Dedicated volunteers ensure Serbian flood relief gets through

photo 1 When I volunteered to help with flood relief efforts at the Serbian Embassy in London, it was because the harrowing news footage and distressing stories relayed by friends who have been directly affected by the natural disaster in Serbia and Bosnia had moved me to act.

Good friends in the submerged town of Obrenovac have been made homeless and lost all their personal effects overnight, while in Bosnia, others I know have been evacuated to safety or are still holed up in their homes in Doboj.

In these times of 24-hour news coverage we can be numb to the roll call of tragedies and disasters around the world.

All too often these events can seem in such different worlds, that they are removed from our own sphere of reality.

Natural catastrophe in Serbia and Bosnia

The same cannot be said for the catastrophe affecting Serbia and Bosnia. I have a deep held passion for the region that has taken me to both countries numerous times and I have built many strong and valued friendships and business relationships there.

When disaster struck on our doorstep, in Europe and in the homes of people for whom I cared, I was determined to help in any way that I could.

Clearly, flying to Serbia or Bosnia to distribute sandbags or assist evacuees was out of the question. I would be more of hindrance than help, getting in the way of rescue efforts. So when I heard a call for volunteers to help package and ship the many tons of toiletries, clothing and food that was arriving daily at the Serbian Embassy in London, I knew that I this was something I could do.

During my time at the embassy, it did not come as any great surprise that I was asked repeatedly about why I wanted to help. As the only person there that day without family in or from Serbia, I guess it was an obvious and fair question. What was without question, though, was the welcome I received as a new member of the team.

What I was not expecting is the feeling of accomplishment and worth that I experienced after a day spent among the small team of dedicated volunteers, some who had been at the embassy every day this week. I was also not expecting to be moved to write about my experiences that day.

Coffee and cardboard

In the spirit of all clichés being based in reality, I was greeted with a smile and a small strong coffee when I arrived at the embassy. The room was already piled high will boxes awaiting transport to an Air Serbia flight from Heathrow to Belgrade, so clearly there was work to be done here.

Numerous handshakes and introductions later and I was on my knees with scissors and a roll of brown tape, putting together scores of cardboard boxes in advance of the next batch of products arriving. As the day went on and along with my new-found colleagues, I packed boxes, unloaded and evaluated new deliveries and packed vans full of categorised boxes ready to head off to the airport.

At times, up to twenty people, mostly in the twenties, formed an unspoken system of helping hands. Roles were not handed out but everyone seemed to slot into their place in the line, swapping around and filling gaps when required to do so.

In the corner of the room a large Serbian flag hung from a vertical pole, the twin-headed eagle standing watch over the piled high boxes of life-saving provisions.

Diplomatic airs and graces

Among the boxes and bags and with formal chairs pushed back against the back wall, it was easy to forget that we were in the Embassy of the Republic of Serbia. This was not a time for diplomatic airs and graces or standing on ceremony. There was a job to be done and we all knew why we were there.

Even when the Serbian Ambassador and his senior advisors came to talk with the volunteers on occasion throughout the day, the work did not stop and the usual protocol went out of the window. This was a shirt-sleeved day to get your hands dirty and ensure that the job is done.

When new drop-offs arrived in this leafy London square more used to diplomatic motorcades than white vans and estate cars crammed with cardboard boxes, they were from people who had travelled from far and wide to deliver their boxes of well-thought out aid as much as they were relief packages from businesses.

Deliveries came from individuals and businesses up and down the UK. Some people drove more than a hundred miles, in cars packed with second hand clothes or items bought at supermarkets, while others came with boxes of goods bought at a cash and carry or arrived with a single carrier back of items picked up on their lunch break.

Everyone who came arrived with the same urgency and need to help in whatever way they could and the volunteers and embassy staff accepted the donations with a smile of genuine gratitude.

Sidestepping black marketeers

Each new delivery had to be separated into categories for easy grouping of the items and to ensure that the right products went to those most in need at the other end.

Toiletries, baby clothes and nappies, personal hygiene items and tinned or dried food made up most of the donations. But there were tents, sleeping bags and bedding, coats, blankets and toys, rubber gloves, razors, pet food and cleaning products. There were even special items such as food for diabetics and over the counter remedies for babies.

