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

Donor Fatigue Threatens Repatriation

A funding crisis is threatening to derail efforts to help Bosnian refugees return to their homes
By Janez Kovac

Sacir Halilovic was the last Muslim to leave the Srebrenica enclave after its fall to Bosnian Serb forces five years ago. But in March this year, this 86-year-old survivor of three European wars was also the first Muslim to return.

"This is my land and I am ready to put my life on the line for it," said Sacir, sitting on the doorstep of his half-rebuilt house, in the former UN 'safe haven', a place synonymous with the horror of the Bosnian war.

Sacir and his wife Mevlida were among the thousands of women, children and elderly people deported from Srebrenica in July 1995 by Bosnian Serb forces. They were among the lucky ones. At least 7,000 Muslim men, including several members of the large Halilovic family, were hunted down and executed by Serb fighters in the worst single massacre to blight Europe since the end of World War Two.

But where Srebrenica stands as testimony to the Bosnian tragedy, Sacir and Mevlida Halilovic offer hope for normality and reconciliation in this war-shattered country.

A further 80 Muslim families followed Sacir's example and returned to the village of Suceska just outside Srebrenica on June 3. The families are currently living in tents while their destroyed homes are rebuilt.

Both Sacir and Mevlida say they have had no problems with their Serb neighbours. On the contrary, the couple say, they have proven to be very helpful. "Neighbours, friends and police often come to visit us. We live in harmony with them," Sacir said. "There are good people, whether they are Bosnian Serbs, Croats or Muslims."

Sacir believes all refugees should return to their original homes. "There is nothing better than your own place," he said. "You just have to be brave, wise and honest."

But since the end of the Bosnian war in 1995, local nationalist leaders have gone to great lengths to obstruct the return of refugees. Progress on the returnee issue flew in the face of the hardliners' ambitions to preserve their ethnically cleansed fiefdoms.

After five years, however, constant pressure from the international community has started to bear fruit. Slowly but surely, the security situation across Bosnia has improved and the numbers of refugees returning to their homes has steadily increased.

The real breakthrough came this year. Estimates from various international organisations suggest between 7,500 and 12,500 people were repatriated in the first four months of this year - a fourfold increase on the same period in 1999.

But more significant is that many of these returnees are moving back to places notorious in previous years for violence and intimidation - Srebrenica, Foca, Stolac, Drvar, Bugojno, and Vares.

"We are now seeing things unthinkable at the outset of this process," Bosnia's top international mediator, Wolfgang Petritsch told the Peace Implementation Council in Brussels on May 23. "Illegal occupants in Bijelijna are being evicted - a place of horrible 'ethnic cleansing' in the early days of the war in BiH [Bosnia-Herzegovina]. And [people] are returning to Foca, until recently only known for being a preferred 'resort' of indicted war criminals."

Late last year, 11 Muslim officials were appointed to the Srebrenica municipal assembly. But the officials had to shuttle back and forth from Sarajevo and Tuzla to Srebrenica every day. In March, the Catholic Relief Services, CRS, repaired and furnished two houses in the town and now the officials live in Srebrenica five days a week and spend weekends with their families in Tuzla and Sarajevo.

Returning to Srebrenica is not without its problems. In November, Munib Hasanovic, the Muslim appointed municipal secretary, was stabbed and seriously injured in the toilets of the municipal building. The perpetrators were never found. And in May, unknown persons looted the two houses accommodating the Muslim officials, despite an around-the-clock local police guard.

The CRS is the only international humanitarian organization working in Srebrenica and is currently repairing Sacir's home, as well as others belonging to both Muslim and Bosnian Serb families.

Greg Auberry, head of the CRS in Bosnia, says that every agreement and breakthrough came only after long and difficult negotiations between Bosnian Serb and Muslim representatives. But as his colleague Graham Sanders, project director for the CRS, says, "If we can make progress in Srebrenica, we can make progress anywhere."

The one thing both Bosnian Serb and Muslim local officials agree on is that Srebrenica's devastated economy and infrastructure offer a grim future for whichever ethnic groups chose to live there.

This once prosperous mining town can no longer support its current population of 15,000. Most residents are Bosnian Serb refugees from Sarajevo, Ilijas, Donji Vakuf and Bugojno. An influx of Muslim returnees would only exacerbate present difficulties.

The Bosnian Serb Vice President of the Srebrenica municipal assembly, Dragan Jeftic, says the lack of promised Western reconstruction funds will not only effect the return of Muslim refugees, but will also make life hard for the Bosnian Serb population.

"People here are now living in worse conditions than year ago," Jeftic said. "Many ambassadors and international organisations have visited us, made big promises and then never come back again."

Five years on from the Dayton peace agreement, Srebrenica is still without a functioning water system. "Promises and signatures are not enough," said Jeftic, blaming the Bosnian Serb government, Western agencies and governments for failing to invest in the city.

Bosnia appears to be the victim of "donor fatigue". Western attention has shifted to Kosovo and other crisis hot-spots, and international funding for Bosnia has shrunk as a result. This lack of resources is hindering reconstruction efforts, which is in turn threatening future progress on the return of refugees.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, the lead agency behind the repatriation process in Bosnia, is facing a shortfall of $150 million in 2000.

"UNHCR cash availability is at its lowest in almost ten years," said UNHCR spokeswoman Barbara Smith. "UNHCR may have to freeze aid implementation agreements with partner agencies if the cash shortage continues."

According to western officials, the area hardest hit by this funding shortfall is Bosnia. The UNHCR and other organisations have shifted focus to basic shelter projects and started cutting back on mine clearance operations, small business development, social and other supplementary projects crucial to the return of refugees.

Since larger-scale spontaneous refugee returns are now talking place across Bosnia, the CRS argues, the need for international funds to facilitate such resettlement has never been greater. "It is not all about building houses," Greg Auberry from CRS pointed out.

In its most recent report, published on June 2, the watch-dog organization the, International Crisis Group, ICG, noted that despite pledges of new funds via the Stability Pact "available donor aid may be sufficient to support reconstruction in only 10 per cent of the spontaneous returns to date, with heavier requirements looming this summer.

"Just when refugee returns are beginning to increase, major donors such as the European Union lag far behind - in some cases years [behind] - in the expenditure of pledged aid. As a result, some refugees who returned to their homes two years ago are still waiting for assistance to reconstruct their homes and provide electricity and running water."

The funding crisis has alarmed western officials in Bosnia. Petritsch recently warned the Peace Implementation Council, "We cannot afford to step backward in BiH - this would have repercussions for the whole region. "

Janez Kovac is a regular IWPR contributor