Following a photograph - The story of Gordana, the girl with the teddy bear
by Almir Panjeta
NOVI GRAD, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 5 June 2014 - As soon as the Civil Defence team reached their house at the far end of Novi Grad near Odžak to tell them that the Prud dam had broken, mother Željka took her daughter Gordana (aged 6) and her sisters Vladana (14) and 19-month-old Ružica to Odžak, whilst father Vladimir stayed behind in an attempt to fight the horrific flash floods and save what could be saved. He saved a little, and flood waters inundated everything.
Clothes freshly hung out to dry remained on the line in front of the house. Gordana took her teddy bear, her mother grabbed a few items from their small house surrounded by the wheat sown by father Vladimir to make a living for his family. All of a sudden, they found themselves at a collective centre set up for the people who fled their homes in the areas hit by the floods, inside the sports hall in Odžak.
Instead of sleeping in their own beds, the girls slept on the gym floor mats laid all over the sports hall, where around 150 flood-affected people, most of them elderly, settled down to rest for the night. We met Gordana during our visit to the flooded areas and the collective centres on 20 May.
Her cheerful nature lightened the atmosphere of the collective centre. She was running around, playing with a boy, Ivan, hugging her teddy bear all the while. We said hello, she said her name was Gordana and asked us to take a photo of her and her teddy bear. Then we moved on towards the flooded areas, but the picture of the lively girl whose fate was not known to us at the time was simply haunting the author of the photograph just as it haunted thousands of people touched by the photo they had seen on the UNICEF pages. So we had to look for her.
Amir and Amra from Odžak helped us find father Vladimir who told us that Gordana and her sisters were safe on dry land, at their grandparents’ in a village near Šamac, which was not affected by flooding.
We found her in a house at the far end of the village where she stayed with her grandmother Ruža and grandfather Ilija. We came together with UNICEF staff who were carrying out a needs assessment in order to channel aid to the most vulnerable children. Gordana is one of the 60,000 children that, according to UNICEF estimates, have been affected by the floods (16,000 of them aged 0-5) in May 2014. In total around 320 thousand people have been affected with half of them living in 9 severely affected municipalities. Total of 80 primary schools were damaged throughout Bosnia in this emergency, according to the data available to UNICEF.
Gordana was playing with kittens in the front yard, whilst little Ružica was in the house with Vladana. Gordana gave us that same charming smile she gave us the first time we saw her at the collective centre in Odžak. This time we met in a far more pleasant environment. Her grandparents’ house was modest, as they are refugees from the last war, but it was nevertheless a dry temporary home to Gordana and her sisters.
“I am playing with the kittens, they are our neighbour’s kittens, and they come here and then run away. There are more children here than at home, we play and run through the village,” says Gordana. She is happy about going to school soon, she says she can write but is still learning to read. Her sister Vladana managed to complete the eighth grade and is hoping to start secondary school in September. She would like to complete vocational training in economics and specialise in accounting.
Gordana adds that although she likes to stay with her grandparents, who take care of her and her sisters, she misses her mum who stayed behind with her dad Vladimir in the village to clean up their flooded house. Although very young, Gordana is already aware that the house is flooded, but she believes that she will go back to her tiny room soon.
The house in which Gordana lived with her sisters and parents was still under water when we visited them. The floodwaters had receded, but the line left behind around the house shows that the water rose above the windows.
The flood wreaked havoc in the house. Vladimir managed to save a pig, while his chickens drowned and his livelihood, wheat sown on 11,000 square metres, was completely destroyed. Everything from the house is now out in the street in front of the house: furniture, clothes, toys and mother Željka’s knitting – socks for her little Ružica. The clothing, neatly hung on the line – from the smallest to the largest items – remains above the water, dirty and useless as it was swamped by flood water when it was at its highest. Vladimir is waiting for the water to recede enough to allow him to get there in high boots and put it on the pile with all other household items that will be loaded onto a tractor and eventually burned.
“There is nothing left, only walls. The dam on the river Sava is right behind the house, it remained intact, we managed to save some things, but when the Prud dam broke, the water literally gushed though the village from behind the houses and we could only run away if we were not to get swamped. We fought as much as we could, now I just want to get the water out of the house and dry out the walls so that I can bring my children back home, but where and how, I do not know,” says Vladimir, pausing for a while.
He says he does not have to think about the basic things – his children are safe, and he and his wife Željka go the humanitarian aid distribution point in the centre of the village where they get food and water. Vladimir is concerned about what will happen once food and water supplies stop coming in, since the cereal crops are destroyed and there is nothing to sell; Vladana has finished eighth grade and wants to go to secondary school. Gordana will be a first grader in September, and Ružica is still a baby and needs so much that he is not sure whether he will be able to provide all that, despite all his best efforts.
UNICEF provided an immediate response through by providing supplies for drinking water, distributing hygienic kits for affected children, procuring polio vaccines, providing psychosocial support to affected children, and establishing safe and protective child-friendly environments. At the same time, UNICEF is mobilizing partners to support the establishment of additional child-friendly spaces in affected areas, provision of furniture, didactic materials and other supplies for schools to ensure a normal start of school year for all children on 1 September 2014.