The right of return in the former Yugoslavia

Dayton Agreement
Dayton Agreement (© Wikimedia Commons)

Five years ago, fighting began in the heart of Europe: the Balkans. Over a quarter of a million people were killed during the war in the former Yugoslavia and nearly 2.5 million people had to flee their homes. Many of these refugees and displaced people now want to exercise one of the key provisions of the Dayton Agreement: the right to return home.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: June 19, 1996


Five years ago, fighting began in the heart of Europe: the Balkans. Over a quarter of a million people were killed during the war in the former Yugoslavia and nearly 2.5 million people had to abandon their homes. Many of these refugees and displaced people now want to exercise one of the key provisions of the Dayton Agreement: the right to return home.

Radio Netherlands, the Dutch international service, presents “The Right of Return”. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

The Dayton Agreement proclaims the right of return for all people and proclaims the freedom of movement, that is the right to move across the boundaries of different parts of Bosnia. But actually the agreement provides no meaningful leverage to bring that about.

The Dayton peace agreement, signed last December, brought an end to the brutal war in Europe in half a century. 60,000 soldiers are now deployed in the former Yugoslavia to ensure that the guns remain silent and to lay the foundations for a lasting peace in the region. Of the 2.5 million people who were forced to flee the fighting, so far fewer than 100,000 have returned. A million people are still living as displaced persons in Bosnia. 800,000 are refugees elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia and 700,000 more have been given temporary or permanent asylum in Europe. Under the Dayton Agreement, all 2.5 million people have the so-called Right of Return, that’s the right to go back to their original homes or anywhere else in Bosnia. The success of the Dayton accord hinges on the right of return. But according to Randolph Ryan of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UNHCR, it’s also one of the most poorly defined aspects of the document.

The Dayton accord to me is like an architect’s plan, a half-finished architect’s plan. In some areas, it’s worked out in great detail like the working drawings that an architect hands to a contractor or to carpenters. Those are the areas that have to do with the separation of forces, demobilisation, cantonment of heavy weapons and so on. But in other areas of the Dayton plan, it’s just a vague sketch. It’s schematic. It’s like an architect’s sketch on the back of an envelope. Those are the difficult areas that have to do with the civilian operation.

The return of refugees to their original homes is a complex operation, partly because of the huge numbers of people involved, but also because four years of ethnic cleansing have damaged or destroyed the intricate ethnic makeup of Bosnia and large parts of Croatia. Ibrahim Salović, a 75-year-old Muslim from the village of Potočari near Srebrenica was one of the hundreds of thousands who was ethnically cleansed.

 In July of 1995, the Serbs arrived in my village. They put all of us – my neighbours and me – onto buses and trucks. We were sent to the Bosnian Federation. We spent the first month in a small village near Tuzla. We lived in tents and were given bed sheets and everything we needed, and then we were sent to this centre for refugees and displaced persons in Tuzla.

The centre is a rundown school building a few kilometres out of Tuzla. The displaced persons sleep over 30 to a room. Small children constantly pop in and out of the overcrowded, smelly classrooms. An elderly woman washes herself with water from a glass, while others simply stare off in the distance. It’s unlikely that the few hundred people in this centre, as well as the others who come from Srebrenica, Goražde and other outlying regions in eastern Bosnia, will ever be able to return home since their villages are now part of the Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity in Bosnia. Nonetheless, Ibrahim Salović hopes that he will be able to exercise the right of return.

It all depends on the situation, but we hope that one day we will be able to return to our home. That’s our most fervent hope, but I can’t tell you when. EB: But do you think that it’s actually possible to return to your home? Politicians are smarter than I am. They’ve been talking now for four years. You should ask them, not me. I don’t know anything about that.

Some of the centre’s residents have lost all hope that they will ever be able to go back. 40-year-old Mirasas Slovacović is one of them. He served in the Bosnian army for three years. He lost everything in the war that was precious to him, including 67 of his immediate and extended family.

I have no hope anymore. None of us here has any hope. My biggest problem is that I am responsible for nine members of my family, all of them women. My wife is in North America, my two daughters in France and my other relatives are elsewhere in Bosnia. I don’t have a job, so I can’t reunite my family. I can’t feed them. I can’t clothe them. Our government hasn’t been able to provide us with jobs here, but I don’t understand why it can’t provide us with some decent accommodation. You see how overcrowded it is. We’ve been living here for over a year now. The government says there’s no room for us anywhere. We’re not demanding special privileges. We are simply asking for our basic human rights.

The lack of progress on the housing question is not only trying the patience of people in refugee camps. 80% of the 1.8 million refugees and displaced people in the former Yugoslavia live with host families. In some cases, the hosts are relatives or friends. But the majority has been living with total strangers. Many of the host families agreed to take in the refugees for a period of three years. In exchange, the UNHCR carried out repair or maintenance work on the host family’s homes. These contracts are now running out, and Randolph Ryan says the UNHCR is scrambling to find some way to renew them.

