BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — At least 11,000 villagers have been trapped by heavy snow and blizzards in Serbia's mountains, authorities said Thursday, as the death toll from Eastern Europe's weeklong deep freeze rose to 123, many of them homeless people.
The harshest winter in decades has seen temperatures in some regions dropping to minus 30 C (minus 22 F) and below, and has caused power outages, traffic chaos and the widespread closure of schools, nurseries and airports.
The stranded in Serbia are stuck in some 6,500 homes in remote areas that cannot be reached due to icy, snow-clogged roads with banks reaching up to 5 meters (16 feet). Emergency crews were pressing hard to try to clear the snow to deliver badly needed supplies, and helicopters were dispatched to some particularly remote areas in Serbia and neighboring Bosnia.
On Bosnia's Mt. Romanija, near Sarajevo, a chopper thumped down in the small hamlet of Ozerkovici, where a single nun lives in a Serb Christian Orthodox monastery surrounded by just a few village residents.
Wrapped tight in a black jacket and a scarf, Sister Justina greeted aid workers at her monastery: "I live alone here," she said, but noted "God will help me."
In Serbia, relief efforts are concentrated on evacuating the sick, on food delivery and gasoline distribution.
"We are trying everything to unblock the roads since more snow and blizzards are expected in the coming days," Serbian emergency police official Predrag Maric told The Associated Press.
He said "the most dramatic" situation is near Serbia's southwestern town of Sijenica, where it has been freezing cold or snowing for 26 days, and diesel fuel supplies used by snowplows are running low.
Most people in the villages will have enough food supplies stored up for the winter, Maric said, but he warned those who are stranded not to try to go anywhere on their own and to call emergency services if they need help.
Newly reported deaths on Thursday because of the cold included 20 in Ukraine, nine in Poland, eight in Romania, and one more each in Serbia and the Czech Republic. In Western Europe, one person was reported dead in Germany and one in Italy.
Polish government spokeswoman Malgorzata Wozniak said her country's victims were mostly homeless people under the influence of alcohol who had sought shelter in unheated buildings. Officials appealed to the public to quickly help anyone they saw in need and homeless shelters were full.
In Warsaw, where the temperature Wednesday night was minus 22 C (minus 8 F), the narrow corridors of the Monar homeless shelter were filled with drying washing, and the residents crammed into a small dining room with bowls of soup.
Martyna, pregnant and unemployed, said she was grateful to find a place there after her family rejected her and her partner.
"This is the only safe place for me, where I can live and hide — from this sudden cold, too," the 22-year-old said. "I have nowhere else to go." She refused to give her last name, saying she didn't want anyone to know she was staying there.
Brothers Robert, 32, and Wieslaw, 27, arrived last week from Inowroclaw, in central Poland, saying they were promised full-time jobs that never materialized. They would have been left in the cold, but someone told them to go to the center, which currently houses 278 people.
"We don't have to worry anymore where we will spend the night," said Wieslaw.
"It is so cold outside that you don't want to leave here," his brother agreed.
Firefighters in Poland say that eleven people have died since Friday from asphyxiation with carbon monoxide, when they were using charcoal heaters to warm their homes.
In Ukraine, 63 people have died from the cold in the last week. Nearly 950 others were hospitalized with hypothermia and frostbite, and more than 2,000 heated tents have been set up with hot food for the homeless.
In Italy's financial capital of Milan, officials said a homeless man died from exposure Thursday.
About 180 schools were closed in Romania because of the freezing cold. Three ships were blocked on the Danube River — one German, one Dutch and one Romanian — and efforts were made to unblock them from ice.
In Bulgaria, where 16 towns recorded their lowest temperatures since records started 100 years ago, 1,070 schools across the country remained closed Thursday and large sections of the Danube were frozen, hampering navigation. Some villages in Bosnia have had no electricity for days and crews were working around-the-clock trying to fix power lines.
Temperatures in parts of Germany were as low as minus 11 Celsius (12 Fahrenheit) Thursday afternoon. In the eastern city of Magdeburg, police said a 55-year-old homeless man who apparently had frozen to death was found Thursday morning.
While the weather has yet to cause any significant disruption in the country, ferry services across the mouth of the Elbe river in northern Germany were suspended due to ice on Thursday.
However, the cold wave wasn't causing hardship everywhere.
Dutch authorities banned boats from some of Amsterdam's canals and waterways in the hope the big freeze gripping the city would turn the still water to ice and allow residents to go skating. They also turned off mills and pumps that regulate water levels in the low-lying, flood-prone nation to improve the chances of canals freezing over.
Speed skating is a winter obsession in the Netherlands and hopes are high about the possibility of holding the Elfstedentocht — or "11 Town Tour" — skating race being staged for the first time since 1997.
The 200-kilometer (125-mile) tour route takes skaters over frozen canals and lakes linking 11 towns in the northern Netherlands. The tour, which is also a race for elite skaters, has only been staged 15 times since the first official event in 1909.
Monika Scislowska reported from Warsaw. Radul Radovanovic and Aida Cerkez in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Alina Wolfe Murray in Bucharest, Romania, Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, Frances D'Emilio in Rome and Mike Corder in the Netherlands contributed to this report.