Excluded Voters Have No Regrets

Brcko is the only place in Bosnia where people will not be voting this weekend, but they don't have any complaints

Excluded Voters Have No Regrets

Brcko is the only place in Bosnia where people will not be voting this weekend, but they don't have any complaints

The spring rain has not stopped hundreds of refugees on the outskirts of Brcko from rebuilding their ruined homes.

In the rest of Bosnia the local election campaign is in full swing, but here people are just getting on with their lives.

Recently promoted to the status of municipal district, Brcko will not be taking part in the weekend poll. The town's international supervisor has yet to decide when locals will vote on who will administer their municipality.

"As far as I am concerned, we don't need elections, not in the near future. I feel much safer knowing the internationals will be making the final decisions." said Mirsad Jakubovic, 45, from Brcko. "They are much more reliable than these politicians of ours."

Mirsad waited seven years to return to his home. When he finally came back last spring, he found it had been completely destroyed. Today a newly built house stands on the same spot.

"It is not as beautiful as the old one, but it is ours," said Mirsad who spent his seven year exile as a refugee in Croatia with his wife, son and daughter.

Brcko remained an unresolved territorial issue following the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995, which finally brought an end to the Bosnian conflict.

The signatories agreed to divide the country into two separately administered entities, Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croatian Federation. But they could not agree which entity would control Brcko. The final decision on the fate of the town rested with international arbiter, Robert Owens.

Before the war, Brcko was a wealthy, largely Muslim trading port in the far north of the country. In the spring of 1992, the town was seized by Bosnian Serb troops and around 20,000 Muslims and Croats were forced to flee.

Owen twice postponed making a decision on who should control the town, such was the sensitivity of the issue.

To Muslims and Croats, Brcko provided the link between the Federation and the rest of Europe. But the town was crucial to Bosnian Serbs too. Brcko forms the only geographical link between the two parts of Republika Srpska.

In March last year, Owens finally reached a decision and ruled that Brcko and its district become a neutral area. A joint authority was established under an international supervisor - Robert Farrand from the United States.

Before the war Enes and Anica Hadzic were teachers in a local primary school. They returned to their ruined house last summer. Today neither has a job. The Hadzic's have three children and are finding life in Brcko very hard.

"Although we are struggling, we have never regretted returning. We believe better days will come soon," said Enes.

Anica believes people are more concerned with rebuilding their lives than politicians and elections. "I understand that Bosnia has to see changes. Politicians, who were in power when the war began, were there when the war ended, and many of them are still there.

"Here in our district, people should be given a chance to say who they want to represent them. But I think we have some more important things to focus on. People must be allowed to return, rebuild what was destroyed and return to the life we used to have."

Wolfgang Petritsch, High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, sees Brcko district as "a framework for the future."

"The district also has wider significance for Bosnia: it belongs to both the Federation and Republika Srpska, and therefore to all the people of Bosnia," he said recently." As such, it represents a new phase in democratic, multi-ethnic government, which can provide an example to the whole country."

Hundreds of new rooves now ring the perimeter of Brcko, a testament to two years of constant rebuilding work. Around 5,000 refugees have returned to Brcko, more than to any other town in Bosnia.

But most of the returnees have remained on the outskirts of Brcko, only a few have moved into the town itself. Bosnian Serbs, displaced from other parts of Bosnia, now form the majority in Brcko.

Many do not want to return to their pre-war homes. By staying put, they are preventing Muslim families from returning.

Bosnian Serb, Jovo Krstic, 65, from Vogosca, near Sarajevo, does not want to go back to his pre-war home. "I don't know anyone there anymore. Anyway, some refugees are living in my house," Krstic said. Thousands of other Bosnians have shared the same fate.

Meanwhile, Farrand has set up a district assembly, appointed a mayor, deputies and municipal officials. This system will remain in place until the international supervisor calls local elections, scheduled for the end of the year.

The atmosphere in Brcko is very lively, big plans are being hatched, including projects for potential foreign investment.

Farrand is optimistic about the future, insisting Brcko is destined to become, "the most progressive, ethnically mixed and prosperous area in Bosnia." Only time will tell.

Nermina Durmic-Kahrovic is assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tuzla.

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