The problem is that as time goes by, the guests – the refugees, the displaced people – sort of wear out their welcome, and in many cases, families are putting pressure on them to leave. We’re worried about that. We’re thinking about it. We’re trying to find rewards for families to continue to house these people. There are NGOs that are building new settlements, and we’re trying to repair the shattered housing stock so that there will be some place for people to go.

The World Bank has put the amount of damage in Bosnia at 50 billion dollars. The Bank is trying to raise 2 billion dollars this year to carry out reconstruction work. Many nations have made pledges, but few so far have made good on their promises. Aid agencies fear that if the money doesn’t start flowing soon, it may be too late for this year because the bitter Balkan winter makes construction work difficult if not impossible. It would be bad news for the refugees, as well as their hosts in the former Yugoslavia and in the rest of Europe who are eager to send them back home. The UNHCR plans to organise first the return of the 1.8 million displaced people in Bosnia and the refugees in the rest of the former Yugoslavia. Only then can the UN’s refugee agency begin to plan the return of the refugees from elsewhere in Europe. Since there’s been so little progress in the reconstruction effort, Randolph Ryan of the UNHCR feels the whole discussion about sending refugees back is premature.

We have been trying to persuade the European governments – and I think with some success – to hold off on sending refugees home. We’ve been pleading with European governments to hold off, to give us time. The job is almost impossible now. If we were jammed with another half million refugees who were basically thrown out of European countries, it would make the whole situation completely unmanageable.

It will take years to rebuild Bosnia’s bridges, roads, power transmission lines, schools and other essential services. It will take many more years to rebuild the economy. People’s monthly income fell by 80% during the war. Nevertheless, many refugees are eager to go home. Bikica Dila (sp?), who is 31, her husband and their two children have been living in the Gašinci refugee camp for the past four years. It’s the largest refugee camp in Croatia and one of the better ones, thanks to support from the International Federation of the Red Cross and in particular it’s Dutch wing. Bikica Dila are tired of waiting. They’ve decided to return to Bosnia as soon as school breaks for the summer vacation.

Now she hasn’t any fear because in Gašinci, there are many people who are waiting with their children to finish the school and go back. EB: Do you know if your house still exists in Bosnia? She was in her house, and she’s going cleaning sometimes. EB: You don’t want to emigrate, to go to a third country? No, she doesn’t want to go to a third country. She said she wants to go home. EB: Will you get any financial assistance to return home? She don’t know nothing. EB: And how will you actually go back to Bosnia? How is the transport going to be organised? There’s nothing organised. They are going with her car and alone. EB: Your husband, will he have a job when he returns home? For now, the husband have no job, and there is no electricity and water. EB: So you’re going back to an uncertain future. Yes, she’s going. EB: But it’s better than staying here in Gašinci. It’s better there. Here it’s also good, but it’s too long. EB: Good luck then.

Bikica Dila’s family is lucky because their home is located in the Bosnian Federation. It was only slightly damaged during the war, and no one is squatting it. Most people are not as fortunate. Nevertheless, Bosnia’s neighbours are tightening the screws on the refugees to force them to go back home. According to Blanca Segović of the humanitarian organisation Children First, the refugees in Croatia are being made to feel that they’ve outstayed their welcome.

Legally, no one will force them out. But they have no ways of survival. If they have no private money, private income which, as you know, most of them do not have, then they are pressed. They cannot work. They cannot earn their money, and humanitarian help is absolutely not enough to keep them alive even for a week, let alone for a month. So what is for them left? I mean, you judge yourself.

Blanca is particularly concerned about the fate of children and teenagers who lost their parents during the war. They, like many other Bosnian orphans in Croatia, will have to return home over the coming months, but most schools in Bosnia have still not reopened. Blanca Segović believes their future is bleak.

God knows. They don’t, and it seems the government doesn’t. They are asked to go back. They will have to go back because humanitarian help is not enough anymore at all to keep them alive, so if they want to stay, what is open to them is either more or less prostitution or some petty thieving or something like this to survive or to join some radical groups and go underground and God knows what. I really don’t know. I just know that they have no legal means of survival. So it is for them probably the only solution to go back and try to find a place for themselves. Everyone always thinks that once they are in their own country that they will be alright. They won’t. Children need looking after. They need to eat every day. They need place to sleep. Since there is no any plan existing where they are going and who is going to look after them until they find a job and lodgings and so on, I really don’t know. I mean, they’re in a very, very difficult situation.

