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Djokovic reunites Balkans in flood aid campaign

Thursday, May 22, 2014 | 7:43 p.m. CDT
Evacuated people sit in the police vehicle leaving Obrenovac, some 18 miles southwest of Belgrade, Serbia on Sunday. Floodwaters triggered more than 2,000 landslides across much of the Balkans on Sunday, laying waste to entire towns and villages and disturbing land mines left over from the region’s 1990s war, along with warning signs that marked the unexploded devices. Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic has sparked worldwide financial and media support for victims of the massive floods.

BELGRADE, Serbia — Novak Djokovic has achieved what no politician has managed since the bloody Balkan wars in the 1990s — he's gotten the former wartime enemies to pull together.

The world's No. 2 tennis player has sparked worldwide financial and media support for victims of the massive floods that have killed at least 45 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless in Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia.

The Serb has in the past triggered fury in the other former Yugoslav republics for what people considered nationalistic gestures, such as celebrating his victories with a three-finger victory sign that was used by Serb soldiers during their wartime campaigns in Croatia and Bosnia.

What has set Djokovic's flood campaign apart is that he also sought support for Bosnia and Croatia which were at war with Serbia. All three states still harbor a deep mutual hatred and distrust, 20 yearsc after the wars ended and the former Yugoslavia split up into different countries.

"My heart is breaking when I see that so many people were evacuated and endangered in Bosnia! More than 950,000!!! Hold on brothers ... help will come from the world," Djokovic wrote on Twitter. "I also see that the east of Croatia is hit by floods ... I sincerely hope that it will not hit you like Serbia and Bosnia. Keep safe."

"Long live the people of former Yugoslavia. Let God be with you," he wrote, adding a map of the former Yugoslavia with the flags of now different countries.

The region's worst flooding in more than a century has triggered unprecedented regional solidarity in the Balkans, with the former Yugoslav countries sending rescue teams and humanitarian aid to each other over their borders.

After beating top-ranked Rafael Nadal in the final of the Masters tournament in Rome on Sunday, Djokovic donated all the prize money — about $500,000 — to the flood victims. His charity foundation collected another $600,000.

"There have not been floods like this in the existence of our people," Djokovic said. "It is a total catastrophe of biblical proportions. I don't really know how to describe it."

Djokovic's gestures triggered mostly positive public support in both Croatia and Bosnia.

"I'm not Djokovic's supporter or like tennis," said Davor Buric, a university student in Zagreb, the Croatian capital. "It is nice that he mentioned not only Serbia, but also Croatia and Bosnia. Djokovic has nothing to do with the war, and I have never heard him saying anything against other nationalities."

In Bosnia, national soccer team coach Safet Susic said Djokovic had won "the support of the whole of Bosnia" with his campaign, and promised to support him in the upcoming Grand Slam tournaments — the French Open and Wimbledon. Djokovic replied by saying he will support Bosnia at the World Cup in Brazilc.

Such sentiments in Bosnia and Croatia have prompted some commentators to nickname him "Marshal Djokovic" after Marshal Josip Broz Tito, the post-World War II Yugoslav communist leader who managed to keep Yugoslavia united — with an iron fist. After his death in 1980, the country started unraveling along ethnic lines.

"This water ... has destroyed what we have been building for the past 20 years," wrote prominent Croatian writer Vedrana Rudan in an ironic commentary on her web site.

"Djokovic has sketched the map of Yugoslavia, he greets both our and his people ... the slaughter has separated us, the drowning has reunited us."


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