Sarajevo Shops: Only for the Rich

But most elderly, refugees, and unemployed completely depend on humanitarian aid

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

LIKE a cruel joke, the shelves of Sarajevo's food markets are beckoning again.

Thanks to a well-honed smuggling network, fresh red meat, fish from the Adriatic, whole chickens, oranges, Beverly Hills 90210 gum, and bags of Brazilian coffee can be bought in stores and open-air markets across Sarajevo.

An increasingly wide variety of goods is passing through sometimes porous Bosnian Serb siege lines, but precious few Sarajevans involved in the smuggling or employed by foreign agencies can afford to buy them.

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``We don't need a marketplace when we don't have any money to buy the food,'' says elderly Grebovic Sevija as she waits with two-dozen other Sarajevans in an empty, state-run grocery store to pick up her daily ration of seven ounces of bread. ``I haven't eaten meat in three years.''

Residents say they are increasingly frustrated with war profiteers who are making tens of thousands of dollars a month through vast smuggling operations. The Bosnian government has done little to stop them, they complain, and the international community has created a military stalemate that prevents either side from winning the war outright.

Too pricey for most

Only a few thousand Sarajevans directly employed by Western aid agencies or the hotels and restaurants foreigners frequent can afford to participate in the exclusive dollar- and deutsch mark-based economy that has evolved here. The rest of Sarajevo's approximately 200,000 residents struggle to survive on nearly worthless Bosnian currency, ingenuity, and humanitarian aid.

Ms. Sevija, who was forced to flee her home in Herzegovina when Serbs and then Croats took control of the area, is one of Sarajevo's poor majority. While some of the city's residents have been able to adapt to the siege by growing gardens or finding work with the large United Nations operations here, many elderly, refugees, and unemployed remain completely dependent on humanitarian aid.

The bitterness of the have-nots is growing. ``Those [smugglers] are war profiteers,'' says Bakir, a retired architect living on a $1.50 a month pension. ``It's getting worse. They're getting richer, and we're getting poorer. The government has got to do something about it.''

Bakir was referring to a government-run tunnel that crosses a UN-held no man's land that has made hundreds of smugglers and Bosnian government and Army officials who control access to the tunnel rich. Since the tunnel opened about two years ago, prices have dropped from the worst days of the siege. But they have stabilized at a level unaffordable to retirees, thousands of refugees, and those without access to hard currency.

``There's a lot of stuff coming in through the tunnel ... you can buy almost anything at the market, but it's very expensive,'' says Kris Janowski, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Sarajevo. ``We still assume the vast majority of people are dependent on us for staples like wheat flour, beans, sugar, and so forth.''

The prices of smuggled goods in one market are indicative of the problem. Bakir, the retired architect with a monthly income of $1.50, can buy a wedge of cheese for $8.50, one pound of margarine for $3.50, and a bottle of grape juice for $10.50. Prices for meat vary wildly, but can be as high as $12 a pound, a can of Pepsi is $1.50, and a one-pound bag of Brazilian coffee is $13.50.

Far more than food comes through the tunnel. Wrigley's Juicy Fruit and Double Mint bubble gum, Barbie bubble gum, Kodak film, Brut 33 cologne, Panasonic and TDK videotape cassettes, and Italian-made clothes and Chicago Bulls jackets can all be bought at exorbitant prices.

Such luxuries remain a distant memory for most of the city.

Amra Ramadanovic, a pale, middle-aged woman, says she is struggling to survive off her mother's pension. Her son was killed in front of her eyes by a Serb shell, she says, and both her aunt and uncle died in the war.

``They've got to do something about [the smuggling]. It's horrible.'' she says, as others waiting in the bread line nodded in agreement. ``I'm trying to take care of my mother and myself with $1.50 a month ... I wouldn't be able to survive without the humanitarian aid.''

The International Red Cross is running two programs that provide 7,000 elderly, sick, and disabled with one hot meal a day and 33,000 school children with lunch five days a week, but they will only run through the winter.

Aid donations drop

Red Cross officials say many city residents are becoming increasingly desperate. ``The longer the war drags on, the more disillusioned people become,'' says Nina Winquist, Red Cross spokesman in Sarajevo.

Some private international aid agencies have been forced to scale back their operations as donations to aid Bosnia have dropped in recent years. The Bosnian government estimates that private aid donations dropped by 30 percent last year.

``By our estimates, Bosnia-Herzegovina will need aid for at least three more years,'' says Haris Basic of the Bosnian government's Ministry for Refugees and Social Affairs. ``We will do whatever we have to to raise donations.''

Residents complain that as private humanitarian aid is shrinking, no new jobs or aid programs are emerging as Bosnia's on-again, off-again war drags on.

``The amount of aid is less, and it's lower quality food.'' says Tifa Ahmetavic, waiting in the bread line with her three children. ``They promised they would help us, but ... now they're forgetting us.''

Ms. Sevija, the elderly refugee, says she and her bedridden husband are squatting with six other people in an abandoned apartment.

She shakes her head and laughs when asked about the food in the markets.

``Meat is just a dream for us,'' she says. ``I've had no fruit, no vegetables for three years, only beans and bread.''

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