In Bosnia’s big cities like Sarajevo, Tuzla and Zenica, life is slowly returning to normal. The country’s towns and cities are still overcrowded with refugees, while many rural areas remain deserted or are inhabited by people displaced by the fighting. The dilemma facing  humanitarian organisations and the international community is that while large sums of money are needed for reconstruction of houses and infrastructure, many people in the former war zones are still dependent on humanitarian aid. One of the areas where reconstruction and humanitarian support must go hand in hand is in the Krajina, a region in Croatia. It used to be populated by Croats and Serbs. When Serb forces moved in in 1991, most of the Croats were killed or fled. The Croatian army recaptured the Krajina last year and up to 200,000 Serbs fled to Bosnia or Serbia. Today, a few thousand people remain, most of them elderly or disabled, some bedridden. The Kraijina is now largely desolate, particularly the rural areas where most Serbs lived. There are almost no schools, stores, medical clinics, post offices, police or any other essential services.

The International Federation of the Red Cross has eight teams distributing food and other supplies to the elderly people who have remained in the region. When we arrive, there’s no sign of 74-year-old Danica Radocević and her mother who is 97. The only people we see are three young men who are loading a huge pile of bricks onto some carts.

The looters don’t even bother to look at us or the two old women who appear out of one of the nearby fields. According to Sabine Slotke, a Red Cross delegate, this happens all the time.

We asked her: did they bother you? She said no. They just said that they bought some land and now they are taking the bricks. These are some kind of – you can call them – looters. They are going around trying to find materials, and then they just collect and then they reconstruct. EB: And this happens quite a bit. Every day, every day. We saw on Christmas time, we were the only NGO working in this area because Christmas, everybody goes home for a couple of days, and we were patrolling in this area. You can’t believe. We saw so many buses and trucks who were going – it was nice weather – through the area, collecting everything, even frames of windows. Everything. It’s incredible. EB: And there’s nothing you can do to stop these people. They just come and take the things. Well, we are not here to make conflict. What can we do about it? We can inform and maybe they will be stopped by the police, and they will be asked: where do you get this from? But nothing actually happens.

Oh, they want to move now? The looters are going to expect us to get out of their way. EB: Move the cars. Yes, move the cars so they can get out of here quickly.

Despite the lawlessness, isolation and extreme poverty, Danića Redocević and her mother have a roof over their heads and no mines near their house. Mines and unexploded ammunition are claiming victims every day, both in Croatia and in Bosnia. About six million mines were laid in the former Yugoslavia during the war, says Randolph Ryan of the UNHCR, most of them near frontline villages.

To move people back into those villages, it’s absolutely essential that there be some serious demining of the villages. And frankly, the international community up till this point has not done well on that. The World Bank has gone through the motions of supporting mine clearance but in fact sees it as a tricky area and has not done much to date. The various militaries, the American military has steered clear of that completely. Some of the Scandinavian troops here as part of IFOR have a lot of knowledge in mine clearance, but it has been IFOR policy not to get involved with that. So basically a whole half year has gone by and almost nothing has been done.

Even though the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is in charge of coordinating the return of the 2.5 million refugees and displaced people, it has only limited funding and relies heavily on other UN agencies, on the international intervention force, IFOR, and non-governmental organisations. The return is the biggest and most complex operation ever mounted by the UNHCR. There’ve been and continue to be many shortcomings in the return, but there are some bright spots. In the town of Brčko, for example, on the border between the Bosnian Federation and the Serbian entity in north-eastern Bosnia, the UNHCR is trying to bring the various ethnic groups together and negotiate the return of all of Brčko’s former inhabitants.

We have an interesting collaboration between UNHCR and between the IFOR commander, an American commander up there, who is working very energetically with the three mayors and the three police chiefs – Croat, Serb and Bosnian Muslim – to try to promote inter-entity contact and to allow people to move back. Now we have gone very far with that, but we’ve had meetings for six or eight weeks. The people are familiar with each other. We have high hopes that if we keep watering this little flower of cross-border interaction that we will get somewhere. It’s not clear that we will be able to succeed because the government of the Republika Srpska in Pale has stated that they want to prevent the return of Muslims to the outskirts of Brčko, but it’s an area that we are fully focused on. EB: But is this the way you need to work from locality to locality. And if that’s the case, it’s going to take years to go ahead and reach agreements everywhere, isn’t it? Well, you look for cracks in the wall, and you try to expand on those cracks. You try to set precedents and get some things in motion. I hope that in time the wall in general will loosen up, but in these early months, it’s been very much a case of finding places where there were moderate mayors on both sides of the line, moderate local officials, for example perhaps people who knew each other from before the war, liked each other, were neighbours, co-workers and friends and who feel that this whole war was a crazy and stupid thing and would like to put it behind them.

Faced with strong opposition from the Republika Sprska in Pale and from villagers who do not want to see the return of their former enemies, the UNHCR has been making painfully slow progress in re-establishing a dialogue between the ethnic groups. As the months drag on, growing numbers of people are becoming resigned to the fact that they are unlikely to see their homes for many more months if ever. Non-governmental organisations are also preparing for this eventuality.

