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Bosnia: Returnees Suffer Economic Woes

Refugees returning to their former homes are struggling to make ends meet.
By Gordana Katana

Increasing numbers of refugees are returning to their homes, but they're finding it nearly impossible to get work or obtain compensation for the jobs they lost when the war broke out.


The problems they've encountered are both a result of lingering ethnic hatred and the country's deepening economic crisis.


During the years of conflict, firms run by one nationality tended not to offer jobs to members of other ethnic groups. When refugees started to return to their pre-war homes, they found that some of these barriers to employment remained and that there were far fewer jobs than before because of the economic climate.


In December 2000, the Republika Srpska, RS, parliament adopted a law which entitled workers who illegally lost their jobs between December 31, 1991, and December 16, 2000, to demand compensation. The Office of the High Representative, OHR, supported the legislation. However, the majority of claims were buried under the weight of the RS bureaucracy.


The situation is little better in the Federation. There too, compensation claims have become tangled up in red tape.


In 1992, Azra Alijagic was forced to flee from Banja Luka. Upon her return, she faced an uphill struggle to secure compensation. "The amount we are supposed to get is not sufficient for a funeral, let alone a new beginning," she told IWPR. The dismissal sum varies with length of former service - but the top rate is 1,200 konvertible marks or 600 euro.


The RS labour union has estimated that around 120,000 people - one third of the workforce - were thrown out of their jobs in the entity. According to the republic's law on dismissal compensation, all claims had to be processed within 90 days from the day of application. The deadline for claims expired on February 16, 2001.


RS labour ministry adviser Olivera Konjadic told IWPR that 11,000 applications have been reviewed. Yet not one employee has received any compensation to date.


"We came to realise that the 90 day promise could not be kept, so parliament abolished the deadline," Konjadic said, adding that the process was impeded by the large number of applications which did not include the necessary documentation to prove when an individual's employment had ended.


RS resident Nikica Jurincic, who was fired from his job in May 1992 and received his employment record card by post six months later, complained, "They demand a huge amount of documentation from people who were expelled from their homes carrying all their belongings in plastic shopping bags."


Local lawyer Goran Bubic believes there may be another explanation for the delay in processing claims. "If the average compensation amounted to 1,000 marks and there are 80,000 applications, you get 80 million marks. The RS does not have the money and therefore deliberately drags its feet. This talk of administrative obstacles is just a smoke-screen," he claimed.


Bubic, who once headed a commission on dismissal compensation, told IWPR that this had become apparent when the body was dissolved by Mladen Ivanic's government. "A new commission has not been formed to this day which shows the RS has neither the means, nor the political will to implement the law," he said.


The funds for dismissal compensation are supposed to come partly through the sale of state companies and partly through foreign credits. But IWPR has learned from the RS privatisation directorate and from the labour union that no money has been received from these sources to date.


A similar law granting pay-off fees for workers unable to get their jobs back was passed in the Federation on October 5, 2000.


That law allowed for special cantonal commissions to deal with claims. So far they have received some 52,300 - 23 per cent of which have been resolved, according to Dzana Kadribegovic, chairwoman of the Federation commission, a body people turn to if their claims are rejected at cantonal level.


Kadribegovic blamed the delays on the latter, which she claimed were not doing their jobs properly. Most claimants took their case to the Federation commission after their cases were rejected at canton level.


The Democratic Initiative of Sarajevo Serbs estimated there were some 12,000-15 000 Serbs who could neither get their old jobs back, or receive any kind of compensation.


In the Federation, the government human rights ombudsman said back in 2001 that the compensation law was absurd because no-one appears responsible for carrying it out.


In the meantime, the Federation government has decided to allocate approximately 50 million marks from its budget to pay former employees. Officials say payments will be made as soon as a method of regulating the process is established.


The lack of progress on the compensation issue has prompted many returning refugees to start losing hope. Azra Alijagic is vainly trying to find work in her pre-war home of Banja Luka. "My only sin is that I am a Bosniak [Bosnian Muslim] - a wrong name at a wrong time at a wrong place," she said.


Gordana Katana is VOA correspondent in Banja Luka and Srdjan Papic is a freelance journalist.


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