A war raging back home, 28 sailors chip paint here 'We feel like we're in a cage'

August 23, 1992|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Staff Writer

ABOARD THE DURMITOR — A photo caption in Sunday's editions of The Sun misidentified a Yugoslavian sailor who was painting the ship Durmitor. The seaman is Mirko Latkovic.

In addition, the surnames and given names of two other seamen were transposed in another caption and in the accompanying article about the sailors. The seamen are Dusan Ivanovic and Nebojsa Milosevic.

The Sun regrets the errors.

ABOARD THE DURMITOR -- Far from the shelling that rains down daily on Sarajevo from the hills, and half a world away from the gaunt faces behind the barbed wire of detention camps bobs this bucket in the green-black chop of the Patapsco River.


Stopped cold for the past six weeks aboard this 514-foot cargo ship anchored in Baltimore's Outer Harbor are 28 men who left their home port months ago as citizens of Yugoslavia, but who now don't know what country they'll be returning to -- or when.

"What we want is to stop the war -- all of us on the ship -- continue the voyage and go home," said Ivanovic Dusan, 25, the pipe-smoking second mate. "But we don't know if it is possible in Yugoslavia to go home with American-entry visa."

These sailors haven't been paid in two months. They are running out of cash for things such as entertainment, tobacco and beer, though the ship's owner does supply food. Some haven't been home for as many as 16 months, including one man who has yet to see his year-old son. Two have had their homes in Bosnia blown to bits.

And no one has a clue as to when the 28 might leave the Port of Baltimore, where the ship has been detained by the U.S. government since July 14 because of President Bush's order to freeze assets of companies believed to be owned by the new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, made up now of Serbia and Montenegro. The Durmitor is considered such an asset.

The June 5 executive order was the United States' piece of the U.N.-approved economic sanctions against the war-torn nation, after ethnic Serbs, aligned with the new Serb-dominated Yugoslav government, took up arms against Bosnia's Muslims and ethnic Croats earlier this year.

Others also detained

In this case, five ships presumed owned or controlled by Jugoslavenska Oceanska Plozidba -- a company on the U.S. Treasury Department's list of "blocked" Yugoslav companies -- are being detained in Baltimore and three other ports. A sixth ship owned by another company believed to be Yugoslav also has been detained in a fifth U.S. port.

But it is not international politics or the civil war that bothers the Durmitor's crew the most. They hail from all over what once was Yugoslavia -- Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia and Bosnia. They are Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, though no Muslims.

They still consider themselves Yugoslavs all, but sailors first. This crew's problem is that they are anchored in port, caught in a sailor's nightmare that is sort of "Mister Roberts" gone awry.

"The best thing you can do for me, sir, is take a gun and shoot me," said one seaman, driven to distraction by the tedium of chipping rusty steel and painting it over, day after day.

"I hate to sit still," he said, only willing to identify himself by his first name, Dragan.

"We feel like we're in a cage, we feel useless," said Milosevic Nebojsa, 28, the handsomely dark third mate who, like many aboard, hails from the port city of Kotor in Montenegro. "We don't like it when the ship is stopped. We don't like it when the work is stopped. It is important to release us to do our job."

Sipping a cup of thick, black coffee as he stood watch on the bridge, Mr. Dusan chimed in.

"We like oceans, we like to have a big area around us," said Mr. Dusan, whose young face makes him look more like a cabin boy than the third man in charge of this ship. "Every port around the world is interesting to us, but we're usually there just five, six days."

Then, narrowing the gaze of his piercing blue eyes, he said, "We are not responsible for this crazy war in Yugoslavia. . . . I'm a seaman. There are crazy people who make money by politics, but we are not political.

"I can go ashore, I can watch TV, I can listen to the radio, but my heart is closed. I am not happy," Mr. Dusan said. "I am a seaman, and I feel like I'm in jail."

Wife expecting twins

A prisoner in port is exactly what seaman Latkovic Mirko, 25, doesn't want to be. He and his wife are expecting twins in late October.

Mr. Mirko quickly fetches photos from home to show a visitor. He lays out on the bridge pictures of his wedding last November, June photos of his pregnant wife, and finally a photo from the sonogram showing the twins.

"My family is very important to me," he said.

And so it is aboard the Durmitor.

The crew keeps in touch with home through the mail. For those seamen who can afford it, they can call Yugoslavia collect to check on their families, after motoring ashore in a small dinghy. But many times a call home can bring as much concern as it can bring relief.

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