Computer courses are among the classes being offered to refugee women in Tuzla. Norwegian People’s Aid together two other non-governmental organisations started this women’s centre to provide counselling to the many traumatised or raped women among Tuzla’s large refugee population. The programme grew quickly and today the centre also offers classes for women, many of them from rural areas, in basic literacy, English, German, tailoring, carpet weaving and hairdressing.

Svetla finished the course last year and she got the certificate diploma, and now she works as a hairdresser. EB: Do all the women who come to this hairdressing course actually go on to find a job? Unfortunately, women cannot find a job easily here because the production of hairdressers is big, and we need only a few in Tuzla. But, on the other hand, girls cannot work at home or in neighbourhood and provide them with money. EB: How many women have been trained here? Approximately 180 women have been trained here. EB: You also have a price list here. Why is that? Do you have customers who actually come to the school to get their hair cut? People can come here to have their hairdo, and those prices given on the price list are very cheap, the cheapest in the town, and with the money we gain from it, we are able to buy new products for our further work. EB: And are all your customers women or do you also have men? Would you like to try?

The programme keeps the women busy and helps them forget the events of the past few years. All the women who took courses have benefited from their newly-acquired skills, according to a study commissioned by Norwegian People’s Aid. Some have found jobs. Others have received promotions. And yet others are making extra money by cutting their neighbours’ hair or making clothes. The programme is making women more financially independent, says Tanja Yunosović, but it’s also empowering them.

Most of these women have lost their husbands, so they have to be a father and a mother to their children. They’re often the only ones in the family who can work and earn some money. But even the women whose husbands survived have to learn to accept new ways. The women will have to teach their husbands that they are also able to fight for their beliefs. During the war, when the husbands were off on the frontlines fighting as soldiers, women were fighting in the cities as another type of soldier. We had to provide food to our children. We had to learn how to make a fire, chop wood and things like that. I think in some respects, we are now equal to men.

The war has not only changed the makeup of Bosnia forever, it’s also changing Bosnian society. The 700,000 people who sought refuge in Europe, as well as the 800,000 who received shelter elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia, will be returning to a very different country. Many don’t care – they just want to go home.

It was very interesting and nice in Holland but I couldn’t fit in. I needed to work again. In Holland, I was just hanging around, doing nothing and sleeping a lot. I decided to return to Sarajevo when the situation improved. I arrived four months ago, and I want my family to join me.

Boran Lelani fought for the Bosnian army for three years before going to Holland in 1994 for medical treatment. Borhan is now back in Sarajevo and counts himself lucky. He survived the war with only a few injuries, and he has been welcomed by his former neighbours. Most of the war survivors view those who fled Bosnia and Croatia at the beginning of the war as traitors. This impression has been confirmed by the return of the first refugees from Europe. They come in big cars, laden with expensive gadgets, while most Bosnians have had to struggle to survive over the past four years.

Some people probably do think that I betrayed something or somebody because I went to Holland for a year, but it was only a temporary absence. I was a soldier for three years, and now I have come back. I too am very angry with those young men who left at the beginning of the war. They should have stayed here to fight for our country.

Liliana Pepović, who presents one of the most popular programmes on Radio Sarajevo, shares the same bitterness towards the refugees. She, like many who remained throughout the war, believes that everyone who left abandoned Bosnia in its time of greatest need.

The people who left the radio during the war cannot get their jobs back. That’s our policy. I agree with it because some of them who were away on holidays for four years may now want to come back and take my job away from me. But I worked throughout the siege. It wouldn’t be fair if they returned and got their old jobs back.

Our government has introduced a general amnesty for those who left, and I think this country needs them. They went abroad. They learned other languages and skills which could be very useful for the reconstruction of Bosnia. So we have to encourage these people to come back. If our government is able to forgive them, then why can’t we do the same thing?

I do have mixed feelings. Because of Dayton, I have to forgive the Serbs for all the crimes they committed. Nowadays, for instance, a Serb can walk freely among us. He can sit with me in a café or next to me in a tram. So why shouldn’t I forgive some boy because he ran away because he was afraid to fight in this war, because he was afraid to die? Why shouldn’t I forgive him and allow him to return?

Forgiveness is still rare in the Balkans today. People are tired of war and want to return home. But the past four years have also left deep scars which will linger on in the collective memory for decades to come. For Ibrahim Salović, the 75-year-old Muslim and the other 2.5 million refugees, only the right of return can begin to heal the wounds.

We can only hope that we will be able to return home one day. I still can’t tell you when because the politicians and all those who dealt with this problem over the past four years failed to solve it. But if we are not able to return home, there will never be peace. There won’t be peace here, in Europe or in the rest of the world.

“The Right of Return” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Werner van Peppen. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.