In the bleak midwinter

So this is Christmas… and my penultimate offering of 2014. The ‘elves’ in my house are planning to hijack this blog for a final yuletide message. Though, already, the making of their surprise post has sparked rebellions in elfdom. As the saying goes, ‘girls wreck your head’.

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Sometimes, so do places. Like my old ljubav, Bosnia. It’s been an eventful year there. The country has featured in international news for a range of reasons. Protests in February. Devastating floods in May. The commemoration of the assassination in Sarajevo which triggered World War I. Euphoria as the Bosnian football team played in its first World Cup. The hopes and hype of Rio gleamed… but soon faded. Reality gushed in again.

Elections in October saw the constellations of power in Bosnia and Herzegovina shift slightly, although nationalist parties remain dominant. Just another case of plus ça change? Or could 2015 auger progress for a country hamstrung by the legacy of conflict? An initiative seeking to kick-start Bosnia’s flagging EU accession process has recently been proposed by Britain and Germany. Understandably, after years of fruitless negotiations, scepticism prevails as to whether this scheme can prompt the reforms required for EU membership. However, any renewal of interest which might lead to a more effective European approach towards Bosnia is welcome.

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Bosnia’s present stagnation benefits no-one but its ruling elites. Instead of trying to build a functional state, they thrive on generating insecurity. Two decades since the end of the war, many of the divisions it caused are as raw today as they were in 1995. But despite undeniable differences, there’s much scope for unity. Demonstrations and plenums in the spring highlighted how most people in Bosnia face the same socio-economic problems – unemployment, poverty, limited prospects. The massive voluntary response which brought relief to those affected by flooding further proved that citizens from all ‘ethnic’ backgrounds can co-operate.

From a personal perspective, I’m glad my family and I were able to fundraise in our local area for the Irish Red Cross Balkans Floods Appeal. In Bosnia during the summer, we witnessed some of the damage left in the wake of the deluge and spoke to people involved in dealing with its aftermath. It was clear that the country needs ongoing support to recover from this disaster. We also went to Srebrenica and were struck not only by the scale of the atrocity that occurred there but by the questions it still poses… How? Why? Is it possible that healing can follow genocide? Such queries hovered in the sultry air above a cemetery which is now lodged in our human conscience.

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No matter how many times you visit Bosnia, it’s somewhere that always astounds… and disturbs. This year more than ever, it’s plagued me with a yearning to forge connections that extend beyond family trips – a desire to do something constructive. I’ve been investigating a few potential avenues in this regard. So far without success… lack of finances being a major drawback. But I’ll continue to explore these ideas. Perhaps I should ask Santa to send me a wealthy philanthropist! Along with a helping of luck, a marriage counsellor and a good night’s sleep. Though, if these demands defy even the magic of Mr. Claus, a book token will do fine.

Well, now, I ought to get my Meryl Streep skates on and rustle up an Oscar-winning Christmas!  Writing often seems pointless, yet I’m not sorry to have ‘wasted’ time, amid the commercial frenzy of December, on this series of short pieces (see links below). They’re chronologically arranged, based on the events to which they relate, but their topics also reflect the symbolism of the Advent wreath.

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Entwined in pine, the first two purple candles signify hope and peace. Hopefully, 2015 will bring both to Syria. And, although we can’t stop the war, we can still show solidarity with the Syrian people by donating to humanitarian organisations which work with them and by raising awareness of their plight. Meanwhile, here in Ireland, it feels like we’re on the cusp of a rising thought wave. We’ve got a rare chance to challenge established currents. Are we ready to take risks to create an equal, harmonious society? Or will we just go with the flow and put up with the status quo?

Globally, 2014 was grim. Fighting in Ukraine, attacks on Gaza, institutional racism in the USA, floods in the Balkans, worrying predictions about climate change – there was little cause for rejoicing. Even on an individual level, I must admit, it was a year I’d rather forget. But when all seems dark, brief instants of respite become more meaningful. A pink birthday candle. Or this, the last of the purple ones… The candle that stands for love.

