Emergency situation (and not state of emergency, as some media kept reporting) has been in effect for exactly one week in Serbia. The water is slowly withdrawing from the flooded areas, fewer and fewer people’s lives are in danger. According to the few independent media, as the water withdraws, another flood is rising – the flood of questions about responsibility for what was happening during the past seven days.
Field reports made it clear that officials were completely caught by surprise by the situation – evacuation, rescue and care of the threatened people were chaotic. It seems that the officials – the prime minister and ministers – were competing to show off their skills of “improvisation” in an emergency situation. For example, at critical moments, the prime minister was unloading water and blankets for the endangered, and the minister of police was removing trees and lops from the road. We were informed that the country is struck by a natural disaster, that nothing could have been done to prevent that and that, in this situation, it is necessary that everybody does what they can and salvage what they can.
At least two documents prove that improvisation in a case of natural disaster is not a necessity, but a consequence of a serious failure: the Law on emergency situations and National strategy of protection and rescue in emergency situations. The law clearly states who is in charge of protecting of people, property and environment in natural disasters, i.e. who is responsible for the decisions that were made, but also for those that weren’t made, but ought to have been. The law and the strategy clearly state who is responsible and in what way for what happened in Serbia.
Let’s start from the beginning.
What is an emergency situation
Emergency situation on the territory of Republic of Serbia is declared by the decision of the Government, immediately upon learning that there is an imminent threat of a natural disaster or other disaster in at least two municipalities in Serbia. Only in certain cases, emergency situation can be declared after the natural or other disaster has already happened, if the danger couldn’t have been foreseen beforehand. An example of a disaster that can’t be foreseen is a strike of a giant meteorite or a similar event that couldn’t have been foreseen or prevented by regular operations. Monitoring rainfall and water levels is certainly not such an event.
So, it is already clear that the government of Serbia should have declared an emergency situation at the moment it learned that there is an imminent threat of floods in municipalities and cities in Serbia, and not on Thursday, May 15, in the afternoon, at the moment when at least two municipalities were already flooded (Koceljeva and Ub). The same goes for local government who had to declare emergency situations at the territories of their municipalities and cities immediately upon learning about imminent threat of floods, no matter what the decision of the government was. The danger of heavy rainfall and floods and their consequences was the subject of media reports, as well as reports of Hydro Meteorological Institute since Tuesday, May 13. They said that many rivers, including Kolubara in Obrenovac will “exceed the regular level of flood” on Thursday, May 15.
The fact that emergency situation wasn’t declared on time is not a formality, but of essential importance, because after it is declared, obligations to protect people, property and environment go into effect, as well as specific steps that have to be undertaken – which is clearly prescribed by the Law on emergency situations.
Responsibility of state authorities
The Law on emergency situations sets protection as one of the main tasks, and then rescue of the people, property and environment from natural disaster. So, the officials are obliged to react primarily as prevention in order to avoid the situation of rescue from a natural disaster. One of the principles of the Law on emergency situations, but also of National strategy of protection and rescue in emergency situations, makes this clear – the principle of preventive protection. The same is stated by the principle of public, that says that national and local officials are obliged to inform the citizens about the threat of natural disaster, but also about the measures they are taking in order to protect them from it. In this case, both of these principles were completely violated – the citizens were not informed about the threat and there were no preventive actions. The citizens weren’t informed about the measures undertaken in order to eliminate the danger either – emergency was declared when the natural disaster had already began to threaten and claim lives all over Serbia.
According to the law, the government and ministry of police are the responsible ones in emergency situations. Some of the government’s duties are – to form a national emergency situations headquarters; command general mobilization of civil protection units and other resources necessary for protection and rescue; monitor and command the tasks of protection and rescue. The ministry of police is obliged to form and equip specialized civil protection units; procure equipment for protection and rescue; supervise implementation of the Law on emergency situations.
All actions of protection and rescue are managed and coordinated by the emergency situations headquarters. There were several of them in this case (because emergency was declared in the entire country): national, provincial and city/municipal. Although headquarters undoubtedly exist on various levels, article 38 of the law clearly states that the national headquarters “commands the emergency situations headquarters to undertake measures and actions of protection and rescue”.
So, long before one of them started to unload blankets and the other one to carry lops, the prime minister and the minister of police had more important things to do – they were obliged to plan the protection of citizens and manage protective measures through actions of the government and national emergency situations headquarters.
Obligations of the citizens: funding
As we all noticed, the citizens organized themselves during the past week in order to survive and help others survive. Of course, this is a good thing, since state authorities failed. Still, the question is how successful would these actions be if they weren’t the result of an ad hoc organization, but of a pre-arranged plan. Also, it was said on several occasions during these seven days that the people wish that the system of civil protection still existed. Wrong impression about the lack of this system was caused primarily by the fact that the government didn’t use it, although it was obliged to.
The system of civil protection includes mobilization of all capable men aged 16 to 60 and women aged 16 to 55. Everyone is obliged to answer the summon to participate in civil protection, excluding only pregnant women, mothers, single fathers and guardians of children younger than 15. Once they have been mobilized, the citizens are grouped into units by the decision of local emergency situations headquarters, each unit has its commissioner and clearly defined task. Citizens who are part of civil protection bear clear markings. So, the chaos didn’t have and mustn’t have happened.
The tasks of such system are to implement pre-arranged decision on the process of protection and rescue of the citizens, together with the emergency situation headquarters. The task of civil protection is, among others, to alarm and evacuate the citizens based on the decision of local emergency situations headquarter.
It is unknown why this mechanism wasn’t used, and instead of it the prime minister called “brave men” to come to Sabac and build embankments (the prime minister himself boarded them into buses), as if this is 200 years ago. This not only completely irrationally wasted resources and time, but also violated the law and caused panic among the citizens.
It’s important to say that the protection and rescue – equipment, resources and expenses – are entirely funded from the budget of Republic of Serbia, as well as that the fact that the entire Serbia is helping displaced and endangered people is another evidence of inability of our state which almost completely erased the funds for emergency situations from the budget. The prime minister’s appeal that the citizens keep sending charitable text messages to help fund the threatened areas and people represents that same inability. Also, if the civil protection system was mobilized, the citizens would be entitled to wage reimbursement for each day they spent in service. Together with the general ignorance, this is probably one of the reasons why there was no mobilization and why the system of chaotic “volunteering” was chosen.
Now that the battle to explain the citizens that no one is responsible for the floods in Serbia and that the disaster is caused by the force majeure is ongoing, it is important to say that someone is definitely responsible. We can hardly blame any individual, although it would satisfy many people at this point. Finding someone to blame would satisfy the human need to quickly find at least one person responsible for all the horrible things that have happened. Still, the court is the only instance relevant to decide about the responsibility for everything – from floods to death of our citizens.
According to the information available, we can certainly say that many from the chain of responsibility failed to react or failed to react on time, trying to persuade us that there is no chain of responsibility. The mayors, presidents of municipalities, the prime minister and ministers, (not) acting together contributed to the situation we are in today, but it is necessary to determine the kind and level of responsibility in each individual case. No one must be judged in the media, because it is a sure way for some of the responsible to be amnestied, but also a sure way to “punish” them only by a public condemnation and not an actual criminal sanction.
The latest impression is that the government and the prime minister are trying to prove that the inability to prevent heavy rainfall is the same thing as the inability to timely rescue people, property and environment. This is, at the least, an insult to the intelligence of citizens of Serbia. The officials weren’t, of course, obliged to prevent the rain, but to prevent the floods (by various systems of protection against floods), and, if this was not possible, to protect, i.e. to evacuate people immediately upon learning that the floods are imminent.
According to what we know today, the government and its members failed to declare emergency on time; they didn’t mobilize the citizens, but caused chaos and panic; many local headquarters (primarily the one in Obrenovac) failed to declare emergency on their territories on time and to order evacuation of citizens on time; the ministry of police didn’t monitor implementation of the law on emergency situation – which completely violated their obligations. Because of all this, before future criminal proceedings are completed, the resignation of the prime minister and the government is the only moral and rightful act.
While the government’s media praise the sun, optimistically announce the return of the displaced to their homes, it is clear that we will need to use all our resources to forget this May week as soon as possible, in order to allow life “to go on”. Instead of that, any decent country would implement a serious investigation and determine responsibility for severe criminal acts against public safety, which could result in sentences of up to 12 years in jail. The hope remains that the traumatic stories will motivate public prosecutors to react and that the victims will persevere in asking the questions – why are 30,000 lives completely ruined and some of them forever lost.
Translated by Marijana Simic
- Causing fire, flood, explosion, by poison of poisonous gas, radioactive or other ionizing radiation, electric energy, motor force of any other dangerous action or dangerous mean which poses threat against lives or bodies of people or property in large-scale. ↑