NATO bombs devastate plant that made Yugo; Autoworkers were ready to die to save factory known for its lemon; WAR IN YUGOSLAVIA


KRAGUJEVAC, Yugoslavia -- Milenko Vesnic was ready to die for the right to build Yugo cars.

The 53-year-old assembly-line foreman said he was among scores of laborers who stood by the gates of the vast Zastava factory last month, daring NATO to bomb what was once Yugoslavia's industrial crown jewel.

And NATO struck. Twice.

Now, Zastava is a wreck and Vesnic, along with thousands of other employees, has little to do but look at the ruins.

"If we lose the factory, we lose everything," Vesnic said. "Our work. Our bread."

Zastava now appears as devastated as Yugoslavia's economy, which has taken a pummeling during nearly two months of NATO bombardment.

The firm that once employed more than 40,000 on a bustling site during the 1980s, is now a shell, with only a few workers cleaning up a virtual ghost town, littered with bomb debris and car parts.

A Yugoslav army tour of the factory grounds reveals the damage NATO wrought during an airstrike April 9, and a follow-up attack three days later. More than 150 workers were injured in the attacks, but none was killed, authorities said.

Twisted metal and smashed pipes dominate the old power plant that doubles as the major source of heat for this hardscrabble central Serbian city. It promises to be a cold, desolate winter for 160,000 residents, most of whom are affected by the factory's fortunes.

A stamping plant, where ancient Polish-made machines manufactured doors, hoods and side panels, is a pile of junk.

But it's the walk inside the quarter-mile-long assembly plant that provides the most sobering views of all. The roof is smashed. So are the windows. And on the assembly line, the bodies of 50 red Yugos dangle helplessly.

Of course, cars were not the only items Zastava was known for. During the Balkan civil war of the 1990s, the firm produced guns, grenades and rocket launchers for the Yugoslav army.

Managers deny they produce military vehicles or weapons, other than target and hunting rifles. And they can't understand why NATO put them out of business.

"If one factory is destroyed, then one city like Kragujevac is also destroyed," said Dragan Srejovic, Zastava vice president.

For many here, Zastava once symbolized Yugoslavia's yearning to become an industrial player on the world stage. But as a state-owned firm, it was a relic from another age.

Founded in 1853 as a cannon manufacturer, Zastava began producing autos in 1953.

The flagship car was the Yugo. Neither pretty nor very reliable, it became something of an international joke -- and constant money loser -- when it was exported to the United States in the 1980s.

But the Yugo provided the face for Yugoslavia's once-brawny economy. It also showed some of the strengths of multiethnic Yugoslavia, each car using plastics from Croatia, seats from Macedonia, and electronics from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovenia.

Auto production also provided steady employment for thousands of skilled industrial workers, who often received as much as $440 a month before international sanctions crippled Yugoslavia's economy in the early 1990s.

Despite a lack of parts and markets, Zastava managed to produce 14,000 cars in 1998, managers said. But even at a rock bottom 6,000 Deutsch marks a car, few people really want a Yugo anymore.

Just before the NATO war broke out, workers were getting a little more than $10 a month, barely enough to feed a family for a few days. Housing continued to be provided by the firm.

On April 8, the last Yugo rolled off the assembly line, perhaps, for all time. The only new Yugos that can be seen in town are two models at a showroom.

In a strange way, the bombing may yet prove a blessing in disguise. With a decade-old auto design, a generation-old factory and too large a work force, there was little question the plant and its product need upgrading. After the war, the firm can build from the ground up. That is, if it can lure a foreign investor.

Pub Date: 5/18/99

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