Bosnia, Serbia Flooding Kills At Least 25; 3,100 Landslides Reported

May 18, 2014

This image shows an aerial view of the flooded area near the Bosnian town of Brcko along the river Sava. (AP Photo/Bosnia Army)

At least 25 people have been killed and tens of thousands forced to flee their homes in the Balkans during the worst flooding in a century for the region. Three months' worth of rain has fallen on the region in three days this week, creating the worst floods since records began 120 years ago. Floodwaters triggered more than 3,000 landslides across the Balkans on Sunday, laying waste to entire towns and villages and disturbing land mines leftover from the region's 1990s war, along with warning signs that marked the unexploded weapons.

"A strong disturbance in the jet stream closed off into a swirling, stuck upper-level low near the Balkans, instead of sweeping through," said senior meteorologist Jon Erdman. "The result is persistent, flooding rainfall."

Authorities organized a frenzied helicopter airlift to get terrified families to safety before the water swallowed up their homes. Many were plucked from rooftops.

Floodwaters receded Sunday in some locations, laying bare the full scale of the damage. Elsewhere, emergency management officials warned that the water would keep rising into Sunday night.

"The situation is catastrophic," said Bosnia's refugee minister, Adil Osmanovic.

As the Sava River swells, additional communities could be taken out by the floodwaters. The cities of Orasje and Brcko in northeast Bosnia, where the Sava River forms the natural border with Croatia, were in danger of being overwhelmed. Officials in Brcko ordered six villages to be evacuated.

Rescuers urged people to go to the balconies or rooftops of their houses with bright fabric to make themselves visible.

Brcko Mayor Anto Domic said that unless the Bosnian Army is able to reinforce from the air, the city will be flooded completely. He called for the Defense Ministry to use helicopters to lower steel barriers that could be backed by sandbags to contain the water.

"It is a very demanding task," he said, acknowledging that officials would have no other way to protect the port city of more than 70,000.

Bosnia has already been particularly hard hit by the floods. Almost a third of the entire country, home to nearly a million people, was submerged Sunday. At least 17 people have died in Bosnia alone, a number that's only expected to grow as the flood waters recede and bodies continue to be recovered.

Even if some homes have escaped the worst of the flooding, others have been taken out by some of the 3,100 landslides—2,100 in Bosnia and an additional 1,000 in Serbia—that have occurred over the past four days, triggered by the tremendous amount of water that has destabilized and shifted the earth.

A landslide in the Bosnian village of Horozovina split the town in two, swallowing at least eight houses, including Mesan Ikanovic's.

"I am homeless. I have nothing left, not even a toothpick," Ikanovic told the Associated Press. "I ran out of the house barefoot, carrying children in my arms."

At least 100 other homes in Horozovina are under threat from additional landslides, a reality felt across much of the country. Roads, railways and other infrastructure have been submerged or swept away by the landslides and flooding.

On Saturday, at least 10,000 people were evacuated in northeast Bosnia after a river broke through flood defenses and inundated the town of Bijeljina.

"We need everything, we are under water," Bijeljina mayor Mico Micic said.

Many towns have been completely cut off from aid efforts because bridges and roads have simply washed away. Those towns rely exclusively on rescues from helicopters in order to free people trapped in their homes.

Although some of the flood waters have receded in parts of Bosnia, the water draining into rivers, like the Sava River, continues to expand the banks, inundating other areas. To the east, in neighboring Croatia, the Sava River has breached flood defenses and flooded villages, sweeping away at least two people.

But to the west of Bosnia, in neighboring Serbia, the flooding has been just as catastrophic. At least 8 have died and more than 20,000 others evacuated from flooding. Serbian officials fear that the flooding will only worsen as the Sava River continues to swell downstream in the country. Water levels in the Sava River are expected to peak over the next two days, threatening even more villages and homes.

(MORE: What to Do If You're Caught in a Flash Flood)

"What happened to us happens not once in 100 years, but once in 1,000 years," Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said at a government meeting broadcast live on Serbian television. "But it should be over by Wednesday."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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