Fighting Over, Bosnian Soldiers Struggle to Rebuild Lives
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ After four years of fighting on pride, cigarettes and humanitarian food packages, Bosnian army soldiers were just getting their first taste of military success when the war stopped.
Now, in peace, the army faces more serious problems: what to do with tens of thousands of demobilized soldiers when unemployment is running 75 percent, and how to cover soldiers’ back pay totaling millions of dollars.
``Our goal is to demobilize those who can return to their jobs,″ Chief of Staff Gen. Enver Hadzihasanovic told the Sarajevo daily Dnevni Avaz on Monday. ``Until we are sure that each and every one of the demobilized can find a new job, either in a company or open a private business, we will keep them in the army.″
Easier said than done.
Thousands of soldiers _ mainly students and older men _ already have been mustered out of the army. Most have walked out of the barracks into the desolation of Bosnia’s shattered economy.
Dino Tanovic, a war veteran at 28, summed up his predicament.
``I have no apartment, I lost my house, I have no job, I have no money,″ he said bitterly. ``For the last four years the army was everything for me. Now I am nowhere.″
A volunteer for the Muslim-led Bosnian army as soon as war erupted in 1992, Tanovic served on almost every front across Bosnia until being seriously wounded in 1994.
Transferred to the police, he worked as a combat dog trainer, but now that job is disappearing.
Like most of his comrades, Tanovic never received a cent from the army. Payment came in the form of cigarettes, humanitarian aid for his family, food for him _ and a feeling of pride in doing his duty.
The Muslim-led army started the war vastly outgunned by Bosnian Serbs who inherited arms from the Yugoslav military. It then survived bitter fighting with Bosnian Croats, its onetime allies.
Gradually organizing and arming, government troops resisted doggedly and began to notch victories last fall after reviving the Croat alliance. Then a U.S.-brokered peace deal stopped the fighting.
``If we hadn’t been forced to stop then, maybe we could have liberated everything and now been in Banja Luka,″ the Bosnian Serbs’ northern stronghold, said Tanovic. ``But... it’s good that the war and the killing have stopped.″
The government honored its fighters Monday in its fourth annual Army Day holiday.
But the ceremonial march past President Alija Izetbegovic at a Sarajevo cemetery could not disguise the fact that the cash-strapped state cannot afford the soldiers’ back pay.
The government announced it would open bank accounts for all soldiers and pay them an average of $13,000 in monthly installments of $260.
Under the plan, soldiers would not be able to withdraw cash, however. They could use it to pay utility bills, buy state-owned land, apartments or premises to start up businesses.
Disabled vets would receive around $16,600, and the families of soldiers killed in combat and fighters with severe injuries would get $20,000.
The total bill runs into millions of dollars, and many veterans are skeptical the government can pay.
``I am definitely not counting on this money,″ Tanovic said. ``I’ll have to find a way to survive on my own.″
Deputy Defense Minister Hasan Cengic says some 180,000 men will be demobilized by mid-June, reducing Bosnia’s army to 50,000 troops.
World Bank spokesman Klas Bergman said reducing unemployment and getting ex-soldiers back to work were ``the key priority″ for reconstruction.
But many soldiers, especially the young who swapped the schoolroom for the trenches, say their future is bleak.
``The only thing I have learned in these last four years is how to fire a machine-gun, throw hand grenades, fight,″ said Amir Latinovic. ``At first I was thrilled the war was over and that I was out of the army, but now I realize that there’s nothing else I can do, or know how to do.″
The 22-year-old has no patience to return to school.
``I would have to learn stuff I was supposed to learn when I was 18,″ he said. ``I simply can’t do it. I’d shoot the teacher if he gave me a bad grade.″