Getting above the snow

February 14, 2012

By Dado Ruvic

I was ten years old when a heavy snowfall trapped Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2000, and forced its authorities to declare a state of emergency. I remember these as fun days – we didn’t have to go to school and we just enjoyed the snow. But the latest cold spell enveloping Europe has hit Bosnia hard, blocking its traffic, burying in snow and isolating villages, straining its creaking power infrastructure and most importantly taking many lives during the coldest weather in decades. I have only now realized that snow above one metre is no longer fun, when a 20 minute drive turns into three hours.
In the first few days there were many similar photos emerging on the wire, showing the iced-in towns and villages, people cleaning their yards the blocked traffic. I was also sending photos with the same content.

On the second day of covering this weather story, I realized I had to do something different. I wanted to show them things they had never seen before. I was trying to contact friends, colleagues and some old pals for two days before I realized I had no contacts left. I suddenly got hold of Boban Kusturica, the manager of the Serb Republic helicopter service. In my short career, I have never met a man holding such an important position being so down-to-earth, friendly and supportive.

At the start, I wanted to shoot from a helicopter to capture isolated villages in eastern Bosnia. I also wanted to make images of aid workers delivering food and medicine and evacuating sick people from the inaccessible villages. On Wednesday morning, I received a call from Boban telling me his helicopter would come to Sarajevo and pick me up. It seemed a bit surreal to me, as many people consider me young, inexperienced, and thus don’t always take me seriously. I arrived at Lukavica, near Sarajevo, where an improvised heliport was made on a small soccer stadium. Five minutes later a helicopter came to pick me up but we had to wait for some time to depart, because the weather was terrible and the airport dispatcher had not received the flight permission. After ten minutes of waiting, we were granted permission. Unfortunately, we were only approved for a half an hour flight. I could only take panoramic images of the snow-buried villages and we had to go back urgently.

I was very angry but at the same time happy – I had photos of the snow-capped villages, but unfortunately no photos of evacuation and delivery of food and medicines. The next day I received a call from Boban asking me to join them on a trip to the town of Kalinovik where an improvised heliport was made on the main road at the very entrance to the town. I arrived there with a wide smile on my face, hoping that I’d finally make some great shots. When I got there I took several photos of the medicines and food loads they were preparing to deliver to the local villagers.

The main pilot did not allow me to sit in the helicopter during the first round because they were overloaded and the tank was full of fuel. I waited for them to spend some fuel so I could jump in. In the meantime, the second helicopter arrived with the Serb Republic Prime Minister Aleksandar Dzombic. I had taken photos of him while the crew was pumping fuel into another helicopter, preparing for an emergency take off.

After a half an hour of waiting, we were told that all helicopters had to land because the wind was blowing at more than 90 kilometers per hour. Again, I was very disappointed and decided to give up on those stories. I went home, and tried to fall asleep to forget my dreams of making unique photos. I got another call from Boban late in the evening, asking me to come to the town of Banja Luka to their base and spend the whole day with them. Given the fact that Banja Luka is located in the north of Bosnia and the places we were set to visit are in the southeast of the country, I saw it as an opportunity to make the air shots of almost an entire half of the country.

The first landing was a terrifying experience. I will never forget it. We landed in a small, isolated town of Berkovici. The wind was blowing at over 60 km per hour pushing the helicopter up and down as if we were in an amusement park. It seemed surreal. When we finally managed to land, they took the coordinates of the town for the urgent medical evacuation. I stayed in Berkovici shooting the local authority premises, over one metre of snow on the streets and snow-covered vehicles. The helicopter came for me shortly afterwards and we were just about to take off to deliver food and medicines when an alert came that an elderly man from the village of Donji Drezani suffered a stroke. Access to the village was possible only by helicopter since it is located in the middle of nowhere. However, the villagers made a huge mistake, providing a landing spot under the electric cables of a power line. I thought this would turn into a disaster. One of the two pilots had to pull his head through the window and give directions to the other one in order to land safely on the lawn next to the improvised heliport. We took the sick man in heading towards the capital Sarajevo but on our way, we ran out of fuel and had to land wherever possible.

Our next stop turned out to be Nevesinje, another snow-isolated town left for five days without water or electricity. It was another opportunity to take good photos – ones never made before, as the city was cut-off from the rest of the country. Cars were entirely covered by snow. People were carrying bottles of water in the streets. It was so tiresome at a temperature of -17 degrees centigrade with an almost unbearable wind.

Towards the end of the day we got the fuel. The helicopter finally took off late in the evening carrying us to Sarajevo. It was such a good feeling. After three days of hard work in an attempt to make unique photos I was on my way home. The night view of snow-covered Bosnian cities was simply breathtaking. The image will stay sealed in my memory for as long as I live.

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