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

Bosnian Refugees' Troubled Return

Muslim refugees returning to their former homes in Republika Srpska face an uncertain future.
By Amra Kebo

Sakib Dzaferovic was the imam in Kozarac before the town became part of Republika Srpska. A suvivor of the Bosnian Serbs' notorious concentration camps, he has returned to rebuild his life.

"Bosniaks are coming back and I expect, God willing, more people to return to their houses, regardless of their religion, " said the imam, wearing his religious robes without fear of persecution. "Everyone prefers to live in their own house."

Kozarac was obliterated by Bosnian Serbs. They expelled the town's entire Muslim population. Today, the physical scars and memories of the horror remain but some semblance of normality is beginning to return.

Dzaferovic's mosque - known as the Mosque of Hope - was destroyed during the conflict but recently rebuilt as part of an impressive reconstruction programme, which has repaired much of the damage to town.

Last year, at a time when international and local officials least expected it, there was a huge increase in the number of refugees' returning to Bosnia-Herzegovina. More than 40,000 people, double that of the previous year, were repatriated.

Of those, 17,000 Bosniak-Muslims went back to Republika Srpska, to areas in the east and northwest where there had previously been fierce resistance to their return.

But while people are streaming back and picking up the pieces of their shattered lives, they face many problems.

In November last year, the election victory of the nationalist Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, coincided with a wave of attacks against returning Bosniaks.

Although the SDS leadership has recently expressed its support for the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement - which enshrines the right of refugees to return to their homes - repatriated Bosniaks fear they are being targeted by local SDS extremists.

Before the war, Kozarac had been home to some 27,000 Muslims and just 400 Serbs and 90 Croats. After the conflict, not a single Bosniak remained. More than 200 Serbian families had moved into their houses.

Five years on, 4000 Muslim families have returned.

The drift back started in 1998 when the first returnees settled in tented accommodation. According to Hamdija Razic, president of the Co-ordinate Council for the Refugees and Displaced Persons for Bosnian Krajina, the pace increased dramatically last spring when UN High Representative in Bosnia Wolfgang Petritsch introduced a new property law which threatened to evict occupants of houses and flats that were not their own.

Some like Fatima and Hilmija Hucic have been able to rebuild their homes with family funds, others benefited from international aid but there are those still waiting for the return of houses occupied by Serb refugees.

Fourteen of the unlucky ones have been roughing it in makeshift accommodation since their repatriation in April last year.

Sixty-year-old Ismeta Grubic and 72- year-old Munira Mujkanovic live just 50 metres from their old houses " Women sleep on beds and men sleep outside in the tents, despite the cold," says Grubic. "They promised me that my house would be rebuilt by November." This was in December and work hadn't even started. "I will wait the whole winter for my house to be built," she complained.

Mujkanovic's husband was killed in the war. She has no family and now finds herself in the same situation as Grubic. "When we first came back, we were promised lots of things," she said. " But the houses are not being restored. I am ill, there is no doctor here, so once a week I must visit the hospital in Prijedor, which is far away."

Others, however, prosper. The brother of indicted war criminal Dusko Tadic, sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for war crimes, runs a restaurant, wine cellar and bakery in the town centre.

Opposite his restaurant, Refika Filovic runs a small newsagent. "You see his house? What can we do? Life goes on and some things must be accepted. I live with my aunt despite owning a seven-bedroom house. A Serb war veteran lives there now. I am waiting for his eviction order."

In order to speed up the return, international organisations such as OHR, UNHCR and OSCE devised the Property Law Implementation Programme (PLIP). Demands for return of property were gathered in each municipality and a seven-day eviction plan implemented.

There are currently a quarter of a million demands for the return of property in Bosnia. But the process is slow. According to Monica Sandri, head of the UNHCR office in Prijedor, during one week in December they managed only six of 30 planned evictions in the municipality. Out of 60 planned decisions concerning the return of property, 55 have been resolved.

Despite an increase in a number of successful cases, Sandri estimates that at the current pace it will be another 30 years before the eviction process is completed in Prijedor alone.

Meanwhile, a thousand or so houses have been rebuilt in the past two years in Kozarac with the help of the international humanitarian organisations. Bosniaks welcome the enterprise, but complain that it has many flaws.

"Not a single Bosniak was given a job on the reconstruction programme, they are all given solely to Serbs," claimed Hamdija Razic. "And there are no schools or hospitals in the city."

In addition to the lack of shelter, infrastructure, the returnees must endure the threat of extremist violence.

At the beginning of December, a bomb was thrown at a refugee house in Janja, north-eastern Bosnia. Then, in Bratunac, near Srebrenica, a man was killed by a mine while clearing the ruins of his house. Officially, the area had been cleared of mines and many suspect the mine was placed subsequently.

Spokesman for SFOR's Multinational Southeast Division, Patrick Mercier said, "After refugees started to return, around 11 incidents involving explosives have been registered."

Local Serbian officials involved in issuing documents for the return of property have also been targeted. Extremists, from The War Veteran Association, have been blamed for incidents in Foca, Pale, Gorazde and Ilidza. In the face of threats, many officials are resigning. One notable departure was Gordana Rasuljas, head of the Office for Refugees and Displaced Persons, in Srebrenica, RS.

The return to power of the SDS in Republika Srpska is fuelling refugee fears. Wolfgang Petritsch asked senior SDS officials to sign a document committing themselves to the Dayton Agreement, in particular clauses relating to the return of refugees and displaced persons. This public assertion of the party's intention to co-operate has not, however, assuaged Bosniak concerns. They are now calling for a multi-ethnic police force to be formed, especially in areas they're returning to.

Amra Kebo is a regular IWPR contributor

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