Sanctions hit ordinary Serbs, aid chief says

BELGRADE, Aug 30, 2000 -- (Reuters) Many people in Yugoslavia are having difficulty feeding themselves and Western sanctions are helping to make life tough for ordinary Serbs, an international aid agency official said on Tuesday.

A growing numbers of people need humanitarian aid, Sten Swedlund, who heads the delegation in Yugoslavia of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), said.

"The humanitarian situation is becoming more difficult as a result of the sanctions, that is what we see in our daily work," he told Reuters in an interview.

The Yugoslav Red Cross, supported by the IFRC and the International Committee of the Red Cross, was distributing aid to 1.25 million people in the country of around 10 million inhabitants.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees, pensioners and other vulnerable groups were finding it increasingly hard to cope as the economic situation worsens, he added.

"During the late autumn last year and the first half of this year we have observed that the so-called social cases have increased dramatically. Many people are having difficulties even to feed themselves with very basic food," Swedlund said.

The economy slumped in the 1990s as a result of a series of Balkan wars, including NATO's air strikes last year to drive Yugoslav forces out of Kosovo, the Serbian province which is now under de facto international rule.

It has also been hit by Western sanctions, including an oil embargo and investment ban, imposed over Belgrade's role in the collapse of the old socialist federation over the last decade.

According to some estimates, Yugoslavia's gross domestic product is now about half of what it was 10 years ago when it enjoyed relative affluence among eastern and central European countries.


Yugoslavia now has Europe's largest refugee population of around 500,000 people, most of them Bosnian and Croatian Serbs.

There are also up to 250,000 internally displaced people from Kosovo, mainly Serbs who fled in fear of revenge attacks by ethnic Albanians angry at years of Serb repression.

"If you take the combination of this huge number of refugees and displaced persons plus the decline of the general socio-economic situation, Yugoslavia today is unique in a negative sense in Europe," Swedlund said.

Elderly people were especially affected by frequent delays of pension payments, he added. "There are altogether some 1.5 million pensioners living in Yugoslavia today and all of them are in a critical situation."

About 100,000 people receive hot meals each day from soup kitchens run by the Yugoslav Red Cross.

"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. "They are pensioners and they don't manage to care for themselves because of the socio-economic situation."

Responding to the growing needs, the amount of humanitarian assistance coming into Yugoslavia increased late last year to 20,000 tons per month from 3,000 tons, Swedlund said.

There was "definitely a need to provide humanitarian assistance in order to avoid humanitarian disaster in the country."

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