Residents symbolically bury bankrupt Bosnian town

If a town is dying, doesn't it at least deserve a decent funeral?

With candles, speeches and an obituary poster reading "Town of Drvar 1883 - 2013," residents symbolically laid this west Bosnian town to rest on Monday.

Two months ago, the last company in Drvar closed down, sending the town's unemployment rate skyrocketing to 80 percent - double Bosnia's average.

What Bosnia's 1992-95 war has not destroyed in Drvar, the global financial crisis and the Balkan nation's interethnic bickering seems to be finishing off.

"With the last 300 people being laid off, Drvar's backbone has been broken. This symbolic funeral should serve as an eye-opener for the regional authorities," said union official Mico Rakic. "They must see that these people have nothing to eat."

This neglected town had 17,000 residents before the war, including metal, wood and textile industries that employed over 6,000 workers. During the war, the mainly Bosnian Serb population fled when the town fell to the Bosnian Croat army.

A peace agreement divided the country in two ethnic-based regions, one run by Bosnian Serbs, the other shared by Muslim Bosniaks and Croats. Drvar ended up in the half run by the Bosniaks and Croats - and many residents see this as a reason for the town's neglected status.

Some 5,000 Serbs have slowly returned to their devastated houses only to see their hometown withering for over two decades. Last year, deaths in Drvar outnumbered births 119 to 27.

The carpet factory and the paper factory have never been rebuilt, their machines cut up and sold as scrap. Other companies were sold by regional authorities to buyers from Croatia who, according to the residents, sold off whatever remained from the plants, laid off all the workers and left millions in tax and utility debts.

"The last one owes the laid-off 300 workers months of salaries," Rakic added. "People are living off donations that their parents give them from their retirements."

With the average monthly retirement payment amounting to (EURO)160 ($208), that help doesn't add up to much.

During the last year, Bosnia's ranks of unemployed grew by another 96,000, bringing the country's unemployment rate to over 44 percent in February. Even those Bosnians who have a job can cover less than half of their essential living costs with their salaries, according to the government statistic agency.

And a recent U.N. survey found that three out of four young people in Bosnia don't have a job and over a half of them would leave the country for good if given the chance.

"Oh mother, why did you not give birth to me in Austria?" is a popular lament.

In Drvar, some 200 people came to the mock funeral, lighting a candle in the local Serbian Orthodox church for the soul of their hometown.

Among them was Vesna Ulaga, 45, unemployed since 1992. Her husband occasionally helps people cut firewood. Their 6-year-old daughter Angela has not tasted milk for the past six months, she said, and the family is waiting for their electricity and water to be cut off shortly because of unpaid bills.

Ulaga listened to the speeches and applauded when one speaker said "dignity is all we have left."

Drvar's mayor, Stevica Lukac, appeared at the symbolic funeral but urged the crowd not to lose hope.

Ulaga turned her back to him, a tear rolling down her cheek.

"I don't have the strength any more. I'm finished too," she whispered.

Enlargephoto

Bosnian people holding banners reading "we are hungry , we want job", "we want our salaries" and "low, true and justice" gathered in front of municipality building in western Bosnian town of Drvar, 400 kms west of Sarajevo, on Monday, March 4, 2013. With candles, speeches and an obituary plastered on walls reading "Town of Drvar 1883 - 2013," the residents symbolically laid this town to rest in peace on Monday. Two months ago, the last company in Drvar closed down, sending the town's unemployment rate skyrocketing to around 80 percent. The town had no chance to survive the double tragedies of the 1992-95 Bosnian war and then the global financial crisis which have joined to kill off this once lively community.(AP Photo/Amel Emric)