'You'll never know what I saw.' Then he shot himself

Serbia's 'Vietnam Syndrome' - Flashbacks to the ethnic cleansing and genocide are driving some former policemen and soldiers to suicide
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The Independent Online

On his wedding day, Dalibor Andric walked out of the restaurant where his bride and their guests were waiting for the traditional marriage feast to start, and blew his head off with a single gun shot.

Dalibor was 23 and had served as a policeman in Kosovo during the Nato air campaign against Serbia. He never talked about his time in the province. His bride, Marija, told of how he used to wake up in the middle of the night, sweating and screaming. To all her words of comfort, his answer was "You will never know what I saw and did."

Like another Serb policeman, who came home from a football match and killed his wife before turning his weapon on himself, Dalibor is a victim of a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) now being widely reported among the police officers and military in Serbia. The affliction mirrors "Vietnam syndrome", experienced by American veterans of the Indo-China war. In Belgrade they call it "Vietnam syndrome - Serbian-style".

Early European victims of the syndrome were the many Yugoslav army recruits who were taken from Serbia proper, across the Drina river into eastern Bosnia, to remove the bodies of Muslim civilians killed during the war in 1992. After they removed the bodies with bulldozers, many ended up in the psychiatric ward of the élite Military Academy Hospital in Belgrade.

The Serbian public learnt of PTSD when, in 1995, a drunken young men entered the premises of a psychiatric clinic in Belgrade, asking for immediate help. After a while, the former Serb army volunteer lay on the ground, activated a hand grenade under his body and blew himself up.

According to experts, PTSD develops after severe stress, such as participation in or witnessing atrocities. It can arise several months after an event, or even years later. "It is always man-induced horror that causes PTSD," says Dr Srdjan Bokonjic, a Belgrade psychiatrist specialising in the treatment of Vietnam syndrome. "People who are unable to overcome deep trauma start constantly to relive a certain situation or event. Clinical symptoms of PTSD include nightmares, flash backs, aggressive behaviour, isolation from society. If not treated properly, it can lead to permanent destruction of the personality, alcoholism, drug addiction. The final outcome can be the most tragic - random killings and suicide."

So far, despite much anecdotal evidence of PTSD in Serbia's military ranks, there are no statistics on the disorder. Psychiatrists are reluctant to talk about the disorder, saying that it immediately brings politics into the conversation. Yet none of them denies that it can be linked to the questions many men who took part in combat asked themselves.

"It all explodes in your mind when you ask yourself, 'Why am I here? What is the purpose of this war? Look how humiliated and ashamed we are, leaving the Serbian holy land [Kosovo]'," said Milan J, 43, a Serbian army reservist. He spent three months in Kosovo, took part in evictions of ethnic Albanians but denies any involvement in atrocities. He admits that he feels manipulated by the army and is an angry man.

In a conservative society such as Serbia's, visiting a psychiatrist is considered a shame. But it is widely believed that many suicides among those who served in Croatia and Bosnia were a result of the disorder. "It would be interesting to know how many sought any help before committing suicide," Dr Bokonjic says.