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Sick Suffer in Isolated Yugoslavia

December 20, 1997

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ At 4 months, the precariously underweight Ardin Mahmuti doesn’t struggle to live so much as listlessly acquiesce to the intravenous drips and artificial lungs that keep him from dying.

Mahmuti is one of about 40 Yugoslav children urgently in need of heart surgery at Belgrade’s Mother and Child Health Care Institute. Some 270 other youngsters with heart disease are also on the waiting list, which has lengthened as the hospital has cut back operations to about one-third their 1990 level. Some of the sick go abroad for surgery; some die.

These are among the youngest victims of Yugoslavia’s isolation, the result of their leaders’ incitement of war in Bosnia and the punitive, five-year international sanctions that followed. Sanctions were lifted two years ago, but their legacy lives on in a broken economy where only the well-connected and corrupt can thrive.

The theme of isolation is at the center of this weekend’s runoff election, the fourth attempt to replace Slobodan Milosevic as president of Serbia. Constitutionally barred from a third term, he took over the federal presidency of Yugoslavia in July.

Sunday’s race pits ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj against Milosevic loyalist Milan Milutinovic. A U.S. envoy has branded Seselj a fascist, and his victory would widen the gulf between Yugoslavia and the international community. Milutinovic, Yugoslavia’s foreign minister, focuses on the need to rejoin the world _ though his government has done little to encourage it.

Businesses are hungry for world markets, but as they try to reestablish contacts, many find that major partners lost interest.

The former Soviet Union and its satellites have shifted their business elsewhere, and Middle East countries that once welcomed hordes of Yugoslav engineers have rallied behind Muslim-led Bosnia.

``We have been in an almost claustrophobic situation. We couldn’t maintain contact with people with whom we’d been in almost permanent contact,″ said Vladan Batanovic, general manager of Belgrade’s Mihajlo Pupin Institute, which once supplied sophisticated production control systems in Western Europe and the Middle East.

``The picture of the country is not a happy announcement for the company.... Serbia is seen as some kind of wild kid.″

Batanovic said his company spent the past few years mostly on research and development, producing computerized systems to regulate water distribution and toll collection devices that are cheaper than its international competitors.

Yet potential buyers would still need credit. Yugoslavia’s companies don’t have cash, and can’t get loans at home or abroad. The United States, hoping to encourage further cooperation in peace efforts, has blocked Yugoslavia from rejoining world financial bodies.

Hardest hit have been public services, starved of state support and kept going by infrequent humanitarian donations.

The health sector, once the envy of Yugoslavia’s socialist neighbors, has plummeted. Doctors go unpaid for months, broken-down medical equipment is scrapped for lack of spare parts and once easily-curable diseases are again taking a toll.

``In this department, we rely completely on donations from abroad,″ said Mila Stajevic-Popovic, the surgeon who heads the pediatric cardiac surgery unit at the Mother and Child Institute. She said the rest of the health field was no better off.

A visit last month from a Memphis, Tenn.-based doctor boosted her supplies and spirits. Dr. William Novick brought a secondhand ultrasound machine, medicine and 13 colleagues to help train the Belgrade staff. Together, they performed several operations.

Dozens of other children still await treatment. Mahmuti, the 4-month-old, weighed in at just 7.7 pounds, and was ravaged by infections that made immediate operation impossible. Through tubes running into his nose and neck, he is receiving the nourishment and antibiotics to allow him to withstand open heart surgery.

The tiny, wan child was the worst-off in the ward, but hardly the only example of the price of isolation.

``There are huge vitamin deficiencies, the likes of which my parents saw after World War II, and a big increase in diarrheal diseases,″ said Dr. Stajevic-Popovic.

``Children die of simple bronchial illnesses because immunity has gone down during the past few years.″