Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bosnian Ghost Town Comes To Life

Hundreds of Bosnian Muslims expelled from Kozarac eight years ago have come back to rebuild their shattered homes.
By Paul Hockenos

The shouts of workmen and the sharp uneven crack of their hammers pierce the eerie stillness of this weed-infested ghost town. Few words are spoken as buzz saws and cements mixers grind away.


The workers are returning Muslims - the same men brutally expelled from this northwestern town by Serbs in May 1992, during one of the Bosnian war's first major ethnic cleansing campaigns.


In a month-long terror spree, masked paramilitaries raped women and either killed the men or imprisoned them in camps in near-by iron mines. The televised images of emaciated prisoners behind barbed-wire fences shocked viewers around the world. The town itself was plundered, every house stripped to its foundations and dynamited.


Today, about 900 refugees have moved back to Kozarac, into houses rebuilt with European Union funding. "This is our house. We have nowhere else," said Farudin Kapetanovic, who spent the war years in Switzerland after his release from the notorious Trnopolje detention camp down the road.


"The war is over and things will be better soon. It didn't turn out like they expected," he said bluntly, his face streaked with sweat and dust. "We're coming back."


Since the signing of the 1995 Dayton peace agreement, only a sporadic trickle of Muslim and Croats have returned to Republika Srpska (RS). But already this year, the rate of return has tripled compared to the same period in recent years. The Office of the High Representative expects return figures to be twice those of last year.


In Kozarac, the ongoing reconstruction of 500 houses will cost the EU over $10 million. Every week, three or four new houses go up. The Kozarac refugees, most of whom now live in Bosnian Muslim-controlled towns nearby, must first pledge to return and live in their houses if they are rebuilt. Their repatriation opens up the homes they occupy presently for more returnees. Projects like Kozarac are the first step in facilitating a cycle of return, the goal of the multi-billion dollar international peace-keeping mission here.


While Kozarac is a success story, life here is far from normal. The newly reconstructed houses with their red-tile roofs stand out conspicuously among the mountains of rubble and ruined homes that line street after street. The destruction of Kozarac, once a prosperous little town of 25,000, was deliberate and designed to leave the place unfit for human habitation. After years of stalling, the Bosnian Serb leadership has finally given their grudging approval to a return process.


"It's all a bit different now but it's good," said Azra Kapetanovic, a cousin of Farudin. "We've had to start a new life, start everything from scratch. It's difficult because no one in the family works." She and her family depend on her father-in-law's $100 a month pension.


Azra's 7-year old daughter attends a local school for Bosnian Muslim children. Education is ethnically segregated these days. "It's a divided city now," she says. "The Serbs have their part and we have ours."


Down the main road three Serb men, one the local priest, take a break from ploughing a field behind the Orthodox church. "We don't mind the Muslims there," said Petar Tekic, a Serb refugee from Livno, a town now under Bosnian Croat control. "But if I try to go back home, I'm sure to have my throat slit," he said, reflecting a common impression among Serbs.


Unlike other towns in the Bosnian Serb entity, where returning Muslims have been harassed, Kozarac has been quiet for the past ten months. When reconstruction began two years ago, building sites were bombed and one person killed. But S-For's conspicuous presence and persistent international pressure appear to have cowed the local authorities.


"There are three factors that made this work," said Milburn Line, an international official working on refugee return. "The S-For presence, international community investment and the determination of the people of Kozarac."


Fear and suspicion still exist, however, and an unspoken question remains in people's minds - what happens when the international community leaves Bosnia. "These police are the same people," said Farudin, "the exact same people who were wearing military uniforms in the war."


The UN, the agency responsible for retraining Bosnia's police, intends to introduce Muslim police into the local force as soon as possible. Few, however, have volunteered. Bosnian Muslim recruits are being trained at the Banja Luka police academy, in the Serb entity, while Serbs study at the academy in Sarajevo. Federation and RS representatives recently signed new legislation paving the way for multi-ethnic police forces.


Four-and-a-half years into the peace process here and even optimists admit that the scale of refugee return is woefully inadequate. In most urban areas chaotic property laws and the continued occupation of homes by displaced persons have largely blocked return. Kozarac is a hopeful illustration that slow and laborious progress is being made in healing the deep wounds of post-war Bosnia. But many fear the process could take so long, the international community's patience will run out before Bosnia is ready to stand on its own.


Paul Hockenos is a regular IWPR contributor


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