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

Serb Refugees Unmoved by Gotovina Trial

With so many of their problems still unresolved, Croatian Serbs seem to have little interest in the upcoming case.
By Helen Warrell
Sixty-three year-old Milan lives in a small room in the Krnjaca refugee camp on the outskirts of Belgrade. The camp itself is a disused barracks, the walls made of thin plywood sheeting. Ten years of impoverishment have made Milan ill and frail.



He is one of around 300,000 Serbs who were forced to flee Croatia’s Krajina region during Operation Storm, an August 1995 Croatian army offensive to reclaim the area from rebel Serb control. Human rights groups estimate that around 400 civilians were killed and several thousand Serb houses destroyed.



Milan speaks about the home he was forced to leave in Knin, Krajina’s capital, with great difficulty.



“For me and my family, Knin still represents a silent suffering,” he said.



Over half of those expelled are still living as refugees in Bosnia and Serbia - the remainder have returned. But whether back in Croatia or living as exiles in neighbouring countries, the majority appear to be facing hardship and destitution.



Dusanka, 60, a housewife, fled her home in Knin in the middle of the night along with her husband and two young sons. All they brought with them from the house were the pyjamas they were wearing. She works hard to keep her room in the Krnjaca camp clean, but it is not easy.



“My family have been sleeping in the same sheets for three years now,” she said. “We don’t have the money to buy new ones, and the only ones we have are already so worn that they are falling to pieces.”



After so many years of suffering, and with so many of the problems still unresolved, it seems that few of these refugees believe that much justice will be served by the trial later this year of Ante Gotovina, a Croatian general charged with carrying out the forced displacement of the Krajina Serb population during Operation Storm.



Zivko, 60, another Krnjaca resident, said, “It makes no difference to me whether Gotovina gets sentenced to 20 years in prison or is set free tomorrow. It will be equally bad for me in this camp.”



Neither is the trial of Gotovina, who was arrested last month, likely to have much relevance for those Serb refugees who have managed to return to Croatia.



They face discrimination in the employment market and often struggle to reclaim their original homes and restore property damaged in the war, say experts.



The war crimes tribunal, it appears, is a world away from their practical problems.



Croatia’s UNHCR spokesperson, Neven Crvenkovic, says refugees who have gone back to Croatia, are “consumed with finding ways to survive”.



“That is their main pre-occupation because the living conditions are severe and very hard,” he said.



Over the past year, these difficulties have been worsened by fears of attack by Croatian nationalists. A report by Human Rights Watch published this week found that violence against ethnic Serbs had “suddenly increased” during 2005.



In the Benkovac region, eighty-one year-old Dusan Vidic was killed in May in his home in the village of Karin. Two months later, two Serb returnees were severely beaten in Ostrovica.



In Vukovar, the attacks were more explicitly political says HRW: in May, a bomb explosion next to a Serb political party headquarters in Vukovar was closely followed by further blasts at municipal assembly buildings in the nearby majority Serb villages of Borovo Selo and Trpinja.



Altogether, four ethnic Serbs have been killed and many more injured.



Some observers suggest that the attacks against Serbs may be connected to the tenth anniversary of Operation Storm, seen by the majority of Croatians as the military operation that finally liberated their country from Serb rebels.



The Croatian authorities claim they are doing their utmost to protect the Serb minority and ease its reintegration.



In January last year, ministers in Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia signed a treaty pledging to resolve the practical, political and legal issues affecting returned refugees by the end of 2006.



However, refugees like Milan remain sceptical. “This is only propaganda so that Croatia can get into the European Union. Everything else is a false image,” he said.



And on the ground, international organisations say that national policies are not necessarily carried out as intended.



Christian Loda, head of the return and integration unit for the Croatian branch of the OSCE, told IWPR, “The good intentions in Zagreb are not communicated at a local level.



“The main stumbling block is local officials in war-affected areas. This can only be changed with time.”



