Soup kitchens tend an impoverished YU

OBRENOVAC, Yugoslavia, Sep 17, 2000 -- (Reuters) With a week to go before elections in Yugoslavia, the government is boasting of a booming economy and rapid reconstruction after last year's devastating NATO air strikes.

But signs of recovery are thin on the ground in this typical Serbian town, where aid workers say increasing numbers of its 40,000 inhabitants now need humanitarian aid.

"People have nothing to live on so they come here," said Stefica Djurdjevic, a Red Cross worker handing out loaves of bread and hot meals at a soup kitchen in Obrenovac, which lies 26 km (16 miles) southwest of the capital Belgrade.

She said about 320 people come to this kitchen each day, too poor to buy food for themselves and their families.

One of them, Milena Katic, said she had been forced to seek help since her husband lost his job five years ago.

"I would have to beg if I could not come here," said the 46-year-old woman after receiving a thick soup made of rice and canned meat for her family of three. "It never used to be like this before in this country."


From a position of relative affluence in Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War, Yugoslavia has become one of the continent's poorest countries, hit by the violent collapse of the old socialist federation and crippling economic sanctions.

Gross domestic product has sunk to half the level it was in 1990, according to independent estimates, which also put the jobless rate, including hidden unemployment, at 50 percent.

"It is a very slow but steady decline in the living conditions of the people," said Robert Hauser, senior emergency coordinator of the UN World Food Program (WFP). "We all try to avert anything that comes close to a catastrophe."

An official of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said 70,000 people receive hot meals each day at hundreds of distribution points. Another 30,000 get parcels of food.

"The needs are increasing," said Edward Toncev, ICRC soup kitchen coordinator. "The situation is deteriorating."

The Yugoslav Red Cross, supported by international aid groups, distributes aid to a total of 1.25 million people out of a population of about 10 million.

Those in need include hundreds of thousands of Serb refugees from the former Yugoslav republics of Bosnia and Croatia as well as about 200,000 displaced people from Kosovo, the Serbian province now under de facto international rule.

But there are also growing numbers of ordinary Serbs who find it increasingly hard to manage on their own, including the elderly who receive meager and irregular pensions.

"Many people are having difficulties even to feed themselves with very basic food," said Sten Swedlund, head of the delegation in Yugoslavia of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

"You find professors, you find engineers, you find highly educated people in the line waiting for their daily ration of soup and bread," he said.


The dramatic economic decline has coincided with the rule of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, seen in the West as the main culprit of the collapse of old Yugoslavia in the 1990s and indicted by a UN court for war crimes in Kosovo last year.

Serbian opposition leaders struggling to oust Milosevic in presidential and parliamentary elections on September 24 blame him for the country's increased hardships over the last decade.

They have vowed to implement radical economic reform and to end the country's isolation if they come to power.

"People are leaving the country because they can't live normally here," said Vojislav Kostunica, the main opposition presidential candidate, after visiting a market in the town of Petrovac na Mlavi where he met professors selling household goods to survive.

Another opposition leader, Zoran Djindjic of the Democratic Party, said there had been a huge transfer of wealth over the last decade.

"Money was taken from 10 million pockets and ended up in the pockets of a few thousand," he told a rally in Pozarevac, the hometown of Milosevic where his son Marko owns an amusement park and a discotheque.

"The main topic of this election is their (the authorities') thieving," he said.

In contrast, government officials say they are leading heroic efforts to reconstruct what was destroyed by NATO's bombs, accusing the opposition of being Western traitors.

Milosevic told a crowd in his first campaign appearance this month that "everything has been renewed and everything is prettier than it was" one year after the air strikes.

Echoing this line, Serbian Prime Minister Mirko Marjanovic said that industrial production grew by a record 21 percent in the first seven months this year, forecasting that the 1998 level would soon be reached.


On a rare point of agreement, both the government and its opponents at home slam Western sanctions imposed on Belgrade since 1992, saying they should be lifted.

Aid agency officials also criticize the sanctions, which include an oil embargo as well as investment and credit bans, saying they hurt ordinary Serbs rather than the leadership.

"I feel that the sanctions, in the way they are now, are not achieving the purpose and are hurting the wrong people," Hauser said.

Swedlund of the IFRC took a similar view, saying: "The humanitarian situation is becoming more difficult as a result of the sanctions, that is what we see in our daily work."

The 15-nation European Union has signaled a radical revision of its policies if Serb voters opt for democracy in next Sunday's Yugoslav presidential elections and in parliamentary and local polls for Serbia.

But Britain and others oppose any lifting of the sanctions before the polls, as some EU countries have suggested, arguing this would be a "free gift" to Milosevic which he would exploit.

Whatever the outcome, Radovan Hrnjak - a Croatian Serb refugee living in Obrenovac since 1992 - held out little hope that things would change for the better anytime soon.

"People are divided, they don't get on," said the 65-year-old said while picking up beans, sugar and other supplies from a Red Cross warehouse. "I'm not very hopeful."

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