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The long road home
by Andrei Neacsu

Reading the signs: for Djordje, finding vestiges of water in the old well augurs well for his return.

As normality gradually returns to the battered republics of the former Yugoslavia, some of the forgotten victims are struggling to rebuild their lives.

"You have two hours to leave Croatia! The order came from two of my neighbours wearing their brand-new military uniforms," says Djordje as he recalls how he became a refugee five years ago. In September 2000, Djordje finally made it back to Croatia for a quick visit. He feels no anger, no bitterness towards anyone. "It was war. Now it's peace. I just want to see for myself if there really is a chance of a safe return," he adds simply.

He wanders absently around the ruins of his house amid the waist-high grass, seemingly oblivious to the danger of mines or booby-traps. All is deserted. There are encouraging signs, though. The underground spring has not completely dried up; there is some water at the bottom of the well. And the apple trees planted by his grandparents are still flourishing.

Djordje's house in the region of Gospic was burned to the ground along with hundreds of others during "Operation Storm", the Croatian army offensive in 1995. During the offensive, hundreds of thousands of Serb residents - men and women, the elderly and children - were driven into exile, taking what personal belongings they could pile onto cars, tractors and carts. Djordje, his wife and their two little daughters were among them.

Lifeline

In Serbia, where they took refuge, the 50-year-old teacher and his family survived with the help of humanitarian assistance channelled through the Yugoslav Red Cross. Of the National Society's 1 million beneficiaries, 237,000 Serb refugees from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina received monthly handouts of food, hygiene parcels and basic medicines. Although the assistance was enough to sustain them, the refugees have found it difficult to integrate or be accepted into the community.

Their plight has received scant media attention. An independent survey commissioned by the Federation, ICRC and Yugoslav Red Cross in early 2000 revealed that many of the 700,000 or so internally displaced people and refugees in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia - the largest such population in Europe - were living in miserable conditions in cramped or inadequate accommodation and facing high levels of poverty and unemployment.

The purpose of the study was to enable humanitarian organizations to better target and coordinate assistance to these people, ranked among the world's most vulnerable.

Meanwhile, some 10,000 Serbs remained in the remote corners of Croatia. To assist them, the ICRC initiated "Operation Save Lives", which was subsequently handed over to the Croatian Red Cross. Fourteen mobile teams went regularly into hamlets and villages in northern Dalmatia, Lika, Banovina and Kordun to bring food, clothes, firewood, medicines and hygiene products to the elderly, disabled and isolated people. The teams were instrumental in helping the people left behind to obtain the necessary legal documents, while Red Cross specialists offered much-needed psycho-social support.

Leap of faith

According to UNHCR, since 1998 some 24,000 refugees have returned to Croatia from Yugoslavia. Djordje's parents-in-law were among the first, along with 20 elderly couples from Mogoric. What they have to say about their experiences will be a crucial determinant in Djordje's own decision as to whether to return. Although the daily bus link with Gospic, a town 30 kilometres away, has not yet been restored and many of the houses, including the school, have been completely destroyed, life in this small Serb village goes on much as it did before the war. People are working in the fields, feeding livestock, milking cows.

In the Dvor region, too, refugees are slowly coming back. In the village of Zakopek, Nenad, 36, is busy rebuilding his house using materials provided by an international NGO. He came back with his parents from the Banja Luka region where they had been living in an abandoned house for five years. "Six months ago, the owners, a Bosniac [Muslim] family, contacted us to say they wanted to recover their house. This was a decisive moment for us. We thought it was time to return to our home in Croatia as well," says Nenad.

A "go and see" visit organized by UNHCR, followed by discussions with people in the community, helped to reassure these and 4,000 other Serb refugees that it was safe to return.

More than 300 of them are long-term beneficiaries of the Croatian Red Cross, which supplied them on arrival with stoves, beds and mattresses. Thereafter, Red Cross mobile teams have been distributing monthly family food parcels to the returnees, helping with basic house repairs and providing psychological counselling. When needed, they provide a shuttle service for people living in remote areas so that they can go to the towns for medical check-ups or to deal with administrative issues.

By law, Nenad and his parents are entitled to a six-month returnee status, during which they are helped to solve their administrative situation and receive assistance from the state. Beyond that period, they are expected to reintegrate into society.

Serb refugees who left Croatia and those who remained behind both benefited from regular assistance from the Red Cross.

 

Legacy of conflict

The reality has proven more difficult. In Dvor alone, of the 8,000 inhabitants only 200 are employed. More than half of these work for the local authority, the rest have jobs in a small wood-processing factory or on a chicken farm. Little investment is expected in this mainly agricultural region, where the threat of landmines is real.

"Some 4,500 square kilometres are contaminated, and demining activities during the first six months of 2000 cleared only 24 square kilometres. At this rate, it will take 30 years to clear the whole area," says the ICRC's Nela Sefic.

So far, 1,517 people have been disabled by mines in Croatia and adults are most at risk. In order to prevent more incidents, the ICRC and Croatian Red Cross are running a community-based mine awareness programme, which is being promoted at national level, with respected celebrities participating in Red Cross events and Croatian television broadcasting mine awareness spots free of charge.

The needs of the most vulnerable exceed by far the capacities of the National Society. "We only have enough food to assist 6,000 of the 67,000 potential beneficiaries," says Vera Golubovic, who is in charge of humanitarian assistance at the Croatian Red Cross. "A mouse could starve in some of our warehouses."

And Vera's concern doesn't stop there: "If we want to rebuild trust and confidence among people, we also need to provide fair assistance to those Croatians who are also extremely vulnerable."

The final step

"The fact that people cross the border between the two former enemy countries is a sign that normality is returning. When the general economic situation improves, they will decide to settle definitively, one side or the other," says Bogdan Dumitru, the Federation's programme coordinator in Yugoslavia. A subregional appeal to support the repatriation and integration programmes of the National Societies of Croatia, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Bosnia and Herzegovina has just been launched by the Federation.

After a week in Croatia, Djordje returned to Belgrade, to the dead-end street in the city suburb, to the 30-square-metre wooden hut with the dark, narrow corridor and the damp cement floor covered with a thin carpet, to his wife and daughters. He puts the bag of apples from their house in Croatia on the table and announces: "I think it's time for us to go home, too."

Andrei Neacsu
Andrei Neacsu is a Federation information-delegate based in Belgrade.



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