Discrimination against Serbs is still evident in the search for jobs. Despite a December 2000 law obliging the state to ensure proportional representation of minorities in government agencies, there are limited job opportunities for returnees, say experts.



Belgrade-based HRW researcher, Bogdan Ivanisevic, told IWPR, “The Croatian government says this is as economic issue, not a human rights issue. But it becomes a human rights issue when the laws are not implemented.”



A joint report by Minority Rights Group International and the Centre for Peace, Vukovar - which is to be published later this month - calculates that Serbs are still under-represented in Croatian judicial bodies and the state prosecution service.



“The underlying problem is that minorities in Croatia are not really wanted,” said Snjezana Bokulic, Europe and Central Asia programme coordinator for MRG.



“It is a legacy of the 1990s, an issue that has not properly been dealt with by the authorities.”



Homecoming has been, for many, a frustrating experience. Especially when there is no longer a home to return to. During and after the war, the Croatian government terminated the tenancy rights of up to 30,000 Serb families who had been living in socially-owned housing.



One Serb woman from Osijek, who fled Croatia in 1991, told IWPR that she was one of the few Serbs who had managed to retrieve her housing rights.



Following a seven-year court process, the woman, who preferred to remain anonymous, said she has now moved back into her old apartment, which had been occupied by a Croatian neighbour.



An OSCE investigation found that in mid 2005, 650 properties originally belonging to Croatian Serbs were still being occupied by temporary residents, who had been allocated these homes by the government at the end of the war.



For those still struggling to reclaim their former properties, the Croatian authorities set up a programme in June 2003 whereby returnees can apply to live in government apartments with subsidised rents.



However, the apartments remain too expensive for most returnees, and only just over 2,500 Serbs have applied to the scheme. Even these people cannot be accommodated, because most of the proposed housing still hasn’t been built.



Bakir Jalovcic, senior public information assistant for UNHCR in Bosnia, told IWPR, “The Croatian government is offering something which they don’t actually have.”



As a result, only 12 Serb families had been housed by the end of 2005.



And many houses that have been returned to their Serb owners are unusable, having been destroyed during the conflict. Although the state offers to help restore private residential properties that suffered war damage, currently only 30 per cent of all applications for government assistance are judged to be eligible. Officials say they're prepared to assist if the owners agree to live in their rebuilt houses.



The Croatian government have offered Zivko from the Krnjaca camp 100,000 kuna (20,000 US dollars) to rebuild his demolished home in Krajina.



“But I don’t have the money to travel to Croatia, nor do I have anywhere to live while my house is being rebuilt,” he said.



UNHCR’s Neven Crvenkovic told IWPR, “We want refugees to be able to make a well-informed decision to return and for the doors of Croatia to be open to their civilians.”



In practice, however, the MRG/Centre for Peace, Vukovar study found that of those Serbs who had returned to Croatia over the past ten years, nearly 40 per cent had considered leaving again.



Reduced to this state of limbo, it seems unlikely that international justice is a prevailing concern among Serb returnees and refugees alike. Faraway trial proceedings against those such as Gotovina are less relevant than the continuing legacy of war itself, the violence and discrimination which apparently remain.



The Croatian authorities, however, insist that the latter are overplayed.



Anna Maria Radic, from the Zagreb government’s department for refugees, said, “Violent incidents against Serbs are incidents, rather than attacks, and have decreased over the past two years. The areas where refugees are returning are still ravaged by war damage and are experiencing economic problems. It is difficult for Serbs to find jobs but also for ordinary Croatians.”



And Milena Klajner, from the Croatian government’s office for national minorities, said, “We have never had any complaints that anyone has been sacked or failed to get a job because they are a Serb."



But MRG coordinator Snjezana Bokulic is not convinced, “I don’t think there is a genuine goodwill on the part of the Croatian authorities to deal with the effects of the war.”



Helen Warrell is an IWPR reporter in The Hague. Zelimir Bojovic is a correspondent for the Serbian section of radio Deutsche Welle in Belgrade.



This piece is a collaboration between IWPR and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

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