Hoping for Help: Serbia’s Disabled War Veterans
Disabled Serbian veterans hope that a new draft law could give them improved state benefits – but the proposed legislation ignores some of the civilians who were seriously injured during the 1990s wars.
Dejan Ivanovic was wounded while serving in the Kosovo war in spring 1999, when he stood on an anti-personnel mine in Kosare and lost one of his legs.
For the last 20 years, he has been a military invalid, but has had to struggle with bureaucracy to get the benefits that he is guaranteed by law.
Serbian legislation offers a series of rights to people like Ivanovic: military invalids have the right to prosthetic limbs, monthly compensation and a motor vehicle, among other things.
But in practice, Ivanovic told BIRN, “there are achievable rights and there are non-achievable rights”.
“I have right to a change of prosthesis. The procedure is that I go to the [municipal] service for veterans to say what I need, and they send me to a commission that should establish whether a change is necessary. Then they issue a decision about what rights I have, then they send that to the Ministry [of Labour, Employment, Veterans’ Affairs and Social Affairs], and then I get my decision, and then I can go to a clinic to order the prosthesis,” Ivanovic said.
He explained that the entire procedure takes him two months.
Ivanovic is a member of an NGO called Peace Builders from the city of Krusevac, one of the organisations that participated in the recent public debate about a new draft law that will regulate the rights of wartime soldiers, military and civilian war invalids and their families.
The public debate period finished at the beginning of June, and the Minister for Labour, Employment, Veterans’ Affairs and Social Affairs, Zoran Djordjevic, said the draft legislation is expected to be sent to parliament in the autumn.
The draft introduces recognition for veterans of wars in Croatia, Bosnia (until 1992) and Kosovo, but it still misses out some groups of civilian victims of war, such as invalids who are less than 50 per cent disabled, people who were jailed or tortured on Serbian territory, or those who sustained their injuries outside Serbia.
Same war, different benefits
The draft legislation has been in development for several years, and during that time, disabled veterans have staged a series of protests in Belgrade, demanding that a law to upgrade their rights be introduced immediately.
Vuk Stanic, the secretary of Association of Military, War and Peacetime Invalids, said however that disabled veterans already have good benefits in Serbia.
“All these years, our association has been following a policy of fighting for our current rights not to be abolished,” Stanic said.
He added however that additional administrative regulations imposed by officials have curtailed some of the veterans’ benefits.
“In practice, some things you get, some you do not. It is a big problem that the law, which provides good rights, is sometimes destroyed in practice by regulations,” he said.
He cited one example of how one veteran, who was declared disabled after being wounded in the head by a bullet, was denied a car because he still has both arms and legs. He also said that disabled veterans are asked time after time to prove that they have medical problems.
The new draft law will guarantee some benefits for civilians who became invalids in wartime. But while military veterans need to be 20 per cent disabled to qualify, the threshold for civilians is 50 per cent.
The president of Alliance of Civilian Invalids of War, Slavko Djordjevic, said that this was illogical.
“The same commission assesses military and civilian invalids of war, but they don’t have the same rights. That doesn’t make any sense,” Djordjevic told BIRN.
In comments on the draft law that were sent to the Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veterans’ Affairs and Social Affairs, the Alliance of Civilian Invalids of War argued that civilian victims deserve the same rights as military veterans.
The alliance said that civilians who became disabled during conflicts, particularly those who sustained long-term injuries in childhood, could not live a normal life or get employment to secure their basic needs.
“The basic idea of any kind of protection should start with providing civilian war invalids with opportunities that are at least equal to those of war-disabled soldiers, starting from the fact that war-disabled soldiers became invalids as adults, with personalities that were already formed, and consciously took an active role in warfare, while civilian invalids, when they became disabled, were denied the possibility of a conscious decision and of any kind of participation in normal life,” it explained.
According to the new draft, military war invalids have the right to treatment at a health spa, and some of them have the right to receive money to buy a car. Civilians who became invalids during a war don’t have these rights.
The draft also proposes that people who have certain conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder can only be classified as military invalids if they have had treatment or tests in a hospital already.
Civilian victims’ rights limited
The previous law recognised veterans who fought in both world wars, as well as some of those who were involved in military action in the 1990s as part of the armed forces of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia or its successor from 1992 onwards, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which existed until 2003.
The proposed new legislation extends rights to people who were members of Yugoslav Army forces in Croatia (until they withdrew on April 27, 1992) and in Bosnia and Herzegovina (until they withdrew on May 19, 1992).
It also extends rights to members of the Yugoslav Army who “exercised military duties or other duties in connection with participation in the armed action undertaken during peacetime after April 27, 1992 to defend the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, or the Republic of Serbia” – as well as people who participated in the Kosovo war during NATO’s military intervention.
However, Dusko Celic, the president of the Coordinating Body of Serbian Associations of Families of Missing, Killed and Killed Persons from the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia, argued that the only positive development in the draft law is that missing persons will be classified as civilian victims of war, thereby extending the right to benefits to their families.
“But this conceptual definition is extremely conditional and narrow, so that a large number of missing persons in Kosovo and Metohija, those who disappeared after June 10, 1999, ie. the day of the cessation of hostilities after the NATO aggression against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, would not be covered by the proposed legal formulation,” he explained.
To be recognised as a civilian victim of war or a civilian war invalid, a person must have been wounded or killed or went missing “as a result of abuse or the deprivation of liberty by the enemy during the war or during the conduct of wartime operations in the territory of the Republic of Serbia”, the draft says.
Ivana Zanic from the Humanitarian Law Centre argued that this means that some groups of people will again not be categorised as civilian victims.
“Members of families of victims from Sjeverin [where Bosniaks were seized from a bus and killed] or those who were killed after the abduction from the train in Strpci will not be able to have the status of a member of the family of a civilian victim of war because the murders did not take place in the territory of Serbia and were also not committed by the ‘enemy army’, because Serbia does not consider the Bosnian Serb Army a hostile army,” Zanic said.
“Also, members of the families of people who were killed during [the Croatian Army’s] Operation Storm [in Croatia] will not be able to achieve this status because this violation did not happen on the territory of Serbia either,” she added.
“When you analyse the proposed legal solution in detail, it is clear that only civilian invalids and family members of victims during the NATO bombing [of Yugoslavia from March 24 to June 10, 1999] will be able to have the status of a civilian disabled person or a member of the family of a civilian disabled in war,” she concluded.
Meanwhile, Aleksandar Sokolovic, a colleague of Dejan Ivanovic from the Peace Builders association, who was also wounded in Kosovo in 1999, was sceptical that the legislation will provide many new benefits for disabled veterans.
“My view of this law is that I have no overwhelming hope that it will bring something new and better,” Sokolovic said. “There is always hope, but I have more doubts about this.”