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A war raging back home, 28 sailors chip paint here 'We feel like we're in a cage'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A photo caption in Sunday's editions of The Sun misidentified a Yugoslavian sailor who was painting the ship Durmitor. The seaman is Mirko Latkovic.

In addition, the surnames and given names of two other seamen were transposed in another caption and in the accompanying article about the sailors. The seamen are Dusan Ivanovic and Nebojsa Milosevic.

The Sun regrets the errors.

ABOARD THE DURMITOR -- Far from the shelling that rains down daily on Sarajevo from the hills, and half a world away from the gaunt faces behind the barbed wire of detention camps bobs this bucket in the green-black chop of the Patapsco River.

Stopped cold for the past six weeks aboard this 514-foot cargo ship anchored in Baltimore's Outer Harbor are 28 men who left their home port months ago as citizens of Yugoslavia, but who now don't know what country they'll be returning to -- or when.

"What we want is to stop the war -- all of us on the ship -- continue the voyage and go home," said Ivanovic Dusan, 25, the pipe-smoking second mate. "But we don't know if it is possible in Yugoslavia to go home with American-entry visa."

These sailors haven't been paid in two months. They are running out of cash for things such as entertainment, tobacco and beer, though the ship's owner does supply food. Some haven't been home for as many as 16 months, including one man who has yet to see his year-old son. Two have had their homes in Bosnia blown to bits.

And no one has a clue as to when the 28 might leave the Port of Baltimore, where the ship has been detained by the U.S. government since July 14 because of President Bush's order to freeze assets of companies believed to be owned by the new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, made up now of Serbia and Montenegro. The Durmitor is considered such an asset.

The June 5 executive order was the United States' piece of the U.N.-approved economic sanctions against the war-torn nation, after ethnic Serbs, aligned with the new Serb-dominated Yugoslav government, took up arms against Bosnia's Muslims and ethnic Croats earlier this year.

Others also detained

In this case, five ships presumed owned or controlled by Jugoslavenska Oceanska Plozidba -- a company on the U.S. Treasury Department's list of "blocked" Yugoslav companies -- are being detained in Baltimore and three other ports. A sixth ship owned by another company believed to be Yugoslav also has been detained in a fifth U.S. port.

But it is not international politics or the civil war that bothers the Durmitor's crew the most. They hail from all over what once was Yugoslavia -- Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia and Bosnia. They are Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, though no Muslims.

They still consider themselves Yugoslavs all, but sailors first. This crew's problem is that they are anchored in port, caught in a sailor's nightmare that is sort of "Mister Roberts" gone awry.

"The best thing you can do for me, sir, is take a gun and shoot me," said one seaman, driven to distraction by the tedium of chipping rusty steel and painting it over, day after day.

"I hate to sit still," he said, only willing to identify himself by his first name, Dragan.

"We feel like we're in a cage, we feel useless," said Milosevic Nebojsa, 28, the handsomely dark third mate who, like many aboard, hails from the port city of Kotor in Montenegro. "We don't like it when the ship is stopped. We don't like it when the work is stopped. It is important to release us to do our job."

Sipping a cup of thick, black coffee as he stood watch on the bridge, Mr. Dusan chimed in.

"We like oceans, we like to have a big area around us," said Mr. Dusan, whose young face makes him look more like a cabin boy than the third man in charge of this ship. "Every port around the world is interesting to us, but we're usually there just five, six days."

Then, narrowing the gaze of his piercing blue eyes, he said, "We are not responsible for this crazy war in Yugoslavia. . . . I'm a seaman. There are crazy people who make money by politics, but we are not political.

"I can go ashore, I can watch TV, I can listen to the radio, but my heart is closed. I am not happy," Mr. Dusan said. "I am a seaman, and I feel like I'm in jail."

Wife expecting twins

A prisoner in port is exactly what seaman Latkovic Mirko, 25, doesn't want to be. He and his wife are expecting twins in late October.

Mr. Mirko quickly fetches photos from home to show a visitor. He lays out on the bridge pictures of his wedding last November, June photos of his pregnant wife, and finally a photo from the sonogram showing the twins.

"My family is very important to me," he said.

And so it is aboard the Durmitor.

The crew keeps in touch with home through the mail. For those seamen who can afford it, they can call Yugoslavia collect to check on their families, after motoring ashore in a small dinghy. But many times a call home can bring as much concern as it can bring relief.

"I talked to my mother Tuesday, and she said situation is very bad," said Dragan, 37, a native of Sremska Mitrovica, Serbia. "People are very confused, but there is no fighting there."

Home was destroyed

Another sailor, this one from Mostar, Bosnia, declined to be interviewed or photographed, as he, too, hammered rust off the superstructure of the ship.

