Analysis 28 May 12

Former Fighters Share Similar Destinies

Almost twenty years after the war, war veterans across the region feel neglected, but still their problems vary from country to country.

Denis Dzidic, Boris Pavelic, Marija Ristic
Sarajevo, Zagreb, Beograd
Croatian soldiers holding the pictures of their colleagues who died during the war I Photo by Croatian Ministry for War Veterans

In the middle of May two sworn enemies during the war in Bosnia, the Army of Republika Srpska and Zelene Beretke, now defunct Bosniak army unit, celebrated the 20th anniversary of their formation separated by 4 days.

Almost 15 years after the end of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia the former soldiers are at the mercy of the economic conditions and the level of respect given to them varies between Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia.

The war veterans in Bosnia and Serbia feel that they are remembered only on the state military occasions or when the politicians want to play the patriotic card. The hard economic conditions have impacted the amount of state aid that ex soldiers receive, leaving many of them destitute.

On the other hand, the war veterans in Croatia regard themselves as well treated.

Croatian Warriors for Independence

Croatian soldiers paying a homage to the victims in the town of Vukovar I Photo by Croatian Ministry for War Veterans

In a country of around 4 million people, on the verge of entering the EU, an eighth of Croats are former warriors who fought for the country’s independence from Yugoslavia.

Predrag Matic, war veteran himself and the current Croatian minister for war veterans says that the exact number of war veterans in the country is 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 the 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 800 millions euros to war veterans, about 5 % of this year state budget.

Despite the Croatian record of care for their former fighters there are still discordant voices.

Mirko Ljubicic, president of the Zagreb based organization for war invalids Hvidra, feels that society ignores the plight of those left permanently disabled by their wartime 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 the Greater Serbia

Serbian war veterans protesting in the town of Valjevo I Photo by Beta 

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 told BIRN.  “ I remember in the 1990s we were respected, but as the state collapsed, we collapsed too,” he added.

Back in the 1990s, when the dissolution of Yugoslavia began, Serbia was the legal successor of the old socialist state, which meant 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 vets societies believe that the number is much higher.

“Our data shows that there are around 700,000 people who fought for Serbia during the 1990s,“ 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 in front of the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg since they are dissatisfied with their position and the state attitude towards them. They claim that the state violated their basic human rights, requesting reparations from the authorities.

Serbia has only one department, within the Ministry for Labour and Social Work, which deals 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

Former Bosnian soldiers sleeping in front of the government building I Photo by AP Amel Emric

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 of the soldiers went on to serve together in the Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, after the war.

Two years ago Bosnia's state parliament changed the law on the armed forces, obliging men over 35 to retire and promising them pensions if they did so. The aim was to rejuvenate the army and bring in more youngsters.

But parliament failed to allocate pension money for the early retirees, which led 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.

Former soldier of the Croatian Defence Council, Zlatko Prkic, complains 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 told BIRN.

Bosnian war vets demand from the state to enable them free healthcare, pensions, disability fees for those disabled as a result of war, 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 the ex soldiers share the fate of the society as a whole, which is facing economic difficulties, but he sees the possibility of improvement in the position of the 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

The 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, Croatian analysts 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.

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