Operation Sandbag: German Troops Gain Fans on Flood Front

By in Osterholz, Germany

Photo Gallery: The Bundeswehr to the Rescue Photos
SPIEGEL ONLINE

Germany's flood relief efforts have prompted the Bundeswehr's biggest-ever humanitarian mission on German soil, with 19,000 troops deployed. For some, the military presence evokes alarming images, but flood victims have learned to appreciate the help.

It doesn't require much imagination to evoke a war zone while driving through the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt in Germany these days. Makeshift walls of stacked sandbags greet visitors on the outskirts of towns, much like the protective barriers used in urban combat zones. Army vans can frequently be seen rushing along rural roads. Convoys of trucks, armored cars and buses pass through the countryside. As the Elbe River draws closer, ever more military helicopters can be seen rumbling across the sky. The people of the towns of Stendal, Wittenberge and Tangermünde have become accustomed to the drumming noise that lasts well into the night.

This is another side of the flood disaster that has hit Germany and parts of Central Europe this summer. Of course, thousands of volunteers help to shovel sand and carry sandbags and support fire departments, police and workers with the Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW), whose people give their all in the fight against the flood. But there are also up to 19,000 soldiers supporting relief operations throughout Germany during peak times. According to the Bundeswehr itself, this is the biggest domestic humanitarian operation in the history of the German armed forces. The army, recently covered in the news largely for its failed drone program, is now generating positive headlines again. At the same time, it is also regaining the trust of a German people who have traditionally been skeptical of the nation's armed forces.

The people of Saxony-Anhalt really don't seem to have a problem with the military presence right outside their doorsteps. Working together on the levees has brought the people together with their military. "What we can't accomplish on our own, we'll do together," German pop star Xavier Naidoo sings in a sentimental song clip that is played regularly on a local radio station. It's interspersed with moving statements from flood victims thanking their helpers -- especially the army. Messages like, "Thank you, Bundeswehr!" Similar ones can be found on the many self-made banners that line the streets.

Cake for the Soldiers

Providing food and other essentials for the troops has become a favorite activity for volunteers, with homemade cakes proving especially popular.

"At first we came to fill sandbags," says Liane Gieschler of the village of Iden in the district of Stendal. "It was too crowded though. We only managed to hit each other in the head with our shovels." But Gieschler has found a new mission. She's taken charge of providing food to the troops in her area. On this particular day, she's on duty at the levee in Osterholz together with her daughter. Several dozen soldiers are working here in sweat-drenched tank tops. With friendly hoots, they accept Gieschler's cake and coffee from thermos dispensers.

"I've never experienced such a positive relationship with the civilian population," says Bundeswehr spokesman André Sabzog. "We can't even eat all the masses of pizza and cake that people are bringing." Sabzog vehemently denies that the flood disaster creates a unique opportunity to polish the troops' image. "The opposite is true," he says. "We are not consciously doing something to look good here. We're doing something good and that's why we are welcomed by people."

But of course armed forces officials are fully aware of the enormous positive impact images of their soldiers working to exhaustion have. "We should probably open a recruitment center here," Lt. Col. Holder Peterat, who is responsible for the troops along the western shore of the Elbe River in the county of Stendal, jokes. "For the young men it's great what we're doing here, of course." He has hardly finished the sentence when he is forced to duck into the grass and grasp his sunglasses as a heavy transport helicopter booms over the heads of his men. It's supposed to drop off a large bag filled to the brim with sandbags at a critical location on the Osterholz dike.

Combined Efforts

Osterholz is a tiny settlement located on the shore of the Elbe River a few kilometers north of Stendal: A deserted farm, a lot of mud, a few houses in between and a single street called Dorfstrasse, or Village Street, is all there is. On Monday, a crack was discovered in the levee protecting the people from the river's swollen waters. Since then support teams in Osterholz have been doing everything in their power to save the dike: 500 soldiers, 300 fire fighters and the federal relief organization THW are contributing to the effort.

Every few minutes a helicopter with sandbags attached to a dangling hook rumbles over the flooded meadows. The fractured part of the dike can hardly be reached overland. That's where the helicopters come into play. As they pass just above the heads of the men, the wind of the propeller sends the muddy water splattering to the sides. Two men with bare feet stand at the base of the dike and wave the pilots into the right position. As soon as the bag is dropped, the helicopter dashes off to get another one.

Until Monday, Thies Knudsen headed the troops in Wittenberge, a little further north of the Elbe crossing. Because his battalion was detached, he ended up joining the effort in Osterholz. "They were almost sad there because we were leaving," Knudsen says about the people in Wittenberge. "Every day at the same time two women came with wooden handcarts to deliver cake. Almost everyone here has had similar experiences. A lieutenant general reports that residents organized daily dinners for his troops in the provisional accommodation set up in a local gymnasium. Every night a different street was in charge of cooking. He believes the effort is most likely coordinated through Facebook, he assumes.

Floods of Appreciation

With its flood relief efforts, the army appears to have won the hearts of the people in Saxony-Anhalt. And people truly don't seem to be bothered by the fact that they have to get off the street every few kilometers to let a military convoy roll by. People in uniforms and armored cars have become a part of the landscape, and the noise of the helicopters keeps everyone awake at night, but for most that's a small price to pay for the help they are receiving.

"Sure, the countless helicopters are driving people a little crazy," says Andreas Bethge of the volunteer fire department in the village of Schwarzholz. He's helping to secure the dike. "But it's nothing new to us after the flood in 2002, and the cooperation with the armed forces works flawlessly." He puts his arm around his wife, who has come to join him during his mission on this day. She's nine months pregnant. With her big baby bump she stands at a picnic table and hands out cake, coffee and juice: provisions for the troops.

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