Page last updated at 00:24 GMT, Monday, 24 August 2009 01:24 UK

Devastating effect of recession in Serbia

By Mark Lowen
BBC News, Prokuplje, Southern Serbia

Mother and daughter visit the grave
The suicide was an act of despair by a man who could not support his family

She speaks softly, certain words reduced to a whisper. Her eyes are vacant, occasionally glazing over with tears which she manages, somehow, to hold back.

Against her dyed black hair and black clothes, her pale skin looks whiter still.

It is just a month since her husband killed himself.

She doesn't want me to use her name; ashamed that local people might hear what happened.

"I'll never forgive him for leaving me alone," she says, leafing through the few photos she's kept.

"I had to borrow money for his funeral. Now I have nothing. I can't even afford a bus ticket for my daughter to go to school."

It was an act of despair for a man who could no longer support his family.

He had held a series of short-term jobs, but had been unemployed since last year.

On his 38th birthday, he took a pistol and went to a nearby disused house. His wife found him four days later.

"Sometimes I think of doing the same," she tells me. "But it's my daughter who stops me."

Botched privatisations

Zivorad Kosovic and his cherry trees
We've gone totally bust. It's a disaster. If this continues next year, I'll have to start cutting down my cherry trees
Cherry grower Zivorad Kosovic

This is a region that has many tragic stories to tell.

A former industrial centre, most of Prokuplje's factories now stand silent, their old machinery rusting inside.

They went bankrupt after a series of botched government-led privatisations at the start of the decade.

Unemployment is stuck at almost 40% here - double the national average.

Agriculture is suffering, too. Sour cherries are the speciality of the area, but since last year, sales have plummeted and local growers no longer have the money to pay fruit pickers.

So the wrinkled, blackened skins of the fruit are left to rot on the branches.

'It's a disaster'

Zivorad Kosovic tells me the situation has become critical.

"We've gone totally bust", he says. "It's a disaster. If this continues next year, I'll have to start cutting down my cherry trees."

Srdjan Jordacijevic
Today we're paying the price of long-term underinvestment in southern Serbia
Srdjan Jordacijevic
Prokuplje governor

Serbia was still recovering from the after-effects of international sanctions imposed against the former President Slobodan Milosevic, when the current recession hit.

It has now been plunged back into crisis: its economy is expected to shrink by more than 5% this year.

The International Monetary Fund granted the country an emergency loan of 3bn euros (£2.6bn; $4.3bn) in May.

A delegation is back in Belgrade this week to decide whether the government has made the necessary reforms to qualify for the second instalment of the loan - around 800m euros.

The local governor in Prokuplje, Srdjan Jordacijevic, says years of neglect by Belgrade have had a devastating impact here.

"Today we're paying the price of long-term underinvestment in southern Serbia", he says.

"This is the poorest part of the poorest region. International money is slowly coming to this area, but people don't feel it."

Start of recovery?

On the outskirts of the city there is a glimmer of hope.

Looking through family photos
The family had to borrow money to pay for the funeral

A German company supplying wires for cars has bought up an old decaying factory and plans to employ more than 1,000 staff later this year.

The Serbian government was so determined to attract the investment, it promised the company 5,000 euros for each employee.

Aleksandar Jelic, a local consultant for the project, is confident the new factory will kick-start the local economy.

"Everybody will see that it's possible to make a success here," he says. "This will mark the start of the recovery of this region."

Back at the widow's house, she and her daughter pick a handful of flowers to take to her husband's grave.

It is just a few hundred metres away - an isolated spot off the beaten track - the final resting place for a man who could not see a way out of poverty.

There is a saying that Serbs have about their country: the further south you go, the sadder it becomes.

The widow uses her final matchstick to light a candle next to the grave. Only then does she let the tears fall.

"It's very hard to come here", she tells me.

"I cry and say out loud what I feel and what's hurting me. But it's all in vain. He can't hear me anymore."



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