Former fighters share similar destinies

Twenty years after the start of the war in the former Yugoslavia, war veterans from across the region continue to face existential challenges on a daily basis, though their respective problems vary from country to country.

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By Denis Dzidic, Boris Pavelic and Marija Ristic

In the middle of May, two sworn enemies during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina – the Army of Republika Srpska and Zelene Beretke, the now defunct Bosniak army unit – each celebrated their twentieth anniversaries, separated by only four days. Almost fifteen years after the end of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, former soldiers remain at the mercy of tough economic conditions, with the level of respect demonstrated towards them varying between Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia. War veterans in Bosnia and Serbia feel that they are remembered only on state military occasions or when politicians want to play the patriotic card. Poor economic conditions, meanwhile, have impacted the amount of state aid ex-soldiers receive, leaving many of them destitute. On the other hand, war veterans in Croatia regard themselves as well treated.

Croatian warriors for independence

In a country of around four million people, on the verge of joining the EU, an eighth of Croats are classed as former warriors who fought for the country’s independence from Yugoslavia. Predrag Matic, the current Croatian minister of veterans’ affairs and himself a war veteran, says that the exact number of war veterans in Croatia remains unknown. “We do not know the exact number of people that participated in the war. However, the former president of Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, said back in 1996 that around 360,000 people fought in the war. That estimate got higher over time, but the veracity of that data is doubtful,” said Matic. “Croatia really holds its defenders in high regard, because we were the victorious army,” he added.

Croatia, unlike many other countries, including neighboring Serbia, has a ministry with responsibilities for war veterans. The state allocates around €800m to war veterans; about 5% of the annual state budget. Despite the Croatian record of care for their former fighters, there are still discordant voices. Mirko Ljubicic, president of the Zagreb-based, Croatian Disabled Homeland War Veterans Association (Hvidra), feels that society ignores the plight of those left permanently disabled by their war-time injuries. “We should not mix up war veterans and war invalids. We are the ones who shed our blood, and we cannot be compared to those who fought for only one month. War invalids paid the highest price in the Croatian War of Independence,” complains Ljubicic. “Politicians gave us verbal support, but they never act. For example we want at least public transport to be free,” he explains.

Soldiers of Greater Serbia

The picture in Serbia is less nuanced. War veterans feel invisible and they are angry both with their government and their society. Milomir Nikolic, a veteran of the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, says that the authorities are not interested in helping their ex-soldiers. “The state simply does not have the money. And you can bet that we are the last ones in line for money. There are more important things for them now. They’ve used us and cast us aside,” Nikolic points out. “ I remember in the 1990s we were respected, but as the state collapsed, we collapsed too,” he added.

Back in the nineties, when the dissolution of Yugoslavia began, Serbia was the legal successor of the old socialist state, meaning that it also assumed control over the then Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA). The exact number of war veterans in Serbia is unknown. While the state estimates the number at around half of million, the war veterens societies believe that the number is much higher. “Our data shows that there are around 700,000 people who fought for Serbia during the nineties“ says Mile Milosevic, the president of the Serbian War Veterans’ Society. Milosevic claims that the majority of the war veterans did not receive a penny from the state, describing their treatment as shameful.

Around 3,000 former fighters filed charges against Serbia at the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg, as they are dissatisfied with their position and the state’s attitude towards them. They claim that the state violated their basic human rights, requesting reparations from the authorities.vSerbia has only one department – within the Ministry for Labour and Social Work – dealing with the problems of war veterans, but their support is limited only to helping disabled veterans and the families of dead soldiers.

Bosnia’s three-part army

The picture in Bosnia is even more complex. Having found themselves on opposing sides during the Bosnian war – as members of either the Bosnian army, the Croatian Defence Council or the Bosnian Serb army – many soldiers went on to serve together in the post-war Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Two years ago, Bosnia’s state parliament changed the law on the armed forces, obliging all men over 35 to retire and promising them pensions if they did so. The aim was to rejuvenate the army and bring in more young met. Parliament, however, failed to allocate pension money for the early retirees, leading to protests by the ex-fighters.

Narcis Misanovic, a former soldier with the Bosnian army, says that the war veterans are currently the most vulnerable group in the country. “During the bloody war they were patting us on the back, and now we are going through the rubbish bins. The majority of former fighters are now living on the edge of existence,” complains Misanovic. A former soldier of the Croatian Defence Council, Zlatko Prkic, argues that the state is trying to bamboozle their former fighters. Whether or not they were Bosniaks, Croats or Serbs, the most honest soldiers suffered the most. “We simply do not have a state. They are trying to trick us all the time. We do not have rights, we do not have laws that address our needs, or a state that would respect those laws,” Prkic complains.

Bosnia’s war veterans demand from the state free healthcare, pensions and disability fees, plus priority in healthcare and employment. Pantelija Curguz, president of the war veteran organization from Republika Srpska, shares Prkic’s concerns but is more optimistic. He says that ex-soldiers share the fate of the society as a whole, but he sees the possibility of improving the position of war veterans. “The government should, for example, create new jobs for former fighters, so that they are not so over reliant on social aid,” adds Curguz.

Consequences of the war

Former soldiers are having a difficult time adapting to peacetime, the social psychologist Ismet Dizdarevic explains, because while they enjoyed the support of their communities during the war, now they are forgotten amidst a “vast number of daily problems”. “Everyone supported the soldiers during the war. People took from their own mouths to feed them, but now they see they have no support system. They cannot believe that after they gave everything during the war, they are now facing hunger,” said Dizdarevic.

Ivica Pancic, a Croatian analyst and former minister for veteran affairs, says that the veterans across the region are facing the same existential problems. “For a large number of soldiers, the war was the most important event in their life, and back then they felt important. When the war finished, they were back on the social margins, “said Pancic. “We should not forget that among those ex-soldiers there are great people, who remained that way even though they suffered a lot. But there were others as well, who will be, with or without the war, a disgrace to humanity,” concludes Pancic.

This article was originally published by Balkan Insight’s Balkan Transitional Justice initiative, a regional initiative funded by the European Commission and the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland that aims to improve the general public’s understanding of transitional justice issues in former Yugoslav countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia).

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