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Making Ends Meet in a Land Struggling for Survival

October 6, 1996

POREBRICE, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ Luka Dabic, a Bosnian Serb, is the assistant to the president of the Dabic Trading Company.

The president of the new enterprise, he says with an infectious grin, is his energetic wife.

DTC international headquarters is only a simple wooden stall sunk ankle-deep in mud near what used to be the confrontation line of Bosnia’s war. But it is one of thousands of humble ventures that improve the odds for personal survival as well as economic cooperation.

Muslims, Serbs and Croats pack the massive open market that has sprung up about 30 miles north of Tuzla on the Muslim-Croat side of the zone, across from the Serb portion of Bosnia.

Dabic, a 42-year-old unemployed mining technician, helps his wife sell ``duty-free″ clothing of dubious origin in a venture that could just as well be called ``Making Ends Meet, Bosnian Style.″

There are thousands of DTCs in this war-ravaged land, people struggling to grub a few dinars, deutschemarks or dollars to feed their families.

``Everybody is busy with business,″ Dabic said, waving an arm at the scores of stalls, trucks and cars selling everything from plastic buckets to auto parts to parakeets. ``Nobody ever mentions politics here.″

Why shouldn’t that be true everywhere in Bosnia?

``Well, there are politicians,″ Dabic says with a sigh. ``There are people with vested interests. There are high, middle and lower interests.

``This is the lower interest,″ he said, nodding toward his stall, ``the one close to the mud.″

Bosnia has begun to bustle in the nine months since NATO-led forces deployed to enforce peace. Holes are patched. Boarded-up shops and shot-up gas stations have reopened.

But much of the activity stems more from desperation than from realistic expectations.

Jusuf Suljkanovic, an out-of-work chemical engineer, flips burgers in a slapped-together stand near a U.S. Army installation. The 46-year-old Muslim admires the line of hungry camouflage-clad American soldiers, but knows his customer base plans to pull out.

``I have established a company, and if I can get a bank loan, maybe I’ll try trading in my specialty, polyethylene plastics,″ he said. But loans and investment are scarce in this unstable country and besides his hard work, Suljkanovic will need a lot of luck.

Nuraga Dzombic, 53, a retired coal miner with an irregular pension, still relies on his own sweat. He spent his working life in a coal mine where conditions were so bad, every year counted as 16 months toward retirement. He receives a monthly compensation of about $93 plus four tons of coal, which he sells for extra cash.

Fortunately, there’s a small piece of land near Srebrenik in federation territory, where Dzombic has a cow, a vegetable garden and a lot of energy.

``I work harder now than I did in the mines,″ he says, sipping powerful plum brandy, followed by thick, sweet coffee and some fresh white curd cheese slathered with cream.

He has surplus potatoes. But since he would only earn about $13 for 220 pounds of them, he’d rather feed them to his cow.

Nonetheless, he says, he’s better off than he was a year ago. At least, for now, the fear is gone. And he has a house and furniture. Others don’t, he says, and have to work even harder.

Over the market drifts the mouth-watering, smoky aroma of roasting pork. Outside a ramshackle restaurant, Rajko Stoparic, a 36-year-old former printer, sells the pigs he has slaughtered.

Diners sit inside, taking in the sights and smells. A few young women offer their most personal wares. Everything is for sale.

Stoparic would sell pigs in his own village of Pelagicevo, but customers still are reluctant to venture into Serb territory. So he dresses them at home, crosses the line and delivers to the Muslim side.

``This is a gathering of people of good will,″ he says, drawing slowly on a cigarette and sweeping his eyes over the huge market.

``I hope the economy will finally link these people.″

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