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Life After War: Ex-Yugoslavia's Veterans

Prague, April 23 (RFE/RL) - Alexander Radojcic is one of the lucky ones, or so he says. As a Croatian army officer he served just 4 months in Pakrac, near Western Slavonia, before being wounded by a grenade and sent to convalesce in the hospital.

Many months and much therapy later, he returned to university in Zagreb, where he completed a degree in electrical engineering. Today, he works with the Zagreb-based Organization Of War Invalids, also known as HVIDR. Radojcic told RFE/RL that HVIDR is currently working to help some 20,000 demobilized Croatian soldiers re-integrate into normal civilian life. It is a task he and many others describe as "huge" and one that most agree will last "well into the next century."

Radojcic was among tens of thousands of ethnic Croats who joined the Croatian Army to fight for a nation free of a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. The exact number of veterans (demobilized soldiers) is not known, but Radjocic says the number increased dramatically at the end of this past year. After seizing back almost all of the one-third of the country that had been in rebel Serb hands, Croatia demobilized more than 150,000 soldiers.

Radojcic says his organization is principally concerned with finding work for the returning soldiers. He says most of those seeking help no longer have what he called "full work ability" and are best suited to office jobs. He also says most are not satisfied with government response to the problem. In his words, "they fought for their country, they were wounded, and they expect much more from their government than they feel they are getting."

Earlier this year, the Croatian government officially acknowledged it had a burgeoning problem with its veterans. Statistics from the Office For Victims of War show that from 1991 to 1995, there were more than 50,000 direct victims.

Dr. Zvonimir Knezovic of Zagreb University's Faculty of Philosophy and Psychology told RFE/RL that the stresses of war have been prolongued and fierce, resulting in powerful, multiple psycho-social disorders. As a result, he says the Croatian government has established 18 counseling centers with mobile and stationary teams. Dr. Knezovic says that in the first year of the pilot program, around 3,000 people received intensive treatment.

The program enlists psychologists, psychiatrists, lawyers, special educators and social workers to reach out to Croatia's community's of veterans. Zagreb also called in the help of non-governmental organizations, or NGO's.

RFE/RL's South Slavic Service correspondent Bastic Jasna in Geneva says the presence of the NGO's is an indication of the Croatian government's understanding of the scope of the problem and the need for outside resources. Jasna, who recently toured a number of hospitals in the former Yugoslavia, says that many veterans exhibit the symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome, including depression, aggressiveness, flashbacks and nightmares. She said many have come to feel there is a thin line between life and death and they are not certain there is a way back. In her words, "they feel utterly abandoned."

Jasna says the veterans have gone from having a house, a family and a livelihood to having time on their hands. In their idleness, she says, they have plenty of time to dwell on the horror of war. She says that has led to scores of suicides. According to Jasna, Croatian military General Djuro Decak recently appeared on state television to say that 964 discharged soldiers had committed suicide in 1994 alone. There has been no official confirmation of the figure, but the Croatian Defense Ministry has said it is "exagerrated."

All of those interviewed agree that Croatia leads the charge in re-integrating its war veterans. Slovenia, which reportedly saw only 10 days of war and 16 to 17 casualties, including Yugoslav soldiers, is not said to have suffered any wide-scale effects, whereas in Serbia the problem is not officially recognized and treatment and aid, if it exists at all, is said hidden.

The problem in Bosnia-Herzegovina is still being studied, as the fighting was longer and more intense, and demobilization has only just begun. But Jasna says that American military officers recently touring Bosnia warned the authorities there to expect an equally difficult problem, if not worse.

The 43 months of war in Bosnia-Herzegovina killed an estimated 200,000 people and displaced more than two million others. Hundreds of thousands were wounded.

Patrick Moore of the Prague-based Open Media Research Institute says Bosnian authorities recently held official ceremonies to start paying soldiers or their survivors for their contributions during the war. Oslobodjenje reports the problem is the government has little or no money to meet its obligations. So instead of paying cash, it is issuing "bank books" that show how much each soldier earned. It is not yet clear when and how the men or their families can convert the payments into hard cash.

Radojcic says many of the war veterans say money is not the issue. In the words of one,"the most important thing is that we can work on something.... if all the people of this country do not start working and producing again, there will be war here again pretty soon."