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SOCIETY-BALKANS: The Road to Money Now Heads East

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Apr 8 2005 (IPS) - Thousands of men across the Balkans are heading east in search of a better income.

Many drive trucks right up to Iraq with food supplies for the U.S. military – Baghdad is 2,400 km from Belgrade. Others have stayed on there; services at the bases are provided by Macedonians and other from the Balkans region of Europe..

New jobs in Iraq, Russia and elsewhere in the Middle East, and through taking supplies there, pay up to 2,000 dollars a month. Average salaries in the former Yugoslavia are no more than 200 dollars a month.

The trucks drive out with a new safety passport – a photograph of the president of former Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito displayed on the windscreen. Tito died 25 years ago, but his photograph still opens doors because he was among the founding fathers of the Non-Aligned Movement.

"Iraqis still remember him," truck driver Milorad Miletic (58) told IPS. "He brings good luck. We cross the country without problems if we put his photo on our windshields."

The drivers need the luck, or the goodwill the photograph of Tito brings. "It keeps the fear away and makes things easier if aid is needed," Miletic said. "We are all afraid after what happened to the Croats near Tikrit and Mosul."

Two Croatian drivers Ivo Pavcevic and Dalibor Burazovic were killed in an attack on their convoy three weeks back. The Croatian foreign ministry issued a warning against taking jobs in dangerous areas, but the number of Croatian drivers heading out to Iraq or Afghanistan is constantly rising.

So is the number of Serb drivers taking goods to the region and to Russia, despite incidents along the long Siberian route, or even near Moscow.

In one such incident recently, Hristivoje Lukic (58) from the central Serbian town Kragujevac was forced out of his truck carrying a load of electronic equipment near Moscow. In what he called an "unpleasant adventure", he had to spend five days hiding in a small house. "I’ll never go there again," he said.

But most are undeterred. Bosniak, Serb, Croat and Macedonian drivers can be seen all along the highways of Greece and Turkey heading in and out of Jordan, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a "small Yugoslavia" on the move, Miletic says.

He has made four trips to Iraq and is preparing to make a fifth to a U.S. military base there. "The last convoy included Croats, Bosniaks and several Serbs," he said. "Macedonian workers there let us stay overnight."

The wars of the nineties had torn these peoples apart. "We never talk about the wars," Miletic says. "Ours is the logic of survival. Earning bread is above politics."

Their eastward journeys are a part of a larger move in that direction. Traditional directions of migration have "dramatically changed", Ivana Cimburovic from the Serbian ministry for work, employment and social policy told IPS.

In the 1960s at least a million workers from the Balkans headed out for Germany, France or Switzerland. Later a smaller number of better qualified Yugoslavs migrated West. In the wars of the nineties, about 400,000 young Serbs left for the United States, Canada or Australia.

By conservative estimates there are about three million Serbs abroad. The population of Serbia is 7.5 million.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina about a million Bosnians who fled during the conflict have opted to remain abroad, according to official estimates. That is about a quarter of its population.

"For those who stayed on, economic conditions were terrible," sociologist Srecko Mihajlovic told IPS. "Once peace returned in 1995, many doors to emigration were closed." Labour markets in the West have shrunk, and "people turn now to go where they can," he said.

That often means the town of Batrovici on the Croat-Serb border from where the convoys head east. "As long as my income is good I will go," says Miletic.

 
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