BELGRADE -- After a lifetime's work abroad and accumulated savings of almost $1 million, Ilija Ruzic last year decided that it was time to patter off into a comfortable retirement in the rolling hills of southern Serbia.
He sold his Paris home, took all his savings and returned to his native village, where he built his dream house with all modern conveniences and a garage for two cars.
He deposited the rest of his money -- one million in Swiss francs -- with Yugoslav banks.
At age 59, he planned to use his luxurious setup to do everything that he had secretly wanted to do: chase butterflies, make his own wines, prepare French food and take occasional trips back to France -- Mr. Ruzic is a naturalized French citizen -- to see old friends from the Marcel Dessault company, where he was an aircraft test mechanic for more than three decades.
But in less than 12 months, Mr. Ruzic's dream retirement has turned into a nightmare.
Along with some other 2 million Yugoslavs who kept their hard currency in Yugoslav banks, Mr. Ruzic was robbed of his entire fortune.
His money vanished in one of the greatest Balkan robberies of all times, one of a greater magnitude than the Robert Maxwell and BCCI frauds combined.
Nearly $12 billion in private bank deposits was swiped by various governments that have been engaged in a civil war and dismemberment of the former Yugoslav federation.
An even greater amount is believed to have been taken from state-controlled corporations and institutions.
Because banks are under direct government controls, sectarian chieftains could simply take the money to finance their ethnic armies and fend off a looming economic catastrophe. The banks were left with freshly-minted local currency, but in limited quantities.
It is difficult to determine how the funds vanished and when. But that is of no concern to hundreds of thousands of Yugoslavs like Mr. Ruzic, who went to Western Europe in the days of its economic boom in the '60s and '70s when the mighty industrial centers of the North opened their doors to millions of impoverished workers from the South.
Most Yugoslavs did the hard, dirty jobs the rich Western Europeans were no longer willing to do.
Most made their small fortunes, built themselves homes in their native villages and placed their savings in Yugoslav banks.
One of them, the Bank of Ljubljana, in the newly independent northern republic of Slovenia, owes its customers more than $1 billion in hard currency.
The government has tried to deflect criticism by proposing a law that would turn the $12 billion robbery into a public debt and give the savers special bonds.
These could be redeemed by the end of the century.
But even some government deputies have declared in Parliament that the great robbery has resulted in a loss of confidence in the state and banks that cannot be restored for decades.
Already, the loss of confidence is noticeable in the economic collapse of all parts of Yugoslavia as Yugoslavs working abroad no longer use Yugoslav banks to send funds to their families at home.
Along with tourism and agriculture, their remittances were one of the mainstays of the country's relative prosperity in the '70s and '80s.
The swindled savers have formed a lobby in an effort to pressure the authorities to return at least some money to them.
They have organized protest meetings and petitioned just about all levels of authority, but to no avail.
The new governments are bankrupt and furiously printing money to cover their current expenses.
Yugoslavia's hard currency reserves are down to $2.3 billion, but that figure is diminishing by about $400 million a month -- the amount required to service the country's external debt.
Mr. Ruzic and other desperate people like him regard the issuance of special certificates as a trick.
"They will be just as worthless as these passbooks," Mr. Ruzic says, waving two booklets -- one from Jugobanka and the other from Beobanka, each with more than 250,000 Swiss francs.
Why Swiss francs? Most Yugoslavs assume, or maybe they are taught, that any currency is better than that of Communist or ex-Communist countries. Mr. Ruzic said that he converted all his funds into Swiss francs -- "the most stable currency in the world" -- and placed his funds in four Yugoslav banks. "I figured I should spread it around in case one of them gets into trouble.
"I have nowhere to go. I have to go to Paris to arrange for my pension but I don't have enough money to buy petrol or a train ticket -- not to speak of hotel costs. I asked the bank to give me [Yugoslav] dinars instead of Swiss francs, but they can't do it.
"I always dreamed about coming back home, and while I lived in France I resented when my colleagues spoke pejoratively about 'Balkan business.' But now I understand a friend of mine who said 'Welcome to Yugoslavia -- the only place in the world where the banks rob the people -- not the other way around.' "