Serb Veterans Angry With Government

Injured soldiers are left to their own devices, without the resources needed to feed themselves and their families

STEFAN Popovic does not care who wins the elections for the Serbian Assembly because nothing for him is likely to change.

``I have not received anything from the government since last August. We saw them today, but they told us we had to wait until the [Dec. 19] elections were over,'' he says. ``If we had known the way we would be treated, we would never have fought.''

Mr. Popovic, a former carpenter disabled by a bullet wound, shares his bitterness and anger with an increasingly vocal number of Serbs who fought in paramilitary units in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina under President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia. Thousands signed up

Known as ``volunteers,'' tens of thousands signed up as Mr. Milosevic's proxy warriors to implement his plan to unite ``all Serbs in one state'' - a euphemism for Serbia's territorial expansion through the conquests since 1991 of large swaths of Bosnia and Croatia.

Today, they are forgotten and discarded, their purposes served as the regime maneuvers for a peace settlement through international diplomacy.

Many are now jobless, homeless, and living in penury, facing bleak futures amid the unprecedented economic suffering wrought by Milosevic's stewardship: Victors on the battlefield, they are losers in the real world.

Some went to war simply for adventure, and the lure of booty, and are now accused of the most gruesome atrocities committed in Europe since World War II. Others were caught up by state-run Serbian media pronouncements that they were defending their ethnic kinfolk from genocide by Croatian ``fascists'' and Muslim ``fundamentalists.''

No official figure is available for the number of Serbs who fought outside the formal structure of the Yugoslav Army.

The Milosevic regime, despite massive evidence to the contrary, still denies their existence. Milosevic himself never visited wounded Yugoslav Army soldiers, let alone volunteers.

Even worse, according to Milan Milivojevic, a retired Yugoslav Army colonel and president of the 1990 War Veterans Association, government compensation for veterans, including an estimated 10,000 invalids and some 3,000 families of the dead, is a mere pittance.

Many are barely surviving the war and record hyper-inflation fueled by UN sanctions, the resulting food shortages, mass unemployment, and poverty, Mr. Milivojevic says.

The situation is particularly bad for the disabled, he says, explaining that an invalid judged 100 percent incapacitated gets only enough money to buy two pounds of oranges a month.

And, he adds, the government refuses to give any aid at all to volunteers who were wounded in Bosnia or the families of those killed after the Yugoslav Army formally withdrew on May 19, 1992. ``We want them treated equally before the law,'' he says.

But, for Milivojevic, who recently retired from the Army so he could campaign for former fighters, Milosevic's gravest transgression is his repeated denials that Serbia was ever at war.

The regime ``wants to prove that Serbia was not at war by not treating these fighters as they should be,'' Milivojevic says. ``We demand this from this country: Everyone who fought for the interests of the future Serbian unitary state should have the status of a soldier and enough money to survive with dignity.''

No longer willing to remain silent, Milivojevic's organization plans to hold a veterans' convention tomorrow at which it will formalize its demands. ``This government is doing nothing,'' agrees Aleksandra Popovic, a spokeswoman for the Captain Dragan Fund, a charity headed by Dragan Vasiljkovic, a prominent paramilitary leader. ``The veterans are without jobs, without money. Many are missing parts of their bodies. They want to be recognized.''

The Fund is one of the few private organizations assisting veterans and their families. It has distributed about $9 million donated by Serbs living abroad, much of it as $30 monthly stipends to the children of veterans.

For Stefan Popovic and others like him, life is even more difficult because they are also refugees who have lost everything.

Popovic, his wife and two children, and the families of 26 other disabled veterans from the Croatian Army-held town of Pakrac, have been living in the cramped rooms of a seedy highway motel outside Belgrade for almost a year.

They were lodged there after being ousted by riot police from vacant Yugoslav Army-owned apartments that they occupied illegally in August 1992 when the regime reneged on a promise to provide them with housing.

``It was really a shame. The police were fully equipped with flak jackets, shields, and everything,'' Popovic says. ``They forced us out and closed down the building. Later, we heard that the officers to whom the apartments were then allocated sold them.'' Red Cross feeds families

The families are fed by the Serbian Red Cross. Their sole sources of income are government payments of between 30 cents and $3 per month each. Free treatment at the Yugoslav Army's Belgrade hospital is confined solely to their war wounds.

``If I get the flu, they won't treat me. Nor do my wife or children get treatment,'' says Popovic, who was hit in the chest by a Croatian sniper's bullet.

``The children want things, and you have to explain to them that you simply do not have any money. With my arm, I can't earn anything,'' he says. ``I looked for a job as a night watchman, but nobody wants me.''

``I think in general we have won nothing,'' says Zlatko Vukosavljevic, who survived a rifle-fired grenade attack.

``All my revenue put together come to 5 deutsche marks (US$3) a month. It's more than the others because I am 100 percent disabled. I need to have another operation,'' says the former construction foreman. ``We are waiting for better times and yet more promises.''

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