Please check out previous posts in this series at:

An Advent miscellany: http://wp.me/p3NO7M-ma

Happy Xmas (war isn’t over): http://wp.me/p3NO7M-md

We’re dreaming of a better Ireland: http://wp.me/p3NO7M-mf

On a twelfth birthday at Christmas: http://wp.me/p3NO7M-mh

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Balkan floods – let support reign!

Rain. We have a lot of it in Ireland. And this year we’ve had it to excess. Through the winter months, a series of violent storms wreaked destruction. Reaching maximum ‘red’ alert on Met Éireann’s new colour-coding scale, their unprecedented force had dangerous consequences. Winds whipped up waves of huge magnitude as rivers, swollen by downpours, gushed into the sea. Flooding was extensive along the Atlantic coast. The cities of Limerick and Galway were inundated. The ocean swallowed chunks of land and hacked into the promenades and piers of picturesque towns. Homes were swamped. Businesses were ruined.

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While the west bore the brunt of this havoc, coastal areas on the Irish Sea didn’t escape. In January, the village in which I live was badly affected. Set at the edge of an estuary, it was lashed by seas laden with detritus from overflowing rivers. Floods ensued – serious enough to make the nine o’clock news. Fame… but not in a good way. The main street, looking onto the beach, was like a canal. A local attraction for weekend strolls and socialising, with its string of pubs, restaurants and small shops, it had suddenly become a giant rock pool.

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As the tide receded the damage was apparent. Sandbags which had been prepared as a defence weren’t sufficient against such a volume of water. The waves had crashed over the shore-side wall, splitting pavement slabs and leaving behind a residue of sludge. Debris lay strewn across the road. The mopping-up started, but further encroachments would occur in subsequent days until river levels slowly fell back to normal. Even when the storm passed, it was terrifying to watch the sea surge and threaten with intermittent splashes onto the street. Fortunately, the housing estates of the village are slightly inland which meant that most homes were sheltered from the tempest. Spring eventually brought us calmer conditions. But other parts of Europe haven’t been so lucky…

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In recent days, as Ireland basked in a few brief snatches of sun, extreme rainfall led to flooding across the Balkans. Through Bosnia, Serbia and eastern Croatia vast areas have been stricken as numerous rivers burst their banks. Bosnia is now in a state of crisis, following the worst floods the country has endured since records began 120 years ago. Towns have been submerged and thousands evacuated. The death toll in Bosnia alone is close to 30. Electricity supplies have been cut. People are in desperate need of essentials: food, drinking water, baby products, medicines. The elderly, the young and the disabled are most vulnerable. Many residents of the affected regions have lost nearly everything they own. Houses have collapsed due to landslides. It’s also feared that this earth movement may have dislodged buried landmines – adding another hazard to the existing peril.

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The inhabitants of both of Bosnia’s political entities have suffered. As commentators have observed, Nature doesn’t discriminate. Raging rivers can’t be halted by ethnic barriers. Though neither can human kindness. One of the few hopeful signs emerging from this tragedy has been the outpouring of cross-community support for its victims. Volunteers and donations of much-needed aid have come from throughout Bosnia and beyond its borders. But the full extent of the devastation will only be revealed when the floodwaters subside. Undoubtedly, in the aftermath of this deluge, people who were already struggling will face even more hardship. They’ll require massive assistance to repair their homes, to restore their towns and villages. As was the case in Ireland, many questions will be asked. These may include: were adequate steps taken to protect those living in at-risk areas? What can be done to safeguard these populations from further flooding? Did this come as a result of global warming and, if so, isn’t it likely to happen again?

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Climatologists say it can take several decades before patterns of weather-related events are considered trends. Yet they note the increasing incidence of meteorological catastrophes over the last few years. In Ireland, these seem in accordance with the theory that north-west Europe will get warmer and wetter, heightening the chances of severe Atlantic storms. Elsewhere, fluctuations in average winter temperatures or prolonged droughts may serve as evidence of climate change. While melting polar ice caps prompt fears of rising sea levels – a particular concern for an island nation like Ireland.

