Feature 01 Sep 17

The Everyday Desperation of Bosnia’s Protesting Veterans

War veterans in Bosnia’s Bosniak-Croat Federation entity have been protesting all summer for better conditions - but officials say there isn’t enough money in the budget to pay for the benefits they want.

Igor Spaic BIRN Sarajevo
Nail Salihovic and protesting veterans in one of their tents outside the Federation parliament. Photo: BIRN.

The grassy patch of ground in front of the Federation entity’s government building has been Nail Salihovic’s home for more than two months - so much so that he now seems used to wearing slippers in downtown Sarajevo.

For the past 78 days, and throughout an exceptionally hot summer, Salihovic and several dozen other veterans have been camping out in tents outside the government building, trying to draw attention to their impoverished situation.

They are so determined that last week, 16 of them took part in a three-day hunger strike. They say they are also prepared to spend the harsh Sarajevo winter here if they have to.

“I will stay here until our demands are met. If I have to die here, so be it,” Salihovic, 60, told BIRN.

The protesters have three core demands - the first being the establishment of a single, unified registry of veterans in the Federation who were members of the Bosnian Army and the Croatian Defence Council.

The second demand is for an end to the financing of what they see as unnecessary veterans’ associations by the Federation and cantonal governments, and the third is the introduction of veterans’ benefits.

The veterans argue that a unified registry would give a realistic picture of how many people from the Bosniak-Croat Federation entity really fought in the 1992-95 conflict.

They suspect that the current figures are massively inflated, with people being registered as veterans as a kind of bribe in return for political support.

In February, the Federation Minister of Veterans’ Issues, Salko Bukvarevic, revealed figures compiled by his ministry which indicate that more than 570,000 people were employed by the Bosnian Army and the Croatian Defence Council and their corresponding police agencies, or by military hospitals and the military industry.

The data came from the now-defunct Ministry of Defence of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and was based on records of veterans’ certificates that were issued.

The protesters claim many of those who received those certificates were not actually veterans, and want the data to be checked and revised.

“After the war, we had about 280,000 demobilised soldiers in the Federation at most. According to the [Federation] government, we now have more than 570,000 veterans,” said Nazil Velic, 50, a veteran from Bugojno who is now unemployed.

“Who are these people? According to [the government’s] estimates, nobody ever died. For them, more veterans were actually born. The war would surely not have lasted for four years if we had that many people in our ranks,” Velic added ironically.

The protesting veterans’ second demand is for the Federation government and all the ten cantonal governments to stop financing all the veterans’ associations in the entity.

There are currently 1,600 veterans’ associations in the Federation, but the protesters claim they only exist so politicians can ‘buy’ social peace by steering massive amounts of money towards them.

“If we stopped funding those organisations, we would save a significant amount of money,” Velic explained.

“If we succeeded in our first and foremost demand, the single veterans’ register, we could remove about 300,000 of those fake veterans from there and we would have more than enough money to fund our third demand - veterans’ benefits,” he added.

The protesters are asking for 326 Bosnian marks (about 167 euros) per month in benefits for unemployed veterans, and for every former soldier to get two or three Bosnian marks (one to 1.5 euros) for each month they served during wartime.

“They already have this in the Republika Srpska entity, so we are not asking for anything impossible,” Velic argued.

Veterans' tents outside parliament. Photo: BIRN.

‘Too many veterans’ associations’

The Federation Ministry for Issues of the Veterans and Disabled Veterans of the Defensive-Liberation War confirmed to BIRN that there really are about 1,600 registered veterans’ associations in the Federation.

The ministry cautioned however that “not one of these organisations is financed from the Federation budget, but certain of their projects are, through public tenders”.

The ministry also confirmed that 577,261 people are registered as serving during the war - “be it that they served only one day or throughout the entire wartime period”.

Veterans’ Minister Salko Bukvarevic argues that most of the veterans’ demands are being met and that only a small group of them is still unhappy.

Bukvarevic told BIRN that in April this year, even before the veterans first gathered at the government building to protest, the Federation government and its Veterans’ Ministry had devised a bill for proposed changes and amendments to the Law on the Rights of Veterans, including the establishment a single unified register.

“The law has already been adopted by the [parliamentary] House of Representatives, and we expect it will also be adopted by the House of Peoples at the beginning of September,” Bukvarevic said.

The minister said 570 million Bosnian marks (291.3 million euros) are earmarked for veterans in the Federation budget annually.

He said that he has also met the veterans’ demand for the Federation to stop financing all veterans’ organisations from August 1 until a Law on Veterans’ Associations of Special Social Importance is adopted.

The law aims to establish which of the current associations truly represent the largest number of veterans.

Bukvarevic himself believes that the 1,600 veterans’ associations should be merged into one.

