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Returning Croatian Soldiers Facing Hardships

By Alessandro Marzo Magno

Trieste, Italy; Feb. 6 (RFE/RL) - Croatia is facing the challenge of peace and the problem of soldiers from its demobilized army and returning home.

Only months ago these soldiers were welcomed home as heroes after battlefield victories against Croatian Serbs. But now they face unemployment and lives otherwise disrupted by indifference.

The former chief of staff of Croatia's army, General Janko Bobetko, says that there are now about 40,000 former soldiers in the country. Of that number, Bobetko says, 28 percent are unemployed and 30 percent suffer some type of combat-related mental disorder.

It was reported at a recent session of the Croatian parliament that nearly a thousand demobilized Croatian soldiers had committed suicide each year since 1994. Surveys indicate only a few suicides are attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder but nearly half the demobilized soldiers surveyed admit to considerable difficulties in getting adjusted to civilian life.

Psychologists attribute the problems in returning to civilian life as the main cause of the suicides. Zagreb medical doctor Juraj Njavro says: "Some of the men fought for four years on the front and now they are returning to an environment in which no one cares for them." He says many veterans embark on common behavior patters that go from excessive alcohol abuse, violence and finally suicide. But Njavro says the army is not prepared to offer psychological help to the soldiers before they are demobilized.

Zadar, Croatia's fourth-largest city, is located on the Adriatic coast in Dalmatia. Before the war, the standard of living there was 35 percent higher than the rest of Croatia because the city was an important tourist resort.

On the whole, Croatia's unemployment rate now stands at about 17 percent - but in zadar, unemployment is nearly 50 percent. A substantial portion of the unemployed is demobilized soldiers.

Under Croatia's social welfare system, former soldiers receive a monthly unemployment benefit of about 800 kuna (about $150) and free health insurance.

Some demobilized soldiers returning to Zadar have tried to open their own small businesses. But loans from local banks are difficult to obtain . Some try to find work in factories they left. But many of those factories are now virtually bankrupt, and workers have either not been paid for months - or the pay is less than welfare payments.

Many avoid employment to receive the higher unemployment benefit payment.

A common joke in Zadar goes: "The only place that is working at full capacity is the unemployment agency."