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To deal with disasters which are seldom entirely ‘natural’, effective schemes that can prevent their recurrence must be devised. In relation to the Balkan floods this calls for co-operation – both within states and among neighbouring countries – Bosnia’s geography illustrates how rivers are often transnational. It should also be accompanied by a global commitment to preserving our environment. The impact of human activity on our weather, especially through the emission of ‘greenhouse gases’ into the atmosphere, needs to be carefully monitored and controlled. The survival of the planet can’t be squandered for the sake of short-term economic gain or to appease lobbyists for the unrestricted use of fossil fuels. The Bosnian writer, Aleksandar Hemon, highlighted these broader issues in his article, Poslije Potopa, for Radio Sarajevo. His overall assessment was grim – he expressed little faith in the ability or resolve of Bosnia’s politicians to respond appropriately to this emergency. Sadly, he’s probably right.

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Yet the gravity of the situation demands sustained and substantial action. At the moment, the priority is to provide relief to those in the worst hit regions. And, in this, the world can show its solidarity. Everyone with a connection or interest in Bosnia should play a part. Even the smallest donation is significant. Members of the Bosnian diaspora have already raised considerable funds through appeals in support of the Red Cross and other NGOs. International friends can contribute too – people who’ve visited the country and enjoyed the hospitality of its citizens, anybody who’s fascinated by its topical history. Events in Sarajevo a century ago have recently featured in Irish newspapers and are receiving plenty of worldwide analysis. Though, while remembering WWI, we can’t ignore Bosnia’s plight in 2014. It’s a cry that echoes – it can’t be drowned. The rain is beating down again in Ireland as I write. An overcast sky… another reminder of all whose lives have been thrown into chaos and despair by the floods in the Balkans. But together we can help them! Hajmo, zajedno!

Please see links below to donate to flood relief efforts in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia:

Help from Ireland:

The Irish Red Cross have launched their Balkans Flood Appeal – donate online at: 

http://www.redcross.ie/news/appeals/balkan-floods-appeal/

Also, Human Appeal Ireland and Whitewater Foundation have delivered aid from Ireland directly to Bosnia and Serbia. Support their continuing work through online donations, see:

Human Appeal Ireland: 

http://humanappeal.ie/blog/bosnia-floods-appeal/#.U4bwh_nMRCg

Whitewater Foundation: 

http://www.whitewaterireland.ie/whitewaterfoundation/floods-in-serbia-and-bosnia/

Or donate to Red Cross and NGOs at national/regional level in the Balkans:

Bosnia:

Donate online to Red Cross appeal via: 

http://www.gofundme.com/98iwck

Or by bank transfer to Red Cross in Bosnia (National Society):

http://rcsbh.org/novosti/207-urgent-appeal-for-help

Or to (regional) Red Cross Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina: 

http://www.ckfbih.ba/index.php/aktivnosti/656-pokrenuta-humanitarna-akcija-za-pomo-ugroenom-stanovnitvu-poplavljenih-podruja

Or to (regional) Red Cross Republika Srpska: 

http://www.crvenikrstrs.org/crvenikrst/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=303&Itemid=1

Donate online to Center for Peacebuilding / Centar za Izgradnju Mira, grassroots NGO based in Sanski Most, flood relief appeal: 

http://www.gofundme.com/9br4og

Serbia:

List of organisations, including Red Cross Serbia, via Novak Djokovic Foundation:

http://novakdjokovicfoundation.org/news/news/2014.734.html

Bosnia and Serbia:

Donate online to Save the Children (North-West Balkans) via:

http://www.razoo.com/story/Bosnia-Serbia-Flood

Croatia:

Donate to Croatian Red Cross – with link for online donations:

http://www.hck.hr/hr/stranica/apel-za-pomoc-poplavljenim-podrucjima-u-republici-hrvatskoj-415

Article by Aleksandar Hemon – Poslije potopa, Radio Sarajevo 18/5/14: 

http://radiosarajevo.ba/novost/151716/%E2%80%A6

This post was published in the Bosnian weekly Novo Vrijeme on 23 May 2014