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

Croatian Serb Refugees Ponder Return

Many Serb refugees from Croatia have welcomed the new liberal government in Zagreb, but still fear intimidation and discrimination if they return.
By Vesna Stojanovic

"I want to go home to my village in Croatia. Now that [President Franjo] Tudjman is dead, maybe it will be better," says a 70-year-old Serbian woman from a village near Knin, now living in a refugee camp in Belgrade.

But while she yearns to return home, she remains fearful of her former neighbours.

"Who will protect me there?" she said. "I don't trust the Croats at all. My husband has died of sorrow for our son who was killed during the war in Croatia. My house was burnt."

She is one of 300,000 Serbian refugees from Croatia, just over half the republic's pre-war Serb population, who now live in Serbia. They have been arriving since the start of the Yugoslav conflict ten years ago. The flow became a tide in 1995 when more than 200,000 fled the Krajina region of Croatia during the Croatian army offensive to recapture the territory.

The unsolved refugee problem now represents one of the biggest challenges facing Croatia's new liberal government

According to data provided by the Croatian government, between 30,000 and 40,000 Serbs have returned so far. The greatest number did so before and during the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia. However, sources close to various refugee associations in Serbia claim that the real number is far less. Their estimate is 15,000 to 20,000 returnees.

As many refugees continue to distrust the Croatian authorities, a mass return of displaced Serbs seems unlikely.

A Serb law student from the Croatian town of Sisak believes the new government in Croatia will do little more to ensure the safe return of refugees than its nationalist predecessor.

"How can we trust them now when they invite us to return?" he says. "New politics cannot be created overnight. I will be the first to return, if somebody can guarantee my physical security."

He says that being a Serb he is prepared to accept that he will be treated as a pariah in Croatia, but he is not prepared to die because of his ethnic origin.

"The time has passed when people would die in vain for Serbia. I now hold a Croatian passport, but I don't want it to be my death warrant."

The catastrophic economic situation in Serbia and the influx of Serb refugees from Kosovo have combined to worsen the plight of displaced Croatian Serbs.

"It is very cold here. Its damp so we must not turn the heater on," said Natasa, from near the Croatian town of Glina, who has lived in a refugee camp in a suburb of Belgrade for six years.

"The old people in the camp are hoping to return, especially now that Tudjman is dead. The young people don't look forward to anything, we just endure."

Milos from the Croatian town of Okucani is indignant about the way in which citizens of Serbia treat Serb refugees. He is a porter in a Belgrade factory and has often been told by his colleagues that they should go home because they are taking their jobs.

"I'm just waiting to see how this new government [in Croatia] will behave towards the Serbs who decide to go back," he said. "If it is good for them, off I go back to Croatia. Probably it won't be any worse there than it is here."

"I'm harassed here in a job that pays me peanuts. If they give me a job in Croatia, then I'd rather be harassed there for more money."

Those who do choose to return face numerous bureaucratic hurdles. There are difficulties in obtaining official documents, such as identity papers, reclaiming property and repairing damaged homes.

In addition, the areas in Croatia to which Serbs can return are in the midst of serious economic problems, with high levels of unemployment.

The change of government in Croatia may lead to a greater influx of western money. If some of that is used to ease the repatriation of Serbs, then more of them are likely to return.

Miladin Skrbic, a lawyer for the office of the Serbian Democratic Forum, a Belgrade-based non-government organisation which represents Croatian Serbs, believes that people would go back to Croatia in greater numbers if the new government simplified the procedure for returning.

Serbs still living in Croatia - estimated to number 150,000 - appear to have learnt lessons from the war when many of them supported Serbian nationalism and suffered the consequences, says Skrbic.

In the recent elections, he says, three-quarters of Croatian Serb citizens voted for candidates from the Croatian opposition list rather than for Serb representatives.

Vesna Stojanovic is a human rights activist and writer based in Belgrade.