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

No Way Home

Unable to return, Serbian refugees from Croatia are facing homelessness a second time.
By Gordana Katana

"They celebrate it, but I shall always remember August 4 as the day I lost my homeland, my roots, my house," said Janko Velimirovic, a refugee from Karlovac in Croatia, who now lives in Banja Luka. "I cannot return there, and here in Republika Srpska, I am a foreigner." Soon he may be homeless, too.


August 4 is Croatia's Day of Patriotic Gratitude. On that day in 1995, Croatian forces concluded Operation Storm, resulting in the expulsion of some 200,000 Serbs from Croatian territory.


Of these, some 24,000 live in Republika Srpska, RS, according to the December 2000 census of refugees and the displaced conducted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the RS ministry for refugees. Other sources put the figure as high as 40,000, since, as Petar Dzodan, chairman of the Association of Serbs from Croatia and Krajina, points out, after so many years as many as 15,000 have simply got tired of responding to censuses.


"After every census, people hoped their position would improve, and they were betrayed every time," Dzodan explained. "No wonder that many of them did not even bother to register."


Six years after the war, their status has still not been resolved. They cannot find gainful employment, since the RS itself is faced with financial collapse.


Nor can they return to their houses in Croatia. Many of these are now inhabited by Croats expelled from Banja Luka. In summer 1995, angry Serbs, expelled from Croatia, forced Banja Luka's Bosniaks and Croats from their homes, leaving the Croatians with little choice but to take the Serbs' homes in the Krajina region of Croatia.


For many, they cannot even stay where they are. In November 2000, after Wolfgang Petritsch, Bosnia's high representative, decreed that pre-war tenants could return to their properties in Bosnia, orders for the eviction of current tenants have increased. This means that Bosniaks and Croats from Banja Luka can return to their homes, but Serbs being evicted to make room for them have nowhere to go.


Janko Velimirovic's tale is typical. He lost his job in Karlovac, as the war was gathering pace in Croatia in the summer of 1991.


"I was employed at the Yugoslav defence ministry, and I believed that all conflicts between Serbs and Croats would be resolved fast and without weapons," the 40-year-old political scientist says.


The war that broke out did not leave him much choice. "I am a Serb and it was natural that I would remain with my kin," he explains.


He thus took part in the war, which is why he cannot go back now.


Republika Srpska's ministry for refugees and the displaced granted Velimirovic temporary occupancy of a house that used to belong to a Croat, who had been expelled from Banja Luka in the autumn 1995. The original owner has requested the return of the property, and Janko's eviction is scheduled for this weekend, August 27.


"If the local authorities don't find me alternative accommodation, I don't know what to do with my wife and daughter," Velimirovic said. Neither of the parents have a job, and their only certain income is the subsidy they receive from the state for their 3-year-old child, of 40 DEM a month. "When we are evicted, we shall not have a bed to lie on," he said.


Dzodan claims that, since 1995, no concrete steps have been taken to enable refugees who wish to remain in the RS to integrate into the society. No permanent solution for accommodation has been developed.


"The majority of us cannot see any future either for ourselves or for our children," he said.


According to Dzodan, those who obtained RS identity papers are now uncertain whether the documents will remain valid. The responsibility for refugees is now handled at the level of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, not the entity, and a decision has still not been taken on whether and under what conditions Serb refugees from Croatia would be able to normalise their status in Bosnia.


Those that do return to Croatia are mostly the elderly. Milica Romic returned this April to her village of Lasinjski Sjenicak, in the former territory of Republika Srpska Krajina, after an absence of six years.


"As a fifty year old I am the youngest," she said. The young increasingly go off to America, Europe and Australia. But older Serbs, she said, are "not afraid of revenge from Croatian neighbors and they want to come back to where they were born, where they grew up, where they spent the most of their lives".


Petar Kunic, also from Karlovac, found that even when refugees gain the legal rights to their old homes, they may not be able to go back. His house was assigned to a retired Croatian army officer. "After a series of [court] decisions, the property was returned to me, but I did not manage to move in. Simply, the authorities in Karlovac will not evict a demobilised fighter," he said.


Since then, Kunic returned to Banja Luka, staying in a house owned by a Bosniak. But he was evicted this past January, and lives in a spare room with relatives.


Others have sought to resolve the problem by selling their property in Croatia, but say that they are offered miserable amounts.


Mihajlo Marenic, 70, had a house in the vicinity of Sisak returned to him in 1999. Not wishing to return to Croatia, he tried to sell his house several times.


"This is a family house and a large piece of agricultural land, for which we were offered 15,000 DEM. I cannot agree to that," he said.


Many refugees lay the bulk of the blame on the failure of the Croatian government and Prime Minister Ivica Racan, to enable Serb refugees to return to their property.


Djuro Milosevic, an activist with the Committee for Human Rights in Karlovac, said that the Croatian authorities, to date, have only repaired one house belonging to a Serb. Even this repair, in 1996, was "probably a mistake", he said, since the house belonged to a woman in a mixed marriage.


Dzodan says that, when Racan's government came to power 18 months ago, Serb refugees hoped the new government would streamline procedures for the return of people and property.


Though some 25 per cent of refugees, mainly the elderly, have now received Croatian identity documents, little else has been done. Dzodan insists that without a citizenship certificate, an identity card and a passport, the procedure for the return of property cannot even be initiated.


Gordana Katana is a Banja Luka correspondent for Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje.



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