Freedom carries a price tag Yugoslavian war brings profits to some gangs

August 25, 1992|By Chicago Tribune

NOVI SAD, Yugoslavia -- How quickly could you raise $10,000 to pay off warlords and get your husband safely out of Sarajevo?

In this war, where military offensives to glorify religion and nationhood barely disguise a reign of plunder by rival gangs, such questions face thousands of Croats, Muslims and Serbs every day.

Testimonies from all corners of the war zone show that some volunteer troopers answering to dozens of local warlords have taken the field to fulfill missions of their Serbian, Muslim or Croatian governments -- and to line their own pockets.

Although aligned with one of the elected governments from the three warring camps, these local militia gangs operate independently of central control and cannot be counted on to honor a peace plan to end the Yugoslavian war, should one be negotiated.

Here is an account describing how profiteering, and not politics, was the deciding motive:

Dragan Stimic, a Serbian, is a Belgrade factory worker who returned to his parents' home in Novi Sad, a city of 200,000 straddling the Danube River, when the world embargo on Yugoslavia forced his plant to close.

Mr. Stimic, who is fluent in German, said he spent seven years as a guest worker elsewhere in Europe and saved up a down payment on a vacation home. Now there will be no vacation home, but his brother-in-law is alive.

Mr. Stimic's sister had married a Muslim and settled in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which before the war was a rare idyll of inter-ethnic harmony on the Balkan peninsula.

When tensions rose last spring as Yugoslavia disintegrated, Mr. Stimic's sister fled to Novi Sad, but her husband stayed in Sarajevo to tend to family and was trapped in the siege by Serbian forces.

As Sarajevo was being battered in the fighting between Muslims and Serbs, Mr. Stimic's uncle, a Belgrade businessman, made discreet inquiries and discovered that the Serbian and Muslim militia bands blockading various avenues in the city would, for a price, guarantee safe passage out of the besieged capital.

A meeting was arranged with a Mafia-style middleman in Belgrade. The payoff was made in Deutsche marks, the preferred international currency throughout the war zone, in a sum equal to $10,000.

The $10,000 figure is considerable to any family in any war, but it is an enormous sum when compared with the average wage of a Belgrade factory worker. With wartime inflation, the average employee in the Serbian capital earns the equivalent of $66 a month.

Two days after the payoff, Mr. Stimic's brother-in-law was spirited through Muslim and Serbian checkpoints, where the men on duty looked the other way when a truck with Belgrade plates bearing a certain number drove out of Sarajevo on an arranged route at a certain time.

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