There are so many associations because the law allows “three citizens to form a veterans’ association”, the minister has said in the past.

In an interview with news website Fokus, he said more than 12 million Bosnian marks (6.15 million euros) currently goes to the veterans’ associations each year in the Federation, but that the entity government budget only funds a small fraction of this - some 360,000 Bosnian marks (184,010 euros) annually - while the cantons give out much larger amounts.

Bukvarevic said that although the Federation will stop funding the associations from August 1, he is not officially empowered to stop the cantons and municipalities continuing to do so.

Improvised washing facilities at the protest camp. Photo: BIRN.

Benefit payments ‘financially impossible’

The ministry estimates that there about 55,000 veterans currently registered at the unemployment office, and another 15,000 who are unemployed but aren’t registered.

That means their request for financial benefits is a more problematic issue for the Federation authorities.

“The third demand, for veterans’ benefits of 326 Bosnian marks for each veteran registered at the unemployment office and without income, goes beyond our abilities, because an additional 280 million Bosnian marks (143 million euros) annually is required to achieve it,” minister Bukvarevic said.

Although an increase in funding for veterans is impossible, the minister said he did sign an agreement with Bosnia’s largest veterans’ associations in June which stipulates the amount currently allocated to veterans’ issues will not be reduced within the next five years.

“I believe this is the only realistic solution, and I call on representatives of the veterans to have a dialogue,” he said.

In an earlier interview with local news channel N1, he also noted that when there was a programme between 2006 and 2010 to pay 150 Bosnian marks (77 euros) a month to unemployed veterans, tens of thousands of former soldiers who were employed quit their working contracts so they could receive the benefits.

This allowed many of them to continue being employed as seasonal workers, but to maintain their official unemployment status and receive the benefits.

For Bukvarevic, the key problem is that the law on the rights of veterans, which says that veterans and members of their families should get preferential treatment when applying for jobs, is not being respected because there are no sanctions if it is ignored.

“I believe the first [task] for all levels of government should be for us to work towards employing veterans and members of their family,” he said.

A veteran gets some rest in his tent. Photo: BIRN.

A lifeline for the vulnerable

The large number of veterans’ associations is a consequence of the country’s complex political system, explained Elvis Sudar, the vice-president of the Federation-level Association of War Veteran Paraplegics and president of the same association on the cantonal level.

“You have an association at the Federation level, ten more for the ten cantons [in the Federation], and municipality organisations,” he told BIRN.

Sudar said that if his association did not organise itself into cantonal-level associations, it would not be able to lobby for its members’ rights properly due to the layered administration system in the country.

He also argued that ceasing to fund the associations will have grave consequences.

“They are forgetting that many demobilised veterans and veterans’ children would lose their jobs. We are a service for the category [of people] that needs help the most, available to our members 24 hours a day,” he said.

Apart from informing paraplegic veterans about their rights, Sudar’s association acts as a lifeline for its members, visiting them and getting updates on their health regularly.

When the association finds out one of its members is sick but does not have the means to get to a hospital, it sends someone over to take the veteran. It also provides financial help in certain cases, such as to help pay for members’ medicines and funerals.

“One of our members has been in a coma for 22 years. He only has a mother and a sister. Who is there when they are gone?” he asked.

Sudar believes that employing veterans should have been the government’s priority after the conflict ended - an opportunity which has now been missed.

“The war ended 22 years ago. Why didn’t the ministry open factories and places where all these people could be employed back then?” he asked.

“Today they are all much older, and nobody will employ them. Twenty-two years ago, they were in their best working years, and all the invested money could have been paid back through their employment contributions,” he added.

“The Cheated Veterans’ Camp”. Photo: BIRN.

A loss of trust

Sarajevans have grown accustomed to the sight of the protesting veterans’ tents, banners and flags on the grassy patch outside the Federation entity’s government building. If the men left now, the space would seem empty.

A banner in front calls it “The Cheated Veterans’ Camp”. It is well-organised - they have set up portable toilets, a field kitchen and even a sink with running water for them to shave and brush their teeth in the morning.

“I have three brothers at home, but now here I have another 50,” Salihovic remarked.

People come and go, and sometimes leave some money for the veterans, whose plight has been made even more difficult by the complex and confusing administrative system of post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina, with its multiple layers of governance.

They do not trust the politicians to help them - even those like Veterans’ Minister Salko Bukvarevic, who insists he is doing as much as he can with the money available to satisfy their wishes.

The men watch each morning as one by one, shiny, expensive cars park in front of the government building right next to them.

Two veterans sit on the stairs of a building near the camp, reading the newspapers.

“Look,” one says to the other, pointing at something in the paper showing pictures of members of Sarajevo’s elite - including the wives of politicians - walking down the red carpet at the Sarajevo Film Festival.

“Her handbag probably cost half a year’s worth of pensions.”

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