Anger and poverty unite former enemies in Bosnia

Jan 31, 2012, 7:45 PM

Associated Press

KOCINOVAC, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) – They were bitter enemies on opposite sides of the front line during the horrors of the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. Now, one side is bailing out the other in an act of once-unimaginable generosity.

In 2010, soldiers above 35 years old were forced to retire as Bosnia tried to rejuvenate its army. But the checks never came _ and hundreds of them fell into poverty.

Slavko Rasevic, a Bosnian Serb veteran, was one of them. Things got so bad he had to siphon electricity from a neighbor’s home because he couldn’t pay the bills. He couldn’t even afford bus fare to get his three kids to school.

Then, just as he was about to tell his 17-year-old daughter she’d have to drop out of school, he got a bit of unexpected news. The men he used to fight against were sending him part of their pensions.

“High praise to those people over there,” he told The Associated Press.

It’s the latest example of former enemies edging closer together in a country still scarred by the legacy of Europe’s worst bloodshed since World War II, one of a series of conflicts that grew out of the breakup of Yugoslavia. Since then, Muslim Bosniaks, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs have banded together in railway strikes and now serve together in the army. But this is the first time people from one side have reached into their pockets to help the others.

Rasevic joined the Bosnian Serb army 20 years ago to fight against Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats in a war that killed 100,000 people and turned almost 2 million, including him, into refugees.

The violence ended with a 1995 peace agreement that carved the once-multiethnic part of Yugoslavia into two ethnic mini-states _ a Bosnian Serb republic and a Bosniak-Croat federation.

A decade later the three wartime ethnic armies melded into one. As a professional soldier, Rasevic found himself sharing army barracks with his former enemies. That was a major move toward reconciliation for a country that still struggles with ethnic mistrust and is held together by an international administrator.

In 2010, parliament forced older soldiers to retire but failed to allocate pension funds in the budget. Then the six parties that won Bosnia’s national election were unable to form a government because of disputes over which ethnic group will run which ministry _ and the country has been rudderless ever since.

With no government, there’s no budget _ and no pensions for retired veterans.

Pressed by veteran protests, the government of the Bosniak-Croat region agreed to pay some 160 euros ($210) per month from its own budget to retired soldiers in its territory for as long as it takes to pass the national budget. However, the Bosnian Serb region refused to do the same for its veterans.

So Bosniak and Croat soldiers banded together to create a lifeline for their less fortunate former foes _ contributing 5 euros ($6.50) each to a Bosnian Serb veterans’ fund.

Instead of spreading the first collection of about 5,000 euros ($6,500) thinly over hundreds of people, Bosnian Serb veterans decided the most desperate would get substantial chunks of money.

This month, Rasevic was singled out as one of the first to benefit. His family and another one will get 500 euros ($650) each, while 55 other struggling Bosnian Serb vets will get 60 euros ($78) each.

Anger over how politicians are treating veterans has generated a wave of solidarity among former foes in this country with 30 percent unemployment.

Bosnian Serb veteran Rade Dzeletovic is in charge of distributing the money.

“It was a shock,” Dzeletovic says of the campaign. “We shot at each other once and now this comes from them.”

In Gorazde, on the other side of Bosnia’s ethnic boundary, Bosniak Senad Hubijer is amazed at how politicians are unwittingly contributing to ethnic reconciliation.

“When we were 16, politicians gave us guns and forced us to kill each other. Now their ignorance is forcing us to help each other,” he said.

During the war, Hubijer could not have imagined setting foot in the nearby majority Bosnian Serb town of Rogatica. Now he drives through it when he goes to Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, to protest against the government together with Bosnian Serb veterans.

Veteran Nihad Grabovica, a Bosniak, can’t help but laugh at the historical irony.

“I am now helping the people who shot at me so they can feed their children,” he said.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Anger and poverty unite former enemies in Bosnia