Trauma of war haunts Serbian vets

June 12, 1994|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Special to The Sun

BELGRADE -- While the southern Serbian town of Valjevo awaits an exceptional event, the country's first war crimes trial, retribution of a different kind already is being meted out to countless Serbian men who have returned from Yugoslavia's dirty wars.

They have succumbed to post-traumatic stress disorder -- known popularly as "Vietnam syndrome." The luckiest suffer sleeplessness, recurring nightmares, erratic behavior and a feeling of alienation. The worst-affected are being driven to frenzies of killing and suicide.

Kosta Damjanovic is a typical example. The former soldier had been acting erratically. One day, he snapped. His dog had bitten a man. The man slapped him. In anger, Damjanovic took out his gun, forced his mother into the attic, and set out to stalk victims. Before he was captured an hour later, he had gunned down nine people, including a father and son and two couples.

Other cases include a former soldier who threw a grenade into a bus full of people after a quarrel over a cigarette. Another went for a drink with two policemen and ended up killing them, a married couple and their 14-year-old daughter. Yet another kidnapped two policemen, took them to a police station, killed one of them and burned the Serbian flag.

Casualty statistics from Belgrade's hospitals provide further evidence of an outbreak of "Vietnam syndrome" among war veterans. Last month 46 people were wounded with firearms, 13 subsequently died. Three other people were seriously hurt in grenade attacks. There were more than 20 slayings in discos, restaurants, fairgrounds and on the streets. Returnees from the war were mainly responsible.

Psychiatric hospitals, too, have been besieged with young former soldiers and paramilitary men seeking help. Belgrade's main Laza Lazarevic psychiatric hospital has treated more than a thousand cases. But psychiatrists say they can offer only limited support. Many are not trained to deal with the disorder.

One, Dr. Slobodan Jakulic, recalls how a young man appealed to the hospital after he began suffering syndrome symptoms. The young man was told to go home and stop worrying. Outside the hospital, hetook out a grenade and blew himself up.

As in the Vietnam War, one of the most difficult problems faced by returning soldiers is that society is divided in its judgment of them.

Although Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic inspired the wars with his vision of a Greater Serbia, Serbia is not an official participant. The volunteer soldiers are not welcomed back as heroes or given any official compensation. Many Serbs in Serbia are indifferent to the war and are largely unaware of its realities because of media propaganda that shields them from it.

For those returning from the war, however, the reality is all too vivid. Whether their motives were plunder or patriotism, few have remained unaffected. One man pinpointed the time he first had trouble sleeping as the day he "took his first victim." When he does sleep, he says he sees again and again, as if in a film, the pictures of people he killed.

Another described "Vietnam syndrome" alienation as being in a state where "the surrounding world has changed yet you are the same as when you walked with a rifle, where survival is everything . . . [where there is] an entirely different relationship towards your and other people's lives."

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