Destitute, Bosnian Serbs Blame West for Woes

Town's story shows lack of recovery from war - and reluctance to hold hard-line Serb leaders responsible.

The morning fog is just beginning to lift as Milka Matovic pushes her wheelbarrow up the still-empty street.

It is a trip she makes every day, wheeling the same small assortment of blouses, skirts, and sweaters to the town bazaar.

With her husband and two adult sons unemployed, she is the family's only provider.

"It's hard," she says, pausing on a steep hill. "You see how we live. They want to work, but there is no work."

Complaints like these echo across Bosnia, but nowhere so loud as among the Bosnian Serbs. Almost two years after war ended in Bosnia, many parts of the country are seeing a glimmer of economic recovery. The Serbs, meanwhile, are sinking into poverty and despair.

Much of the blame belongs to the Serb leaders. Their refusal to cooperate with Bosnia's Muslims, as the Dayton peace agreement demands, has isolated the Serbs from Western Europe and denied them foreign aid.

Last year, the Serbs received only 3 percent of the $1.4 billion spent in foreign aid in Bosnia.

They will receive more this year as the West tries a new strategy - offering aid to individual towns that promise to accept the peace agreement. But they will still lag far behind.

Stark contrast

The contrast between life in the two halves of Bosnia is already stark. In the Muslim-Croat Federation, unemployment has dropped below 50 percent. The average wage has risen to $145 a month. New businesses are springing up, and Western money is rebuilding houses, roads, and other infrastructure.

In the Bosnian Serb republic, 70 percent of workers are unemployed. The average salary is $40 a month. Private companies cannot obtain credit or find markets for their products. State-owned factories lack capital to start up again.

And profits from the region's abundant natural wealth, including the vast forests around Foca, finds its way only into a few pockets.

"We have no real economy," says Mladen Ivanic, an economist at the Bosnian Serb's Banja Luka University. "It's sort of an anti-economy."

This predicament is causing growing discontent among the Serb people, who are distressed not only by their current suffering but by the prospect of falling further behind the Muslims and Croats.

The discontent has helped split the Serb leadership - a division the United States and its allies are exploiting in an attempt to get rid of Radovan Karadzic, the Serb leader indicted for war crimes.

Paying for Karadzic's leadership

Biljana Plavsic, the Bosnian Serb president, has accused Mr. Karadzic of impoverishing his people by his corruption and defiance of the West.

Although Mrs. Plavsic is no less a nationalist, she is eager to attract Western money. None of it is likely to go to Foca, a mountain town of about 20,000 on the Drina River in eastern Bosnia. Foca lies in the part of the Serb Republic that Karadzic still controls. It also has paid dearly for his leadership.

Before the war, Foca was a mixed Muslim-Serb community that enjoyed a modest prosperity. The surrounding mountains yielded timber and coal. Factories employed thousands of workers to turn out lumber, textiles, and other goods.

In 1992, Serb fighters killed or drove out almost all of Foca's Muslims. The Serbs burned houses and blew up mosques. Eight men have been indicted for war crimes connected with the "ethnic cleansing" of Foca.

Surviving without jobs

Today Foca, renamed Srbinje, is a completely Serb town, but a bleak and unhappy one. Unemployed men sit killing time in the town center, unable even to afford a 25-cent cup of coffee in a nearby cafe.

The sprawling lumber mill on the edge of town limps along at a fraction of its capacity; other factories don't work at all. The schools didn't open on time this year because the teachers were on strike for lack of pay. The town has dusty, derelict look, as if war had ended only the day before.

Without jobs, many people subsist on potatoes, cabbages, and other vegetables they grow in home gardens. The more enterprising, or desperate, hustle smuggled cigarettes or trade in small quantities of other goods - blouses, sneakers, cheese, used bicycle parts.

It's a hard living. Mrs. Matovic earns just $30 a month peddling clothes at the market. "Not many people have money to buy," she says. "Some days I sell nothing at all."

But Foca's poorest are probably the thousands of displaced Serbs who fled here from Sarajevo and other places in the Muslim-Croat Federation. Many have languished in Foca for five years with nothing to do. They say they are afraid to go back to their old homes.

Shifting the blame

Goja Mostilo lives with her husband and four adult children in a two-room apartment that once belonged to a Muslim family. None of them has a job.

The couple's only income is a government pension of $30, compensation for the death of a son in the war. They live mainly on the bread and soup Mostilo brings home each afternoon from a local soup kitchen, grateful for the food but tormented by memories of the flocks and herds the family once owned.

"We fed ourselves well," Mrs. Mostilo says. "We had meat, everything. When I remember what I had and look at what I have now, I want to kill myself."

Everyone agrees that life in Foca is miserable. And yet no one blames Karadzic. Instead, people shift blame to the West, which they say has opposed the Serbs from the start. And despite their deep unhappiness, they echo faithfully the defiance of their leaders. No one wants a single Bosnia again. No one wants to live with Muslims again. So far they have their wish, but little else.

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