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Troops’ Trash Is Refugees’ Treasure

Trash from U.S. forces is proving to be a lifeline for some of Bosnia’s poorest people, including some who escaped Serb terror in Srebrenica last year.

Unopened packets of chewing gum, unblemished apples and plastic-sealed military meals are just some of the treasures found when men, women and children swallow their pride and scavenge through the dump here.

Some days, the pickings are slim.

On a recent day at the dump, Medina Mehmedovic sat idly with four other women from Srebrenica, waiting for the next gleaming white garbage truck from Lukavac.

The next delivery was an open-bed truck full of wooden shipping pallets. Men and teenaged boys swarmed onto the truck before it stopped and started throwing out the pallets.

The women were uninterested. They only join in when food comes.

“It all depends on how strong you are and how skillful you are what you get when the truck unloads,” said Mehmedovic, 25.

Maj. Bob Foster of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which supervises trash pickup from the American camp in Lukavac, 10 miles west of Tuzla, couldn’t explain how apparently unspoiled food gets thrown away.

Foster said he knows of one unit elsewhere in Bosnia that donates extra Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs, to an orphanage, but there is nothing organized for all 16,000 U.S. troops in Bosnia, which are headquartered in Tuzla.

So it’s hit or miss for the needy, like Mehmedovic’s mother-in-law, Hasiba, 53, who sat a little apart from the other women, playing with a tablespoon she found.

“I have no spoons at home,” she said. When two other women laughed, she retorted, “I don’t want to hide that. I have no spoons at home.”

“What can I do? I get one can (of beef) a month and some cooking oil and flour” from relief agencies, she added.

The younger Mehmedovic married the elder’s son. They have not seen their husbands since last July, when Bosnian Serbs overran Srebrenica, 45 miles southeast of Tuzla. The men are among the 8,000 missing from the Muslim enclave, almost all of whom are believed dead.

“They left together, and we never heard from them again,” said Medina Mehmedovic, nervously cleaning her hands with a wet-wipe napkin she found in an MRE.

Mumin Memic joined the women. He was one of the lucky men from Srebrenica who reached Bosnian government-held territory. Of the 40 men he started out with, only eight made it.

Still wearing camouflage fatigues - he had no other clothes - Memic, 35, leaned against a cart, depressed and embarrassed. That day he found only some packets of cocoa, juice and small cakes.

“If I had any place to work, I would not come here to pick through garbage,” said Memic, a baker in the Bosnian army who was wounded several times in the legs.

He said he has had no income since he was demobilized April 10 and is ready to take any job, rather than scavenge for food.

“But there are no jobs anywhere,” he added. He said he lives with his wife and 11-year-old son in Sizje, about 12-1/2 miles west of Tuzla.

Zada Pazalja, 44, was angry because there is so little relief aid for herself and her four children: “I am a mother of a wounded soldier, and I now have to visit this place to find something to eat.”

Pazalja held up an onion and a bottle of prescription drugs. She will ask a doctor what the drugs are for and try to sell them on the street.

Then she pulled two Tootsie Rolls from a pocket and said with a snaggle-toothed grin that they are for her children.

Suljo Bjelobrvic, 16, was munching a Slim Jim sausage. It was the first time he had ever seen such a thing.

“It’s the only one I found. Too bad. It’s good.”

The following fields overflowed: DATELINE = TURSKI LUKAVAC, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA