bosnia report
New Series No: 53-54 August - December 2006
Refugee returns - the real story
by Nidžara Ahmetaševic, Gornji Vakuf / Uskoplje and Sarajevo

Bosnian returnees quietly quit their regained homes - behind the rosy statistics claiming a million refugee returns, there is a different, sadder story.



It has been five years since Ilijas Sabić, a Bosniak from Gornji Vakuf - Uskoplje, swapped his house with a Croat in the small town in central Bosnia-Herzegovina. Ilijas is not happy about the swap but says it was the only way he could continue to live in the town, where deep ethnic divisions are symbolised by the use of two names - Gornji Vakuf for Bosniaks and Uskoplje for Croats.

Today, Sabić's apartment is only 700 metres away from his old house. It is a five-minute ride by car. But, said Sabić, it is ‘very far away’ in a different sense, ‘That is democracy - our way. Everyone has chosen on which side of the divide to keep living on.’ At his old address, the 21-year-old daughter of the new Croat owner opened the front door. She said she was pleased her father had moved. ‘This is a normal life to me,’ she added. ‘At least I don't have to think about whom I might come across on my way back home.’

Sabić and his Croat acquaintance are both registered returnees to Gornji Vakuf - Uskoplje and the swaps they have made mean neither now lives in his pre-war home. Experts in the field of refugees and returnees say the phenomenon they represent is common in a country where fierce ethnic struggles from 1992 to 1995 have left a legacy of poisoned relations between communities. Official figures say the war created 2.2 million refugees or displaced persons - about half the republic's population. The Dayton Ohio peace settlement of 1995 divided the country into two entities, the Republika Srpska (RS) and the Federation of B-H.

Ethnic homogenization

Since then, refugees in towns all over Bosnia-Herzegovina have made use of laws enabling them to recover their property. But many then sell or swap their real estate so that they can continue to live among members of their own ethnic group. International and local agencies say people like Ilijas Sabić make up a large percentage of the million refugees and displaced persons who officially returned to their pre-war homes since 1995. Experts believe the number of ‘real’ returns would be even lower if it took into account the large number of returnees who regained their property solely with a view to selling it and remaining where they were.

The process has undermined the purpose of the Dayton Agreement, which designated the return of refugees and displaced persons as a top priority. Annex 7 of the agreement said returnees would be entitled to the restitution of all properties usurped during hostilities. ‘All refugees and displaced persons have the right freely to return to their homes of origin. They shall have the right to have restored to them property of which they were deprived in the course of hostilities since 1991 and to be compensated for any property that cannot be restored to them,’ the agreement stipulated.

It further added that no party to the conflict should ‘interfere with the returnees' choice of destination, nor shall they compel them to remain in or move to situations of serious danger or insecurity, or to areas lacking in the basic infrastructure necessary to resume a normal life’. The constitution of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is part of the Dayton Agreement, also guarantees ‘the right of all the refugees and displaced persons to return freely to their homes’.

But onlookers say the expectations raised by the agreement turned out to be unrealistic. ‘What was written down in the Dayton Peace Agreement was an idealistic version of what return should look like,’ an international official who worked for some years on the return programme told Balkan Insight. ‘It encouraged people to return to their homes. But to expect the people who were leading the warring sides and who remained in power in the post-war years to implement such guidelines was naïve.’ The official referred to the fact that power has remained since the war in the hands of the same nationalist parties that started the conflict, the Serb Democratic Party (SDS), the Croat Democratic Union (HDZ) and the Party of Democratic Action (SDA).

Dayton not implemented

Mirhunisa Zukić, chair of the Association of Refugee Alliance in Bosnia-Herzegovina, agreed, saying the parties' influence has continued to slow returns. ‘Their political influence is still overwhelming,’ she told Balkan Insight, ‘so that parts of the Dayton Peace Agreement regarding elementary human rights and the right to a home and a life are not being implemented.’

