Novi Sad is in mourning and people are lighting candles on the Svetozar Miletic square, while the owner and the leasers of the nightclub “Kontrast”, in which six young men and women died in the fire were arrested by the police; politicians are looking for words to describe the enormity of this tragedy. Novi Sad, which has over the last four years witnessed three large fires that claimed 17 young lives, has gained its new landmarks: café “Lounge” (eight dead), hotel “Putnik” (three dead) and nightclub “Kontrast” (six dead).
A day after the tragedy it is normal that people pay their tribute to the victims, but as soon as the shock passes, grief ought to be replaced by anger and demands to determine the responsibility for the tragedy. It’s time to reject the explanation that this is just a result of a “human factor”, because the blame can not only fall on the owners of the burning bars, nightclubs, field or forests. The “human factor” are also city and republic inspection employees, and people in the ministry of police, who are by law responsible for “planning, organizing and implementing fire protection measures”.
And while the families mourn their children and frightened young people of Novi Sad lay flowers for their peers at the Liberty Square, the minister of police, the mayor of Novi Sad and other city officials are raising their voices in an attempt to evade the blame for themselves and services under their supervision.
Several hours after the fire, Interior Minister Ivica Dacic visited the place of the tragedy and immediately informed us that the “object was regularly controlled and that there were no previously observed technical irregularities”. In this way the Minister wanted to remove any suspicion that an inspector under his authority could be responsible for the tragedy. The Fire Protection Act that was adopted two years ago says that the Ministry of the Interior, which he heads, supervises the implementation of the Act and gives ministerial inspectors broad authorities: to demand from owners a minimum number of emergency fire exits, to verify whether the built-in installations are in good working order, to order the installation of special devices that allow timely fire detection… the Ministry of the Interior is the government authority which approves architectural plans related to fire protection and is responsible for making sure that the built-in materials are fire-resistant.
It is not within the job description of the Interior Minister to threaten the director of the National Library with arrest, reciprocally detain Albanians and sing “Miljacka” in bars – but to protect people from fire together with his inspectors. For this he does not need the Emergency Center based in Nis, Sergei Shoigu and Russian planes and helicopters. He needs to make sure that the Interior Ministry employees in charge of enforcing the fire code are doing their job and not turning a blind eye to faulty electrical installations and issuing licenses for a few hundred Euros.
The Interior Minister must have also thought of this, because yesterday he ordered a general emergency inspection of all business in Serbia. Since last night, thousands of owners of cafes, nightclubs, gaming places are rushing to secure electrical cables, purchase fire extinguishers and draw fire escape routes. I only fear that when the mourning passes in Novi Sad, everything will return to its normal bleakness.
In the Fire Protection Act, whose implementation is the responsibility of the Interior Minister, fire is defined as a process of uncontrolled combustion that threatens human life. The latest tragedy is evidence that the process of uncontrolled governance in one domain can also be life threatening.
The mayor of Novi Sad, Igor Pavlicic, also seems to be trying to pass the blame on the nightclub owner and leasers: just a few hours after the fire he was ready to claim that there were more than 350 young men and women in the club and that “it was because of this vast number of people that lives were lost”. Even if this may be true, it can not rule out the responsibility of various city services and inspections for which he and his coalition partners are responsible.
President of the city parliament, Aleksandar Jovanovic, used the opportunity to tell us: “Unfortunately, some inspections, particularly fire inspection, are not the responsibility of the municipal government, so it is important to determine if all regulations were followed”. Over the four years, 14 people in Novi Sad lost their lives in just two fires. Where was he before this to tell us that it would be much better if he was responsible for fire inspection? Is he now trying to tell us that the citizens of Novi Sad would be much safer if a portion of authorities concentrated in Belgrade had been transferred to Vojvodina and the city? Maybe he would like to, but he is a participant in a game where power and authority have been divided and it’s not easy to avoid accountability for what had happened.
