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Widespread Poverty Makes Life Difficult In Bosnia

Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jan. 24 (RFE/RL) - Now that peace has come to the northeastern Bosnian city of Tuzla, the biggest problem is getting a moribund economy back on its feet. And residents and officials of what was before the war a prosperous industrial city hope that the NATO-led Peace Implementation Force (IFOR) will give the city a boost in reviving industry and commerce.

Unlike many other places in Bosnia, Tuzla's major factories were not destroyed during the war. But, unable to get supplies or deliver to markets, they shut down and threw an army of laborers out of work. Some estimates of the unemployment rate reach 90 percent. Mayor Selim Beslagic has an even grimmer view. He told RFE/RL that "Everyone is unemployed."

Most of those who do work earn a pittance. The mayor's salary throughout the war was between DM5 and DM10 a month -- and D-Marks are the chief currency here, as in the rest of Bosnia-Herzegovina. One highly-educated chemist who still has a job earns DM18 - not even enough to buy bread every day.

The few lucky or skilled enough to get jobs with the many international humanitarian agencies in town, or with the small army of journalists who flooded into Tuzla to cover the arrival of the U.S. troops, earn princely salaries by comparison. An interpreter gets paid DM100 a day, and some local employees of international agencies earn as much as DM2,000 a month.

But the vast majority of ordinary citizens must rely on humanitarian aid and remittances from relatives abroad to make ends meet. The United Nations' World Food Program is feeding 400,000 people in the Tuzla region out of a total population of 600,000.

The situation is even more miserable for the 63,000 refugees in the city, who are entirely dependent on handouts. Lutvija Mesic, a refugee from Bratunac, spends all day every day in the freezing cold of Tuzla's Old Town, selling bubble gum and cigarettes from a tiny camping table to make a profit of two or three D-Marks a day. She says that "This is not a life. This is just a piece for bread for today."

The ranks of the unemployed are about to be swollen by soldiers who are being demobilized from the Bosnia-Herzegovian army. One soldier, who is still in uniform, is Mujaga Ibrahimovic. He is skeptical of the Bosnian government's pledge to pay army troops for the first time since the beginning of the conflict in 1992. The government has promised to pay each soldier the equivalent of DM400 a month including back pay from the time they joined up. Ibrahimovic says: "I don't believe it. I don't think I'll get any money."

When Maid Porobic was released from the service last Friday, he was in a much better position than most soldiers because he had a business in Tuzla to go home to. He's the longtime owner of the Palma restaurant, a popular downtown gathering spot. He says: "Most of the people who are in the army want to take off their uniforms, work a normal job and live a normal life like people all over the world. We are just waiting for the economy to start."

Residents here - especially owners of shops, cafes and restaurants - were hoping that the arrival of U.S. soldiers would mean an infusion of badly-needed cash into the economy. They've been disappointed, because the U.S. soldiers are confined to their base outside of town and are not allowed social visits to the town off duty.

Says Igor Rayner, an entrepreneur who managed to keep his computer-assembly business going during the war: "We expect as a town, as a people, to earn some money and to get some support" from the IFOR troops.

Mayor Beslagic is aware of the limits on what IFOR can do, since it doesn't have a mandate to rebuild Bosnia. But he told RFE/RL that IFOR will achieve major success if it manages to keep roads open to re-link the Tuzla region with the rest of Bosnia and the rest of Europe. IFOR also plans to rebuild roads damaged or destroyed by shelling and to help with other infrastructure projects.

The mayor says he has absolute faith in IFOR's ability to re-establish Tuzla's connections with the outside world. When that happens, he is confident that foreign aid will flow in to rebuild the country, as well as foreign private investment. If that happens, he says, Tuzla will be back on the road to the prosperity it enjoyed before the war, when, he says, the average salary was about DM3,000 a month.