac stoned over raised prices”, goes an unconfirmed piece of news spreading with each click on social networks this morning, to general approval. Yesterday, distressed people kept trying to uncover who sold water and rubber boots at three times their usual prices, furious and unable to choke their feelings. It’s a grave misfortune, we are overcome.
Cracks are showing in the fragile dams that keep community together in a civilized order, where procedures of impersonal but relentless justice apply even with the most severe and shameful acts. Serbian society has once again found itself on the merry-go-round of our morbid circus, leading us at full speed alternately into chaos and solidarity. We don’t know where it will stop this time and we feel we have no influence over the outcome.
State and para-state media flawlessly demonstrated what that persistent lament over the fate of journalism in Serbia really means. In the most critical moments, when information is exactly the thing that can push people either into mass hysteria or cooperation, there were barely a handful of journalists and editors who were able to not only ask a meaningful question – but to also find a person who can provide a meaningful answer.
Web sites of the most popular tabloids published photos from last year’s floods as striking images of currently flooded areas; they were seizing “exclusive” news and photos from social networks, not knowing who published them and from where; rumours of floating dead bodies, polluted water in Belgrade and emergency power cuts across the country travelled through the media and the streets, as in a vicious game of Chinese whispers. Decent people jumped at each other’s throats, threatening with criminal charges for disinformation.
Insane stories were emerging last night of hooligans from Belgrade and Novi Sad drunkenly screaming on the streets of Sabac, carrying flares and demanding local government to be forced out. Hundreds of dedicated people who came to this town on Sava river by organized or private transport, to defend the land, life, future… arrived to a dark, muddy and soaked nowhere, without water, boots, equipment, explanation. At the same time, terrified cries for help of lost, abandoned people whose lives were in danger came from Krupanj, Ub, Paracin and especially Obrenovac.
It is now useless to pose questions about rural and city canals that have been hastily cleaned of dumped home appliances or the sea of garbage that poured out from sewers and drainage basins; it is useless to ask about meteorological satellite feeds which were showing for days, if not weeks, formation of clouds that would soon pour record amount of rain over Serbia. Bombastic tabloid headlines from April – not even a month ago – with threats that someone would go to jail for the damage from (then) floods, are a bare testimony of yet another missed opportunity. Archive reports on smaller floods from the previous year or two, five, ten are of no use now.
Now it is just terrifying. Mortal fear is ruling the flooded areas and spreads through the society like a disease. From the flooded houses, from shattered roads and railways, destroyed crops, the panic echoes to the furthest parts of the country.
This is a situation when powers of rational thinking weaken, when even the calmest find it hard to resist mass madness. Besides traders who raised prices of the most popular goods and “agents” who deliberately misinformed the public, the target of mass anger and frustration were also panic-stricken citizens who started hoarding water and food, emptying the shops, “salon critics” with their objections to organization and chosen priorities of rescue actions, activists of opposing parties that defend or attack local authorities. And in Serbia it really is dangerous when pitchforks arise and torches crackle. The flood would hardly put them out.
In the end maybe this misfortune of “biblical” proportions, as it was falsely presented to the public, really couldn’t be prevented. Maybe it doesn’t really matter at all in what state are flood banks and canals kept or what kind of party fools took over local emergency headquarters and services. Maybe the peaceful streams would have turned over night into raging floods that can’t be stopped either way.
However, the social disaster is not the fate of genes, mentality or god’s will, but the result of dangerous – accidental or deliberate – acts and decisions on the spot.
There are several scenes brought by the flood of events that set the tone in a society struck by a severe crisis.
Regardless of the timeline, perhaps the most important among them are excerpts from TV reports taken at the emergency session of the government of Serbia held on Friday. The scenes last less than a minute and in them prime minister Aleksandar Vucic shouts senseless commands at his closest associates, heads of rescue and relief services on the ground (Sit down! Silence! You’re late!).
Besides the image of an arrogant man, that is unable to constrain his own feelings and agitated impressions even in a situation when there is no time for emotions, this failed exercise of strength unveiled the fact that prime minister’s closest associates, people whose expertise and skills decide the fate of lives and property of thousands of citizens – are actually incompetent idiots who can’t do anything but make notes of Vucic’s commands, because they are all just learning what needs to be done, at our expense.
A report on Vucic’s visit to Obrenovac, when the prime minister confessed to cameras how annoyed he was because of people refusing to evacuate, caused quite a disturbance. It was a repeated message about a nervous man who loses his composure in critical moments, because he doesn’t even realize what is happening around him. Any rookie fireman could have explained to him that terrified people can’t be expected to assess the danger rationally and that there are certain rescue skills to overcome the fear and mistrust of the people in danger. A third-rate PR advisor could have explained that revolted mumbling about a woman with three kids who refuses to evacuate is actually showing ignorance and insensitivity and not determination. That is if he had asked them.
Hysterical authoritarianism had consequences more severe than those to the public image of incompetent authorities. Apparently, experts balked at the prime minister’s arrogance since eventually nobody dared to professionally and responsibly order him to shut up when he started talking about numerous victims in Obrenovac – “which we shall not speak of” – to spread panic with incoherent statements about “war measures” in Sabac and possibilities of intentional dam ruptures to release the water “on the other side”; to cause unnecessary disturbance among the people willing to answer the calls to help Sabac.
On Friday Vucic acted theatrically as a chief commander of armed forces and an expert in hydraulic engineering, evacuation, all local communal services, international affairs, state supplies, crisis management, emergency services and everything else. Poor performance not only fuelled panic among the citizens – it simultaneously interfered with the performance of professional and trained services.
Dilettantism and voluntarism during natural disasters could lead to serious tragedies with their irrational stupidity, even when the intentions are good. On the other hand, social disasters – like, for example, the one in 2005 that followed the hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and other places in the south-east USA – could have significant political consequences for the community.
One of them seems to have already happened: understanding that people are not connected by illusions, but by interests of life, many of which become apparent to us only in the days of tragedy.
And those are the powers of our merry-go-round that in the past few days occasionally managed to unify us into cohesive and reasonable community. It was confirmed by the news that came early last night from improvised relief shelters – that people can stop bringing water, food, blankets, clothes, because shelters already got enough and that donations should be quickly diverted to where they are still needed.
Amateur radio broadcast network of solidarity provided the most accurate and the most important information; groups of enthusiasts set up interactive info-sites; twitter was full of information about rooms, flats, houses available to people from flooded areas.
Instead of a mindless media image of prime minister and members of his cabinet sprawling around evacuation helicopters and life boats, chocked in pathetic feelings, we should invoke the image of a lifeguard who gave his seat to a woman last night and stayed behind to wait for the next round, if it comes.
Undoubtedly, a terrible damage will remain in Serbia after the water withdraws. And maybe this time some sense too.
Translated by Marijana Simic