April 9, 1996 Vreme News Digest Agency No 235

The Return of the Refugees

A Step Back

by Jelena Grujic

The more committees and associations in Serbia talking about the return of refugees to their homes, the less people daring to cross the Drina river

Rade Kljajic, a lawyer who took refuge in Serbia, was one of those who wanted to return to Serb-held parts of Sarajevo. The return of refugees to their Sarajevo homes was organized a month ago by the Serbian High Commissioner for refugees. After several days of tension and a stormy television campaign, somewhat spoiled by scenes of a mass Serb exodus from Sarajevo and dead bodies of Serbs who had lived in the Bosnian capital, the trip was called off and Rade Kljajic had a heavy stroke. In order to calm him down as much as possible, his daughter went to Sarajevo by herself.

"He couldn't stand all those stories any longer. He was shattered when he heard the trip was delayed because he wanted to complete the work on his mother's unmarked grave. His friends told him they had little or no success in their attempts to obtain papers which would entitle them to get back their property. Personally, I had no problems at all, but that's because of my surname, and I stayed at a friend's who is Moslem. However, the women I travelled with had some horrible experiences. One of them was beaten up and told to demand her rights at The Hague," Kljajic's daughter said.

Old Moslem dwellers say life in Sarajevo will never be the same again unless their Serb neighbours return and those who came from various God-forsaken places leave. They testified that the newcomers had expelled a number of Sarajevo's inhabitants from their homes.

"We would have returned if the Serbs hadn't left their homes. All we want now is to sell our property in Sarajevo and stay in Serbia," said Seka Muratovic.

The repatriation of refugees started when 54 refugees were taken from Hungary to the Bosnian Moslem stronghold of Zenica. UNHCR spokesman, Ron Redmon, says that some 30,000 people have returned to Bosnia so far, to places where there was nothing disputable. The Serbian High Commissioner for refugees, Branislava Morina, has spoken about the return of refugees ever since she was appointed two years ago. Meanwhile, another 200,000 refugees arrived in Serbia, but Morina did not see it fit to provide them with any kind of status at all.

According to the highest-ever figure estimated, the number of refugees in Yugoslavia is 700,000. Many people, notably refugees, would like to know how the commissioner intends to secure their return or provide them with permanent accommodation here. The campaign for their return was started in early February, in the cabinet of Serbian Prime Minister Mirko Marjanovic.

Marjanovic received a refugees' delegation of the Solidarity Association, who forwarded to the prime minister a petition signed by some 400 families in the Ivanjica refugees camp asking for means to return to their homes in Sarajevo. Everyone shook hands, wished each other all the best and went back to minding their own business. Although no one had ever heard of the Solidarity Association before the meeting, it was presented as an organization representing refugees in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Several weeks later, a committee headed by former RSK premier Borislav Mikelic was launched from the highest ranks of the Yugoslav leadership. Mikelic said he would organize the return of those who wish to return to Croatia, although most of his talk focused on the committee's "immense task of resolving the existential problems of over 650,000 people." Mikelic would in that case assume the role of a commissioner. It seems that all the refugees need to do is choose their saviour.

Those who were most persistent and those with good connections were told, off the record, that the basic idea is to inhabit areas abandoned by Serbs with other Serbs, in order to preserve the ethnic structure of the population. However, UNHCR lodged a sharp protest, roads around Sarajevo were choked with trucks and vehicles, houses in Sarajevo were burning and heavy snowfall didn't help the cause either. Hence the commissioner said the trip would be delayed for a week, which - along with the mass Serb exodus from Sarajevo - discouraged those who wanted to return. That's what all the refugees will tell you if you ask them whether they will return.

It would be unfair to say that the commissioner has been completely unsuccessful in Serbia. Remember the revision of the refugees' status, forcible military drafts, organized relocations to Kosovo on a voluntary basis and the proposal that refugees should be sent to labour camps, which never came into effect for unknown reasons. It is true that most of them did have a roof over their heads, but didn't the commissioner's office itself say that 73.3 percent of them were staying with friends and relatives, while 21.5 percent were living in rented rooms.

Another interesting point is that the Serbian authorities declared that they allocated a total of 358 million dinars for the return of refugees, although the commissioner's office received only 12.6 million last year. The means were given on the basis of a programme for accommodating refugees during the winter. The project was only partially accomplished - several collective centres were built.

Quite simply, the situation with accommodating refugees is the following: UNHCR was paying about 20 percent for collective accommodation, the rest was never paid by anyone. Most people from Krajina have become a burden for Belgrade's municipal authorities, while others make a living from contraband and illegal work in the private sector.

The refugees are now on for a census initiated by UNHCR, to be conducted together with the commissioner. The people will be asked whether they wish to stay or leave, and they will be entitled to change their minds if they are not satisfied with the initial choice. Morina said the census was also important because of "the selection of people who will take part in the forming of authorities in both entities of the Bosnian federation. The census", she said, "is primarily in the best interest of the refugees themselves". Will anyone remember the 90,000 people who lost the status of refugees last May, because they came from territories not stricken by armed conflicts. Most of them left the former RSK when the first flood of refugees swept Serbia.


Five Million Dollars for Windows

Tina Andersen's job in the UNHCR is to organize the return of refugees. She says that the organization supports their movement and visits, and provides aid to those who want it. "Some families have managed to find accommodation for themselves and return to their hometowns. We told everyone who decided to act on their own that it's fine with us, but warned them that their fate is in their own hands. The UNHCR is now making a data bank consisting of information from every municipality within the infrastructure, houses available, and possibilities for a new life. It will be available to all those interested in returning," Andersen said.

The biggest problem is finding accommodation. "We do not have the mandate to return property. That, however, is the most immediate priority. We have received 30 million dollars for accommodation, but all we can do with it is reconstruct some houses. We spent five million dollars on windows for houses in Sarajevo only, and the amount required has long since exceeded what we have at our disposal," added Andersen.

She said that the Serb exodus from Sarajevo represents a step back in the return of refugees. Commenting on numerous accusations that the UNHCR had helped the exodus, Tina qualified the allegations as incredible.

"We encouraged the people to stay. The entire exodus was organized by the leadership of the Bosnian Serb Republic (RS), and neither we nor anyone else can stop people from leaving if they don't want to stay. IFOR was also criticized for providing trucks so that the people could take their things along with them, and this was done with the best intentions," Andersen said.

"The UNHCR will provide aid only when the people return to their respective destinations. Before that, they have to make a decision. The problem is that most of those who want to return are adamant that they will do so only when all the conditions have been created. That is the only thing they have confidence in," concluded Andersen.