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Going home to hardship

by John Sparrow

Across Bosnia and Herzegovina, a lack of humanitarian assistance for people going home threatens the sustainability of the return process, and a harsh winter has only increased immense hardship.

Jusuf Oric has returned to the hills around Srebrenica. From the remains of his house in the destroyed village of Gornji Potocari, the 58-year-old looks out over a mountain valley in which, despite the horrors of the recent past, he is desperate to find a future.

He lost his son here in the summer of 1995 when more than 7,000 Muslims were slaughtered in Europe's worst atrocity since the Second World War. He has no job, no money, no support, and ethnic tension remains, unseen, unspoken but perceptible. Oric, however, is determined. "I belong in this valley," he says, "and I will not leave it again."

He is not alone. Slowly but surely, Muslims who fled or were expelled from the region in the violent break-up of the former Yugoslavia, have been returning to this troubled corner of eastern Bosnia, some to Srebrenica itself — the ill-fated United Nations safe haven that fell to Bosnian Serb forces — more to nearby villages. But their resolve is being tested.

When the Federation launched a 958,000 Swiss franc appeal for the Red Cross Society of Bosnia and Herzegovina to provide food, firewood and other support to 30,000 returnees during the winter, it issued a stark warning. "With the limited amount of international support available there is a serious humanitarian gap and many returnees are asking themselves if remaining at home is an option," said country representative, Frans Lommers. "Some 7,000 people applied for asylum in other countries during 2002."

Jusuf Oric was among those the appeal sought to help. Last spring, he was one of the first to return, confident help would be forthcoming and prepared in the interim to live in his ground-floor bathroom, the only room of his house to survive the conflict. He cleaned and tidied his plot and waited. Eight months later as snow covered the countryside he was still waiting, for along with untold numbers of others he had been left to his own devices. It would be bad enough anywhere, but Srebrenica is in deep depression, the economy is a fraction of what it was pre-conflict, and the whole population is in trouble.

There is not much for Jusuf Oric to come home to as he stands in front of the remains of his house destroyed during the war in the former Yugoslavia.

72-year-old Bogdana Pejic greets Red Cross staff member Dragan Damjanovic. The elderly are one of this region's most vulnerable groups.

Painful journey

Some 908,000 refugees and displaced people are estimated to have returned to their homes in Bosnia and Herzegovina since the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed towards the end of 1995. More than 40 per cent of those expelled in the conflict, it reflects an accelerated rate of return and in 2002 alone almost 81,000 returns were registered by the end of September. Humanitarian agencies believe solutions for most returnees will be found by the end of this year. Either they will have gone home, it is said, or have been integrated locally.

But international funds are running out. Donors are downsizing and phasing out at a time when their support is critical for returnees, particularly minority groups. The enduring wretchedness of life back home could undermine the return process.

The United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Report 2002 for Bosnia and Herzegovina argued that the process has suffered because of a lack of synergy between refugees and displaced, local authorities and the international community. "When the international community was providing funds for return, the governments of the entities did everything to hinder the process," it said. "Now, as political relations thaw and the powers-that-be are beginning to accept the new realities, it seems, unfortunately, that the international community is drawing back."

More pressure has come from the rule of law. Return depends upon having a home to go to and in the massive displacement incurred by the conflict, homes left behind were occupied by others. Today property laws are being enforced right across the country and homes returned to their rightful owners. Evictions are becoming common. The law is just and necessary but there are humanitarian consequences. What happens to the evicted? Those whose own homes were destroyed can be left out on the street or obliged to live in squalor.

The needs are overwhelmingly evident. From Srebrenica in the east to Glamoc in the west, communities around the country show that going home can be a very painful journey. Economic ruin, sky-high unemployment, broken-down health and welfare systems leave tens of thousands of people in jeopardy.

Plight of the elderly

The silence tells all in vast, empty landscapes. Where once agriculture prospered, cattle were bred, and orchards and grasslands ran between glorious hillsides, villages lie burned, plundered and deserted. People may be going home but for kilometre after kilometre not a soul is encountered.

The hamlet of Vagon, crouched on the side of the Glamoc valley in the country's far west, seemed just another abandoned settlement. Then a door opened, a dog came running, and 72-year-old Bogdana Pejic stared out. She was wearing two coats against the cold and two woollen balaclavas to ease an earache. She moved unsteadily on her feet. "Are you the Red Cross? Is my friend there?" she said.

Bogdana sees few people. She fled with other Serb villagers in 1995 when Croatian forces overran the region, and, the first to come back, lived alone for four years in the hamlet, cut off for months by snow in bitter winters. Her survival is a miracle.

The man she calls her friend is Dragan Damjanovic, Red Cross secretary in Glamoc, a town and a municipality that covers a thousand square kilometres of the valley and some 55 rural settlements. He worries about Bogdana and calls from time to time to check on her, ensuring she has food and firewood. She's no longer alone — in June a family returned to the hamlet — but she remains vulnerable nevertheless.

Reality brings sleepless nights for Damjanovic. All roads lead to the Red Cross door, and the Red Cross cupboard is frequently bare. The plight of the elderly is particularly desperate. "This is a poor area," the secretary says, "and most returnees are older people. The young go elsewhere." They may come to finish some business, or sell property the law has restored to them. Then they move on. Glamoc cannot offer them much of a future.

Donor money might help. There are some signs of recovery. Small entrepreneurs can find credits, a small textile business has opened. But where a pre-war population topped 12,000 today's doesn't reach 4,000, and unemployment hovers around 60 per cent.

The Red Cross focuses first on those no one else is assisting, the forgotten, people who returned to settlements no donor is willing to reconstruct and where most likely there is no electricity. The network was destroyed in the conflict. As winter came to the valley, Damjanovic was distributing firewood before roads and tracks became impassable.

He was looking, too, for stoves. There were people without and stoves were not easy to come by. "Needs grow and there are less and less resources. People need shoes, clothes, beds and mattresses. We provide what we have and try to locate what we haven't. People have to wait, perhaps a few days, perhaps a few weeks, until we are able to find things. There is no regular package for returnees. We are dependent on ad hoc donations."

Up in Vagon, Bogdana would like a cow. "Oh, if I had a cow Š we used to have cows, and sheep, and land, and a tractor. It was wonderful here. I've lived in this hamlet all my life."

There's a pause and she shrugs. "I know, I am old, I am sick and most likely would be dead if it wasn't for Dragan. But I will not move. Home is home and I am quite prepared to die here."



John Sparrow
John Sparrow is former Federation communications unit head in Budapest.

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