A report by the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in 2005 argued from a similar viewpoint. It said inter-ethnic relations were still burdened by the determination of the ruling nationalist parties to preserve their ethnic power bases. ‘By fuelling fear of "the other", and by insisting on

allegedly being threatened or imperilled by the other two ethnic groups, these nationalist political parties still succeed in clinging to power,’ said the report. In the meantime, the passage of time means people's interest in returning home inevitably ebbs away. The Helsinki Committee

said this meant that ‘ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina is entering its final stage’.

Such claims are unwelcome to the international agencies and authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which have a vested interest in painting a rosier picture. These agencies concentrate on the figures provided by the UN refugee body UNHCR, which says 50 per cent of the more than 2

million refugees and displaced persons had returned home by September 2005 and that rightful owners have regained almost 99 per cent of usurped property.

Misleading figures

Satisfied with this apparent progress, Paddy Ashdown, the former High Representative of the international community, closed the Office of the High Representative department for returns and reconstruction in 2003, transferring its powers to the local level. Local experts criticised the move, insisting the figures on which it was based were misleading. ‘People do get their properties back but they don't go to live there,’ said Mirhunisa Zukić. ‘The statistics categorise such cases as 'returnees', which is why officially almost half the displaced persons and refugees have returned home. ‘In reality, at most about one-third of this number are genuine returnees.’ Zukić pointed out that the remaining two-thirds of ‘returnees’ included many ‘weekend’ or ‘seasonal returnees’ who had regained their properties but were no longer permanent residents.

The biggest problem concerns ‘minority’ returns. This term denotes returnees who have gone back to municipalities where other ethnic groups are now the majority. The UNHCR says about 450,000 minority returns took place by the end of 2005. But the figures presented by the Refugee Alliance and ombudsmen offices in both entities tell a different story. The 2005 human-rights report from the ombudsman's office in RS noted that these returnees often sold or rented out their regained properties. A report that year by the Federation ombudsman made a similar point, lamenting the lack of records of the number of swaps or sales of returned property.

In Gornji Vakuf - Uskoplje, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that most returnees used Dayton's provisions to swap or sell their regained homes. Conflict came to the town in 1993, when it was divided between the Bosnian Croat militia known as the Croat Defence Council (HVO) and the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina (AB-H). Until last year the municipality had a special status owing to the existence of parallel structures at all levels of the government. In 2001, the HR appointed a special envoy to unite the town and renamed the town officially Gornji Vakuf - Uskoplje, to satisfy both communities. But official reunification in 2005 had little effect on divisions that remain visible in almost every segment of life.

Invisible boundary

Today, the population of about 20,000, which is about 5,000 less than before the war, is clearly divided. With some sense of irony, citizens call the Bosniak area ‘Sector B’ and the Croat area ‘Sector C’. The HDZ and SDA share power locally. Two non-ethnic parties, the Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina (SB-H) and the Social Democrat Party (SDP), have only a handful of deputies on the local council. Fatima Mehanović, an SDP deputy, says her party has little influence, as it is always outvoted by the nationalist coalition. Nor is there much hope that things will change for the better, she said. ‘The division within the municipality suits the parties in power,’ she told Balkan Insight. No visible boundary separates sectors B and C, but everyone knows where it lies. Locals even point out the border in the middle of a street where one side belongs to Bosniaks and the other to Croats.

Official figures show that about 80 per cent of property usurped in the 1992-5 war was restored to pre-war owners. But the majority followed Ilijas Sabić in swapping their homes for other residences in ‘their part’ of the town. Or they simply sold their property. Experts say the phenomenon is hard to gauge, as there are no accurate data on property swaps among citizens of different nationalities. But while researching the phenomenon, the Federation ombudsmen collected partially complete data from local tax offices. They found that in Zenica, an industrial town in central Bosnia-Herzegovina, 4,386 apartments and 547 private family houses which had been regained by pre-war owners had been sold over the past four years. An additional 863 contracts to exchange properties have been concluded. In Tuzla canton, in the northeast of the country, they found only about 40 per cent of returnees had gone back to their pre-war homes. In the city of Tuzla itself, they discovered that more than 80 per cent of returnees no longer lived in the properties that had been restored to them. In Sarajevo, where the process of return is completed, the structure of the population has changed dramatically. Data available for the Sarajevo canton suggest that about 80 per cent of the population are Bosniaks, 11 per cent are Serbs, and 6 per cent are Croats. This is a radical change from 1991 when the last census showed Bosniaks made up only 49 per cent of the population of Sarajevo, compared to 29 per cent for the Serbs and 7 per cent for the Croats. About 19 per cent of the city then declared themselves as Yugoslavs.

