Sidelined, isolated, many Balkan war veterans suffer trauma

March 2nd, 2009 - 10:42 am ICT by IANS  

Belgrade, March 2 (DPA) Some have set themselves on fire in public and some have blown themselves up with hand grenades: many veterans from the Balkan wars saw suicide as the only way out of their misery.

And many will continue to do so - even though experts say more care could change that. “Many soldiers’ experiences are so extreme that they are unable to communicate them to others once they return from the frontline,” says German expert Ursula Renner.

Renner, of the Bonn-based Forum Civil Peace Service, works with veterans in Croatia, which fought a bitter war against the Yugoslav army and Serb insurgents 1991-95.

Some 130 former soldiers take their own lives annually, bringing the total figure to date to nearly 2,000. That is because someone who killed in war or had to watch comrades being killed has a hard time processing these experiences.

By some estimates, nearly 30 percent of war veterans are traumatised and suffer from depression, nightmares and flashbacks. They often resort to alcohol and drugs trying to block out memories.

In Serbia alone, an estimated 800,000 people, both soldiers and civilians, were involved in combat one way or another. That makes up one-tenth of the population. Between 1991 and 1999, Serbs fought in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, even Slovenia, if only briefly.

Of the 4.4 million Croats, some 350,000 are genuine combat veterans. There may be 100,000 more who never saw combat, but who somehow acquired the status in order to reap the benefits awarded to former combatants.

In any of the former Yugoslav countries hit by war, the effects of combat trauma afflicts not only the former soldiers, but also their families.

Divorce and domestic violence numbers have risen over recent years, usually hand-in-hand with stigma.

“Trauma is frequently equated with: he is crazy,” Renner says.

The veterans feel forgotten by the state. Once heroes who rose to defend their families, homes and fatherland, today they are often mocked as have been the gullible cannon fodder for the former politicians.

In Croatia, at least, the veterans have some benefits - pensions, free shares of privatised companies and other rights. In Serbia, they are virtually left on their own.

“Officially veterans don’t even exist in Serbia,” says Milos Antic, the head of Serbia’s only centre for war trauma in Novi Sad, 80 km north-west of Belgrade.

The support of veterans is meagre and nearly half of all veterans struggle to survive on 20,000 dinars ($270) a month, or roughly two-thirds of the average salary.

Serbian veterans regularly protest, sometimes violently, demanding not only more support, but also backlog payments owed to them from the time of the conflict in Kosovo, now a decade ago.

At a recent protest in southern Serbia, police forcibly dispersed more than 1,000 veterans blocking a road.

Counselling is rare, with only five experienced trauma therapists operating in Serbia alongside the trauma centre in Novi Sad, which can only employ the service of volunteer psychology students.

Instead of being sidelined and branded as some kind of troublemaker, veterans could be recruited to help contribute to peace-building in the Balkans, Antic says.

After receiving treatment and recovering, some veterans now talk to students about their experiences. Ex-soldiers have credibility among youngsters and can actually discourage them from violence by describing the consequences they suffered, he says.

Former Yugoslav states still refuse to confront their violent past. Veterans can help break the political taboo, says Ursula Renner: “Once they overcome their trauma, many soldiers are very eager to talk to their former enemies.”

At meetings of veterans from Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia, former foes could see that they share similar experiences, which in turn may help pave the way to replace hatred with understanding.

“Critical dialogue is the precondition for reconciliation one day,” Renner says.

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