- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 30, 2001

BANJA LUKA, Bosnia Desimir Kojic would be happy to leave Banja Luka if he could.
Mr. Kojic, a Serb from Sisak, Croatia, had gone on a 10-day trip to Vienna when Croats began attacking Serbs in Croatia in 1991. On his return, Mr. Kojic found that a Croat a man he'd known for 20 years had broken into his apartment and taken it over.
"They hated me because of my nationality," he said. So he fled to Bosnia's Serbian community and is still here six years after the Dayton accords ended the 1992-95 war.
"According to the Dayton agreement, I have the right to live wherever I want in Croatia, San Francisco or Kandahar," he said. He's still trying to get his apartment back in Sisak, "but there's no chance."
Mr. Kojic is one of an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Serbs from Croatia living in Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, the Serbian half of Bosnia.
Many of them live in homes vacated by Muslims and Croats who fled during the war, while the latter live in formerly Serbian houses in the Muslim-Croat Federation.
Since the war ended, perhaps the biggest task for international and Bosnian authorities is to help people move back into their own homes. Muslims, Croats and Serbs fled en masse from areas where they were minorities.
But for one family to regain its home usually means kicking out another family of a different ethnic group. And its original home is also usually being lived in, and so on.
"And eventually, there's always someone at the end of this chain whose house was destroyed," said a foreign official in Banja Luka.
As a result, only about 37 percent of the roughly quarter-million or so people who want to return to their pre-war homes in Bosnia have been able to do so. The figures are especially low in the Republika Srpska, where only 27 percent of displaced people have returned.
Part of that is due to the fact that Croatian Serbs face enormous obstacles to getting their homes back. But much of the blame, many of those working on refugee issues say, belongs to Republika Srpska itself.
The R.S. authorities are accused of using a variety of methods to ensure that Muslims and Croats don't come back. By refusing to evict Serbs who have occupied Muslim and Croat apartments, the government created a logjam for the entire return process, foreign officials charge.
Antonieta Sremac, a Croat, got her apartment in downtown Banja Luka back last year. But not before the R.S. government told the 63-year-old retiree that the occupants, who were Serbs, couldn't be kicked out because they had nowhere else to go. After some sleuthing, and months of renting another apartment, she produced photos of a vacation house they owned on the outskirts of Banja Luka.
Most refugees in Croatia, though, aren't as lucky as she. "Most of them are old and don't have the means to come back and look for their flats," she said. And neither the Croatian nor the R.S. governments do anything to help, she said.
The R.S. government's priorities have drawn fire from international officials.
"The distribution of flats to collective center residents and building materials to families of soldiers killed in battle does not meet Republika Srpska's legal obligations to refugees and displaced persons under the property laws, and diverts resources from programs that would," said Robert M. Beecroft, head of the Office of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission here.
Recently, the foreign groups have tightened the screws on the R.S. government.
"[The government] doesn't want to accept it, so you've got to start banging some heads," said Ilija Todorovic, a protection officer with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). "Now, more and more people are considering going back because they're going to get evicted."
Although Mr. Kojic isn't displacing anyone he's renting the house he's staying in from a Serb who lives in Germany he concedes that "it's difficult for Muslims and Croats to come back, because [the government] doesn't know what to do with us Serbs."
The R.S. government has a Ministry of Refugees and Displaced Persons, but it suffers a perennial budget crisis. Nine months into this year, the ministry had gotten just over half the money it was allocated in the budget the most underfunded ministry in the country, despite ministry spokesman Vojin Mijatovic's claim that "this is the most important job in the R.S."
The government is accused of dragging its feet on returns for political reasons. The nationalist Serbian Democratic Party, though not in power, pulls many strings here to maintain its voter base. People displaced from their homes are more likely to be embittered and vote for the nationalists.
"If you integrate them locally rather than sending them back, you guarantee yourself a voter," said Mr. Todorovic of the UNHCR.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide