Serbia massacre puts spotlight on Balkan vet woes

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VUKOVAR, Croatia — Edin Kapidzic fought in Croatia’s brutal war for independence and came out alive. Carrying on in peace turned out to be harder.

Years after returning from the front lines, the former soldier from eastern Croatia hanged himself in a park in the hometown he defended during the 1991-95 conflict, part of the wider disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. Kapidzic left behind a wife and four children. But no suicide note.

He was among nearly 2,000 Croatian war veterans who have killed themselves since war ended in the Balkan country, which is now slated to join the European Union. The numbers, experts warn, are likely to swell as former fighters grow older and feel even less needed by a society eager to forget the conflict and move on. The crushing stresses faced by veterans of Balkans wars grabbed international attention last week when a former Serb soldier killed 13 people in a pre-dawn rampage in central Serbia — a massacre his family linked to haunting memories of war in Croatia.

Such an extreme response to the psychological trauma brought on by combat is rare. But depression and suicides among Balkan veterans are becoming more prevalent.

“I get this feeling that I am no longer wanted in this world and that I should leave it,” said Mato Matijevic, a wartime ambulance driver who has survived one suicide attempt. “Just to leave everything and go.”

Across the Balkans, tens of thousands of war veterans from the ethnic conflicts of the 1990s’ have had trouble fitting back into society upon return from the battlefields of the former Yugoslavia — the stage of Europe’s worst carnage since World War II. Thousands of former fighters have experienced symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — or PTSD — including anger and depression; many have turned to alcohol and drugs; in the worst cases they take their own lives or commit violence against those around them.

In last week’s tragedy, Ljubisa Bogdanovic’s victims included his own son and a 2-year-old cousin. He turned the gun on himself and his wife, who survived; Bogdanovic died two days later. The gunman was described by neighbors as helpful and quiet, but his brother said he was tormented by the war.

Balkan veterans often speak of survivor’s guilt.

“You dream of your dead friends, those who died on your hands, or you dream of the people you killed,” said Tomislav Galovic, a 43-year-old veteran from the Croatian capital, Zagreb. “There is no way to explain.”

Croatia’s veterans have committed suicide in public places; some blew themselves up or burned themselves alive. Such acts are often seen as a cry for help from an increasingly indifferent society or state. One veteran used a Croatian flag to hang himself — an apparent message that he felt betrayed by the country he fought for.

Post-combat psychological trauma is common among soldiers around the world. Ex-fighters in the Balkans often face the further burden of severe financial problems that make a return to normal life even more difficult. Many war veterans find themselves on the margins of society, coping on their own.

Matijevic, the former military ambulance driver, said that “the most traumatic moments are when I see on television how we, the defenders suffer, unable to fulfill our rights.”

Dressed in a combat-style green jacket, his head clean-shaven, the tough-looking veteran said he left a construction job in Switzerland in 1991 to fight for his homeland. Matijevic now lives with his wife and daughter in a small house in an ethnically-mixed village in eastern Croatia — bitter over how things turned out for him and his country.

“They told us Croatia would become like Switzerland,” he said, “but it is nowhere close to it.”

Across the border in Serbia, veterans from the 1998-99 war in Kosovo have turned to the European Court of Human Rights to seek back pay from the state for the time they spent fighting, including the 78-day NATO bombardment of the country.

More than 4,000 former soldiers in Bosnia have committed suicide since the end of the conflict in 1995, according to the veterans’ association. There, Bosniak war veterans, who fought Serbs during the war, contributed money to a fund for their former enemies, who are now burdened by the same lack of jobs and income.

According to the World Bank, less than 15 percent of all veteran-related benefits in Bosnia have actually ended up in the hands of those most in need.

Dragan Sajic, who heads an association of PTSD civilian and veteran patients in the northern Bosnian town of Banja Luka, said that “often, after medical treatment, a patient returns to the same environment and conditions — unemployment and lack of hope for a better future.”

In Croatia’s former front line town of Vukovar, rows of white crosses and candles honor those fallen in the war that killed 10,000 people. A permanent fire burns at the quiet memorial complex, nestled among pine trees. Kapidzic’s tombstone in nearby Borovo features his portrait and the dates of his birth and death at age 43.

His friend and fellow veteran, Enver Arnautovic, said Kapidzic had started drinking heavily and taking pills about one year before committing suicide. “His hair and beard started to fall off,” Aranutovic recalled. “But the doctors told me his problem wasn’t just the alcohol.”

Mirjana Krizmanic, a psychology professor at Zagreb University admits that “we can’t really figure out why.”

“Once they commit suicide,” he said, “you can no longer find out the reason.”