The long road home
by Andrei Neacsu
Reading the signs: for Djordje,
finding vestiges of water in the old well augurs well for
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
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
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
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
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,
Andrei Neacsu is a Federation information-delegate
based in Belgrade.
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