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

Sarajevo's Last Divide

The last war-time territorial dispute in Bosnia is resolved by independent arbitration
By Antonio Prlenda

Piles of rubbish, the remains of a fire and a few burned benches and chairs still litter the road where 500 Serb protesters demonstrated last month against an international ruling handing a Serb-controlled part of the Sarajevo suburb of Dobrinja over to the Bosniak-Croat Federation.


Known as Dobrinja 1 and 4 - the last contested area of Sarajevo - it has been the cause of continual administrative headaches owing to the haphazard way it was divided following the war.


Over two thousand Bosniaks expelled from the area during the conflict have been campaigning to be returned ever since the end of the fighting. On April 24, former Irish high court judge Diarmuid Sheridan ruled in their favour.


The decision divides the suburb between the two Bosnian entities, with roughly three quarters handed over to the Federation. Immediately after the war, this contested neighbourhood was effectively a part of the Serb-held part of Sarajevo, called "Srpsko Sarajevo".


Republika Srpska and the Federation have repeatedly failed to reach an agreement over this dispute. And as a result, Bosnia's top international mediator, Wolfgang Petritsch, in February appointed Sheridan as an independent arbitrator to settle the dispute once and for all.


The leader of the Republika Srpska, RS, negotiating team, Vladimir Lukic, called the decision "the worst possible solution for the Serbs from that area".


The Serbs say the hand-over flies in the face of the Dayton Agreement which set down that RS should constitute 49 per cent of the territory of Bosnia Herzegovina. Dobrinja, however, was not included in the treaty.


RS officials said that after Dobrinja and the earlier hand-over of Brcko, they were 4 per cent - 258 square kilometres - short of their entitlement.


The Dobrinja dispute reminds Serbs of an earlier post-war upheaval. In March and April of 1996, a war-time boundary between the Bosnian Serbs and the Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats was moved in accordance with Dayton. As a result, many Bosnian Serb families were forced to leave several Sarajevo suburbs and other areas across the country, which were transferred to the Federation.


Some of these families left fearing reprisals from Bosniaks and Croats. Others were pressured into doing so by Serb hard-liners attempting to show the world that the three ethnic groups in Bosnia could not live together.


A number of these families gradually returned to their homes, others moved into empty Bosniak and Croat apartments and houses in Serb territory. Some found homes in Dobrinja 1 and 4 believing they would remain under Serb control.


And now they've been uprooted again - and they've no immediate place to go.


The Dobrinja affair, say some UN and other western officials, graphically illustrates the problems associated with relocating internally displaced people.


In a bid to allay friction between the two communities, Federation officials have agreed to a step-by-step process which should allow most of the Serbs to remain in Dobrinja 1 and 4 until they find alternative housing.


Meanwhile, the area's former inhabitants are anxious to return. Dragija Smajic, a member of the Association for the Return to Dobrinja, said, "We have been waiting for six years for this. I couldn't sleep because I was so happy."


But not until the Serbs move out, and many of them fear that they have nowhere else to go.


"Some of us have moved several times - and, we don't want to move any more," remarked one Serb who said that she finds the idea of living under Bosniak-Croat rule unimaginable.


Many thousands of displaced Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks are getting fed up of being shunted around the country.


Bosko Siljegovic, a deputy in the Serb Sarajevo assembly, says the deployment of Federation police in the Serbian part of Dobrinja should not have been allowed until Serbs facing eviction there were able to return to their own homes in the Federation.


Even if people do have somewhere to go to, the process isn't always that easy - as in the case of Dusan Tesanovic, whose dilemma was reported in the Sarajevo weekly Slobodna Bosna.


After the war, Tesanovic - originally from the Sarajevo suburb of Hrasnica - took up residence in the basement of an apartment block in a part of Dobrinja now due to be handed back to the Federation. "I got used to it - now I don't know what I'll do," he said.


Tesanovic does not consider a return to Hrasnica an option. His brother went back last year. And though there was some friction with his neighbors, he managed to get by with the protection of peacekeepers.


That was the case until a hand grenade was lobbed through his window. Tesanovic says he will sell his Hrasnica flat and join his wife and children in Slovenia.


The Serbs in Dobrinja are in the same awkward situation as the Bosniaks waiting to return there. The latter cannot leave the properties they're living in until their own become vacant.


Recognising this, representatives of local authorities from both sides have agreed that Serbs should be given time to move.


"The citizens were given guarantees that they would not remain without a roof over their heads," said Damir Hadzic, a councillor in a Federation municipality under whose jurisdiction Dobrinja now falls.


"If they submitted a request for the return of property in the Federation, they will not be thrown out until they come into possession of their pre-war flats and houses."


For now, the area looks like it's returning to normal. The impression is that local people are exhausted by the daily struggle to survive and haven't the strength for more demonstrations. Italian and German armoured vehicles, however, maintain a watchful presence.


Antonio Prlenda is a journalist and military commentator from Sarajevo