Serb food situation still serious

BELGRADE, Apr 21, 2000 -- (Reuters) Mild weather helped avert major food problems for impoverished Serbs during the winter but the situation remains serious, a UN relief agency official said.

Robert Hauser, senior emergency coordinator of the World Food Program (WFP), said there had been a big risk of a "very, very difficult" situation for poor people in Serbia, hit by a decade of Balkan wars and crippling economic sanctions.

"There was a danger that there could have been starvation if the winter would have been very grim but fortunately the winter wasn't," Hauser told Reuters.

"In fact it was quite mild and there was heating and electricity available," he said in an interview on Wednesday.

Had it been colder, vulnerable people like pensioners may have had to choose between paying electricity or food bills.

"The choice would be between eating and heating at some stage," Hauser said. "Fortunately it never came to that choice last winter."

Roughly 10 percent of Serbia's population receive food assistance, with the WFP providing such aid to around 700,000 people this year.

"In western Europe to have this kind of situation is a bit embarrassing," Hauser said.


With the arrival of spring, he said there would be more food and jobs available. "There is more activity in general, there is positive feeling also among the population."

But Hauser stressed that the overall economic situation had not improved as food prices were rising and real wages declining, signaling new difficulties next winter.

"It is not getting better at all, it is just that now everybody is taking a breather after the winter and that improves the spirit in the country as a whole," he said. "For the poor people it is still as bad as it was."

He expressed concern about recent flooding in the northern Vojvodina region, the country's bread basket. "We know that a certain part of the wheat harvest has been destroyed."

This would reduce the amount of output available for export and thereby affect welfare and pensions payments.

In addition to the food aid provided by the WFP, the International Committee of the Red Cross is helping more than 200,000 refugees from the southern province of Kosovo, now under de facto international rule.

Yugoslavia, made up of Serbia and the smaller coastal republic of Montenegro, has seen its economy deteriorate as a result of four regional wars in the 1990s, including last year's NATO bombing campaign over Belgrade's repression in Kosovo.

It has been under various international sanctions since 1992 over its role in the breakup of old Yugoslavia and is now one of Europe's poorest countries.

Hauser made clear he would like to see the sanctions lifted.

"I have worked in Iraq, I have worked here, and I would think that from my observation the sanctions do hit the population stronger than they hit the regime."

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