The man has not been home for 16 months and has never seen his 1-year-old son, crew members said. The man's home was destroyed in the war, but his family managed to escape unharmed and move to Kotor, the ship's one-time home port, they said.

"Our emotions are very bad. Every moment, I expect better news, but it doesn't come," Dragan said. "Every minute is the longest for us, you know what I mean?

"Life is a long song," he said. "Especially on this ship."

While the crew is free to leave the ship under the provisions of temporary visas, it can be a difficult ride motoring in the ship's tiny dinghy to the public piers in Canton. But the bigger deterrent is lack of money to spend once they get ashore.

To pass the time, the crew plays cards, chess, checkers, watches TV and listens to the radio. They have watched the same seven VCR tapes -- such as "Another 48 Hours," "Crocodile Dundee" and "Indiana Jones" -- so many times that Mr. Nebojsa claims the men who speak English have memorized the lines.

And they work -- chipping the rust off this tub, repainting the gray hull and white superstructure.

Occasionally, the crew will venture out into Baltimore, led by locals such as Ryan J. Waters, a sort of free-lance Chamber of Commerce and goodwill ambassador from the St. Helena neighborhood in Southeast Baltimore.

"I've been having a blast just showing off Baltimore," said Mr. Waters, 27, an Army veteran of Operation Desert Storm who operates a grass-cutting and hauling firm.

He met the crew through Danish sailors from the tall ship Georg Stage who were wandering lost in his neighborhood. He was pressed into service as a referee, after the Danes and Yugoslavs -- whose ships were anchored beside each other at one point -- challenged each other to a friendly game of basketball. The Durmitor won.

Since then, he has arranged to ferry them between ship and shore, taken them around to the area bars and restaurants -- and churches. "Different strokes for different folks," he said.

"I feel sorry for these guys. They're scared, and some of them are afraid that they'll run out of money," he said. "I take them around to meet the locals to take their minds off things."

Detained at Dundalk

The Durmitor was on its third, routine round-trip voyage from Brazil to U.S. ports last month, when it became one more casualty of the war.

The crew had dropped some of its containers at Dundalk Marine Terminal, picked up additional cargo and was minutes away from pulling out of port for New York, when everything came to a halt.

"The pilot was on board, and the [U.S.] Customs officers came aboard and stopped us," said Mr. Dusan. "Our anchor was ready to come up."

The cargo -- mostly machinery bound for both North and South America, including equipment for General Motors -- was unloaded and barged to its eventual destinations and to other ships, state port officials and the cargo agent said.

The ship sat for eight days at Dundalk Marine Terminal, until port officials asked the captain to clear the berth for other incoming ships. The Durmitor has been anchored on the north side of the Patapsco River opposite Colgate Creek -- about a half mile offshore, 1 1/2 miles north of the Francis Scott Key Bridge -- ever since.

But the Durmitor was not the only one of the Jugoslavenska Oceanska Plozidba ships detained. Four others also are stuck in port: two in New Orleans, one in Savannah and one in Newark, N.J.

And, faced with five of their ships being tied up in U.S. ports, the owners and operators filed suit in New Orleans against the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, claiming that the ships were, in fact, not Yugoslav, but recently reflagged to reflect a Maltese ownership.

On Aug. 10, however, a federal judge upheld the government's right to detain the ships, ruling that releasing the vessels, pending an administrative appeal to the Treasury Department's office, would interfere with President's Bush ability to set foreign policy.

In the interim, a ship owned by another company was detained in New Haven, Conn.

Red star still present

In Baltimore, each side of the Durmitor's stack is still emblazoned with a huge red star -- formerly a symbol of communism -- and the one-time home-port of Kotor has been recently painted over everywhere on the ship. In its place is painted, "Valetta," Malta, where the boat is now flagged.

Agents for the ship and lawyers for the companies did not return a reporter's phone calls, but Mr. Dusan said that the ship was reflagged out of Malta months ago -- an assertion bolstered by court records that state the vessels are owned and operated by Maltese companies formed in May 1992.

But now, as always, the crew's plight boils down to money.

"Representatives of the owners promised us we [would] get our money and said they would do everything to shift crew members," Mr. Dusan said. "The company's money is frozen here in America" as part of the sanctions against Yugoslavia.

"But it is not Yugoslavia's money; it is my money," he said. "We work, but we have not been paid for working in July and August."

And the U.S. government does not offer much hope of resolving the issue soon.

Asked when the sanctions might be lifted, Richard B. Myers, spokesman for the Treasury Department, would say only, "It is subject to review by the Treasury Department and the State Department."

Mr. Dusan, sighing in frustration, said, "If it is three weeks, we will be lucky. But I fear it will be at least three months before we leave this ship."

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