The infamous Predrag Maric, Ministry of Interior’s chief for emergency situations – the Avram Israel of democratic Serbia, also spoke up. Israel used to warn us of the approaching NATO planes naming sirens Sizela (panic-siren) and Mirela (calm-down-siren), while Predrag Maric keeps constantly warning on a number of peacetime threats; the snow, cold weather and flood; he makes appeals not to light barbecues in the forest, not to burn trash in containers and weeds in the open field…
However, besides having the authority to make public appeals, the police chief also has other powers that he can exercise, he has certain duties and responsibilities. And these are not solely the printing of school posters, so that children will know how to behave in case of a fire. But even the printing of these important posters was not funded by the state, but with assistance from USAID.
There will always be, especially in this zoo capitalism of ours, greedy owners of taverns, nightclubs and shopping centers that will want to save money by avoiding regulation and selling a ticket more in excess of the space capacity – but citizens of this poor country entrust their lives and the lives of their children to the care of the State, which they expect will provide protection from such individuals.
In the latest tragedy in Novi Sad this is the key question: what part of the state apparatus did not do what it was paid to do. Will anyone besides the arrested owner and leasers be accused of having “committed a serious offence against public safety.”
Because of young and beautiful faces of twentysomethings who died in Novi Sad, it will be forgotten that in the first 15 days of March there were 3,400 fires in Serbia which killed six people, and that then, throughout the end of the same month there wasn’t a day when someone didn’t die from a fire… In comparison to last year, the number of fires increased by 300-400%, and faulty installations and “faulty” farmers were the most common cited causes.
But people also died in their homes, newly built by suspicious investors, who were issued building permits by corrupt city officials and given utilization permits by even more corrupt inspectors.
Farmers who burn weeds in the fields are a topic on their own. It is impossible to travel through Serbia and not pass multiple burning acres of arable land. Their owners sometimes end up in ashes, along with the weeds they are burning. Have Serbian farmers lost their mind or this burning of the land has something to do with the impoverishment and the crumbling of the state we are daily witnessing?
Many of my relatives began burning weeds and stubble in their fields, and their explanation is that they cultivate the land only when they have to, because there is no profit; in the meantime the field overgrows with weeds for which they need deep plowing, large and powerful tractors that they can not afford. Slow and small tractors, even when they are able to get them going, are no match for the deep rooted weeds, so the only way to prepare the land for ploughing is to burn them. I do not know if this is true, but I do not believe that the Serbian farmers are prone to this type of harakiri just because they are crazy.
Grand Duke Milos was the first person to introduce a law which standardized preventive fire protection. Tzar Dushan’s Code says that “the one who lights on fire someone’s straw or hay shall be burned”. I do not know what were the effects of the laws of our ancestors, but the effects of pro-European Serbia’s fire protection laws are tragic.
In 1884 Serbia built its first railroad, but today the trains from Belgrade need an equal amount of time as 130 years ago to reach Nis. Serbia has a 170 year tradition of organized fire protection, but today there is an increase in fires measured in hundreds of percent rising from year to year. Serbia is among the first countries to have an organized political party, but after 130 years the result of its multi-party system is a monstrous state system, in which there will be a greater likelihood of loosing a life from uncontrolled combustion than from bullets, baseball bats and old age.
As the candles lit for the souls of the teenagers who suffocated in the “Kontrast” nightclub slowly extinguish, so will the interest in this new type of agony for the Serbian people. There will be no debate about where we have gone so wrong, so that instead of collecting crops in the fields we are collecting old men who died from fire; could one of the possible explanations be the political situation in this country?
These days politicians are cynically signing a cynical initiative of the daily newspaper Blic to depoliticize publicly funded institutions and the public administration; party billboards hypocritically read – “Stop hiring through political parties”. Ministries, municipalities, their inspectors and various secretariats have for all these years been staffed by an army of corrupt employees, who were hired based on party allegiance. These people are no longer collecting bribes in Euros, but in blood as well.