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
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
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.
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?"
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
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
Up in Vagon, Bogdana would like a cow. "Oh, if I had
a cow 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 is former Federation communications unit head
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