These are products not only to keep people alive, but also to give people back the dignity and little comforts that makes life more liveable. When you have lost your life’s possessions and even hope is at a low ebb, sometimes all you have left is your health and dignity.

Every little counts in such desperate times, especially the small things that we take for granted in our daily lives.

Mid afternoon, a Tesco delivery van turned up outside the embassy to off load more than ten large crates of food, toiletries and basic household products. Minutes later and someone arrived with a dozen Sainsbury’s bags destined for the needy in Serbia.

No matter how the delivery arrived, one thing was constant. As a precaution against the off chance of any items being resold on the black market, everything is boldly marked with a large black H across the barcode or clearly visible on the packaging.

It is inevitable that such a huge humanitarian effort comes with a pile of administration. Even though these transports are labelled as humanitarian aid en route to the Red Cross in Serbia, there is a level of necessary admin.

Names of donors are taken and the items are entered into a spreadsheet, customs forms are filled in and the airline needs dimensions and weight of each package.

British charity donates Somerset sandbags

Serbian Flood Relief London

One of the last tasks of the day in which I played a part was to weigh and prepare for shipping 500kg of empty sandbags left over from this winter’s floods in the West of England and donated by international relief organisation Khalsa Aid, with support from the Somerset-based Flooding on the Levels Action Group (FLAG).

Only days before I had seen Khalsa Aid organiser Ravi Singh telling media that they would be holding out their hand to Serbia, so it was good to see the group’s promise  in action.

“We have a lot of sandbags and there is no better cause now than to donate those sandbags to shore up flood defences in Serbia, especially as they’re expecting more floods,” he told Sky News.

“Those sandbags will save a lot of homes and lives, hopefully.”

At the end of the day, as the inventory sheets were being completed, I left the embassy as a small group of people worked long into the evening. Indeed, more deliveries were expected later than night, made by people who were driving down after work.

Resilience, pride and strength of character to see them through

Many of the volunteers had stories of friends and family, even their own homes, badly affected by the floods. Of course, that was our motivation to be there, to help in any way we could, but we needed to temper that awareness with a degree of distance. Had we allowed this grim reality to loom too heavily over us, the thought of conditions where these boxes would eventually end up, the work would have been so much harder to undertake.

We were not overly focussed on the grim reality of the floods and their aftermath. We were kept going in the belief that, in some small way at least, what we were doing would help a great many people.

I believe it is this resilience, camaraderie and pride that will see the people of Serbia and Bosnia through these telling times. With the big clean up still a way off and the death toll set to rise once the water and mud is cleared, it is this strength of character that will be called upon as they support each other through the months to come.

Like the tale of the hummingbird that tries to put out a jungle fire with drops of water in its beak, we all need to do the best we can.

•  Anyone interested in learning more about Balkan literature and national identity can join some of the regions great writers, commentators and academics for Balkan Day at the British Library, on Friday, 13 June. Click here for more details and free admission#BalkanDay


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  1. Marija

    5 / 22 / 2014 5:29 pm

    Dear Marcus,
    thank you for visiting us yesterday. I hope that you could see how much we love our country and how deeply we sympathize with our people.
    You are welcome to come and help any time, I hope that you can spread the word and animate people to help.

    Many thanks from Marija and Polo (dog) 🙂


    • 5 / 23 / 2014 12:19 pm

      Thanks, Marija.
      It was good to meet so many people focused on their goal of helping people in the best way they could.
      Good luck with your ongoing relief efforts.


  2. Susana

    5 / 22 / 2014 10:13 pm

    Do you guys still need help? I have been workin and livig in Serbia for the past 4 years of my life and recently just moved the London to work. The people there became my family and when I heard about what’s happening I thought about ways to help. Is there any thing you guys need help with? Would love to help out!


  3. dejann83

    5 / 23 / 2014 6:53 pm

    For all good people.i am from serbia,in flood i have lost job,and home i still hate will to work and built new life,if somewhone can help to hire me for some job,any kind i will be grateful. All good people please,if u can,contact me.on


    • dejann83

      5 / 23 / 2014 6:56 pm

      I have will to work. Anubody who can,good bless u,i will be grateful whole life.





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