Empty Declaration

Some 20,000 Serbs and Croats were supposed to return to Sarajevo in 1998, the so-called "year of minority return". Nine months into 1999, the number of returnees remains disappointing.

Empty Declaration

Some 20,000 Serbs and Croats were supposed to return to Sarajevo in 1998, the so-called "year of minority return". Nine months into 1999, the number of returnees remains disappointing.

Wednesday, 16 November, 2005

Dobrinka Delic wants to die at home. Age 66 and confined to bed, she has little to look forward to. But her home is her home and she wants it back.

The legal owner of a house in Sarajevo's Novo Sarajevo suburb, Mrs Delic, a Serb, is unable to take possession because it is occupied by somebody else. For now, therefore, home is a damp basement in downtown Sarajevo where a friend has taken her in.

The current occupant should be moving out, but a family from Gorazde lives in the apartment allocated to him and will not leave until the authorities give them an eviction notice. Mrs Delic has been waiting for nearly four years.

It's an all too familiar story in post-war Bosnia where endless bureaucratic obstacles and official obstructionism have prevented thousands in Mrs Delic's position from returning home.

To speed the process and overcome political hurdles, international agencies in Bosnia called an international conference in February last year. This resulted in the Sarajevo Declaration, which envisaged the return of at least 20,000 minorities to the Bosnian capital in 1998.

By accelerating returns to Sarajevo, international officials hoped to rebuild the city's multi-ethnic identity and foster returns throughout the country. 1998 was optimistically declared the "year of minority returns".

According to the UNHCR, an estimated 9,400 minority returnees got back to their homes in Sarajevo during 1998 - well below the targeted number. However, even this figure is disputed, since only 4,400 of returnees have registered with the local authorities.

As a result, the year of minority returns was extended into 1999. But again this year the numbers have been disappointing. By the end of May 1999, the UNHCR had only recorded some 1,200 minority returns.

There are several reasons for the sluggish implementation of the Sarajevo Declaration including a lack of suitable property, bureaucratic obstructionism and political opposition.

Double occupancy is the main problem, according to Morris Power, officer for the Sarajevo canton with the Reconstruction and Return Task Force (RRTF), the group of international agencies overseeing returns.

Double occupancy occurs when someone with a home to return to continues to occupy someone else's apartment or house. This is, for example, the case of the Gorazde family, which is blocking Mrs Delic's return which has its own house in their hometown.

In order to evict the family, ownership must be proven by both the Sarajevo and the Gorazde authorities. All too often, however, municipal authorities which are reluctant to accept back minorities, drag out the process and delay issuing eviction notices. "They will drag out their correspondence with the Gorazde municipality forever," says Sead Bahtijarevic of the Sarajevo Ombudsman, who provides legal advice for individuals whose property claims have reached deadlock.

Although Bosnia's four-year-old peace agreement gives everyone the right to return to their pre-war homes, nationalist politicians have systematically blocked returns.

International agencies have exposed prominent figures in the ruling Bosniak party, the SDA, and the ruling Croat party, the HDZ, to be double occupants. However, it is hard to imagine them with eviction notices in their hands. Mirza Hajric, chairman of the committee for the implementation of the Sarajevo Declaration and a key aide to President Alija Izetbegovic, says it is not the SDA's policy to block the returns. However, he concedes that the party could put more pressure on municipal and cantonal employees who are prone to corruption or bias, reluctant to evict their acquaintances, or the Federation army war invalids.

"This is still a country with a communist bureaucracy," says Hajric, adding that the government is making efforts to restructure the cumbersome legal administration. Such an obsolete system provides opportunities for the abuse on the cantonal and municipal level.

Power points out that the Ministry of Justice has also slowed the returns process by failing to pass key laws in a timely manner. The Ministry also commands the police, who are responsible for evictions.

Following months of fruitless negotiations, the High Representative annulled war-time legislation granting permanent occupancy rights to abandoned housing units in April 1999. Since then, everybody living in property belonging to somebody else has been classified as a temporary occupant, thus subject to eviction if provided with alternative accommodation.

This move has opened up a long-frozen stock of several thousand apartments that could be vacated by the current occupants, as long as alternative accomodation can be found. International officials say that between 100 and 200 evictions are now taking place every month, though they agree with the local authorities that no one should up end on the street.

International organisations are currently funding construction of a couple hundred apartments and pre-fabricated houses. However, the Sarajevo authorities oppose the construction of alternative temporary accommodation, saying that it legitimises ethnic cleansing. "Reciprocity is the name of the game," says Power "Returns to Sarajevo and the Federation are happening, but if you don't have reciprocity, how long can this continue?"

To date, returns have largely been one-way. UNHCR figures show that since the Dayton Agreement came into force in 1995, until May 1999, only 10,500 non-Serbs have returned to the whole of Republika Srpska.

Jadranka Slatina is a pseudonym used by a journalist from Belgrade.

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