Extremely low temperatures - some as low as 25 degrees below zero - hit Bosnia and Herzegovina earlier this month, severely affecting more than 5,200 families or 10,000 people, according to the Red Cross Society of Bosnia and Herzegovina (RCSBiH).
Although temperatures have risen to five or six degrees above zero in the last couple of days, hundreds of vulnerable families are still reeling from the effects of the cold spell. Painful memories of the war years from 1992 to 1995, when there was a shortage of everything, including food and heating are haunting many people.
"It is not because it is a little milder now that these families no longer need help," notes Samra Campara-Clary, Head of the Sarajevo Office of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. "If you take into consideration that almost 45% of the country's population is unemployed and that 40% is living under the poverty line, then you can image just how important it is to give help to people who have no resources to buy food or to heat their homes."
The International Federation has released more than 165,000 Swiss francs (USD 144,000 or EUR 111,798) from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF) to support the Red Cross operation to deliver emergency assistance to some 1,000 families for one month. The funds will be used to buy and deliver firewood, stoves, blankets and food parcels to vulnerable groups, including elderly and bed-ridden people living alone, people with disabilities, poor families with young children, single mothers, returnees, refugees and displaced persons.
The most affected regions are the cities of Sarajevo, Zenica, Zvornik and parts of eastern Herzegovina where some villages were completely cut off from the rest of the country by snow drifts. The situation was compounded by an ice storm, which prevented elderly people in particular, from leaving their homes because of the danger of injury. One death was reported in Doboj, where a person froze to death because he could not heat his house.
In addition, cuts in supplies of gas for heating forced people to find alternative ways to heat their homes. This caused the prices of firewood and stoves to soar, and soon stocks ran out. The price of electricity in Bosnia and Herzegovina is among the highest in Europe and the prices of heaters tripled during the cold wave. The poorest families quickly had no resources left either to buy food or to heat their homes.
"Unfortunately, finding suppliers of firewood and stoves has taken longer than we would have liked because these items were sold out and could no longer be found on the market," explains Samra Campara-Clary. "But Red Cross distributions of emergency help are expected to begin next week. We are also concerned because low temperatures and strong winds are predicted in the next few days. It has also started raining heavily and the danger of flooding is real. So it is essential that we get assistance to these vulnerable families as quickly as possible:"
Low temperatures also caused water pipes and other installations to freeze. Meteorologists fear that the expected cold weather could jeopardize the power network and other facilities.