(01-31) 09:57 PST KOCINOVAC, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) —
They were bitter enemies on opposite sides of the front line during the horrors of the Bosnian War. Now, one side is bailing out the other in an act of once-unimaginable generosity.
In 2010, soldiers above 35 years of age were pensioned off as Bosnia tried to rejuvenate its army. But the checks never came — and hundreds fell into poverty.
Slavko Rasevic, a Serb veteran, was one of them. Things got so bad he was forced to siphon electricity from a neighbor’s home because he couldn’t pay the bills. He couldn’t even afford the bus fare to get his three kids to school.
Then, just as he was about to tell his 17-year-old daughter she’d have to drop out of school, he got a bit of unexpected news.
Bosniak and Croat soldiers who had begun receiving a special handout were banding together to create a lifeline for their less fortunate Serbian former foes — contributing 5 euros each to a Serb veterans’ fund.
This month, Rasevic was singled out by his fellow Serbian vets as one who should be among the first to benefit. Instead of spreading the first collection of about 5,000 euros ($6,500) thinly over hundreds, the Serbs decided that the most desperate would get substantial chunks of money.
His family and another one will get more than 500 euros, while 55 other struggling Serb vets will get some 60 euros each.
“High praise to those people over there,” he said, referring to his former foes.
It’s the latest example of former enemies edging closer together in a country still scarred by the legacy of Europe’s worst bloodshed since World War II. Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs have banded together in railway strikes and now serve together in the army. But this is the first time people from one side have reached into their pockets to help another.
Rasevic joined the Bosnian Serb army 20 years ago to fight against his Bosniak and Croat enemies in a war that killed 100,000 people and turned almost 2 million — including him — into refugees.
The violence ended with a peace agreement in 1995 that carved the once-multiethnic nation into two ethnic mini-states — a Serb republic and a Bosniak-Croat federation.
A decade later the three wartime ethnic armies melded into one. As a professional soldier, Rasevic found himself sharing army barracks with his former enemies. That was a major move toward reconciliation for a country that still struggles with ethnic mistrust and is held together by an international administrator.
In 2010, parliament forced soldiers over 35 to retire but failed to allocate pension funds in that year’s budget. Then the six parties that won national elections were unable to form a government because of disputes over which ethnic group will run which ministry — and the country has been rudderless ever since.
With no government, there’s no budget — and no pensions for the retired veterans.
Pressed by veteran protests, the government of the Bosniak-Croat region agreed to pay some 160 euros per month from its own budget to retired soldiers living in its territory for as long as it takes to pass the state budget.
However, the Bosnian Serb region refused to do the same for veterans living there.
Anger over how politicians are treating the veterans generated a wave of solidarity among former foes in this country with 30 percent unemployment.
As soon as the first handout money reached their accounts in January, Bosniak and Croat veterans started collecting donations and transferred the pile to the account of Serb veteran Rade Dzeletovic, who is in charge of distributing the money.
“It was a shock,” Dzeletovic says of the campaign. “We shot at each other once and now this comes from them.”
In Gorazde, on the other side of the ethnic boundary, Bosniak Senad Hubijer is amazed at how politicians are unwittingly contributing to ethnic reconciliation.
“When we were 16, politicians gave us guns and forced us to kill each other. Now, their ignorance is forcing us to help each other,” he said.
During the war, Hubijer could not have imagined that one day he could set foot in the nearby majority Serb town of Rogatica. Now he drives through that town when he goes to Sarajevo to protest against the government together with Serb veterans.
Veteran Nihad Grabovica, a Bosniak, can’t help but laugh at the historical irony.
“I am now helping the people who shot at me so they can feed their children,” he said.