In RS, it is estimated that 90 per cent of the current population are ethnic Serbs. Before the war, estimates show, the majority population was Bosniak. The Federation ombudsman believes the process of returning property to pre-war owners is now almost complete, so there is now little hope of reversing the process by which Bosnia-Herzegovina has become divided into three ethnically homogeneous territories. Marinko Krajina, mayor of Gornji Vakuf - Uskoplje, says this division, which runs right through his town, is now unlikely to change. ‘I'd say relocations and migrations have ended,’ he said. ‘This is not a normal life. But we should bear in mind that we had a war here, and that the situation is now much better than it was then.’

Obstacles to return are not always the obvious ones involving physical hostility from the opposing ethnic group. Economic opportunities - or lack of them - are also crucial. Inability to exercise their right to work and employment discrimination on ethnic grounds top the list of problems that many returnees say they face. Bosnia-Herzegovina 's constitution prescribes proportional ethnic representation based on the 1991 census in all public institutions and government bodies, but this is a dead letter.

Job prospects in the public sector directly affect returnees who are overwhelmingly poor and lack the means to start private businesses. The ministry for human rights and refugees says about 80 per cent of returnees have no permanent employment and thus depend on these jobs. Around 5,000 people held jobs in Gornji Vakuf - Uskoplje before the war. Today, that number has fallen to 2,000. ‘Regrettably large numbers of young people are leaving this municipality due to the poor social and economic situation,’ said the mayor. ‘Some 3,300 people are registered as jobless with the local employment office.’

Economic segregation

The economy is largely segregated. Only one company in Gornji Vakuf - Uskoplje employs both Bosniaks and the Croats. Some international experts now say more than the right to regain property ought to have been secured, in order to encourage the actual return of people. ‘When it comes to laws regulating the return of assets to pre-war owners, everything has been done properly and this has been a big success,’ one international official who worked on returns told Balkan Insight. ‘But other laws were not brought into line with this legislation. The worst situation is with employment policy, where there is no a law to induce employers to hire or take back returnees from minority ethnic groups in that area.’

Ethnic discrimination in employment was the subject of an Amnesty International report entitled ‘ Bosnia and Herzegovina: behind closed gates: ethnic discrimination in employment’, published in January. The international rights body warned that this form of discrimination was one of the most serious obstacles to the sustainable return of refugees and displaced persons. The report singled out areas where ‘persecution on ethnic grounds was most systematic and ferocious’, including the Prijedor/Banja Luka areas and eastern parts of the RS and some areas under Bosnian Croat control.

Mirhunisa Zukić cited the especially poor example of the Prijedor municipality in the RS, which has seen 30,000 returnees, the biggest number of returnees in the country to any single municipality. The Refugee Alliance said 12,000 of those 30,000 were still unemployed. Another example is Bosanski Novi in the RS, which has 6,000 returnees - most of them Bosniaks - but where only three Bosniaks are employed in local government. In Srebrenica, in the east of the RS, more Bosniaks work in local government but they make up only 10 per cent of the police. According to the last census, 72.9 per cent of the population was Bosniak, which should be reflected in current local authority employment figures. In Doboj, in northern Bosnia, also in the RS, Serbs make up 100 per cent of the local teachers even though according to the last census 40 per cent of the population were Bosniaks and 39 per cent were Serbs, with 13 per cent Croats. Only one Bosniak works as a teacher in the Foča municipality, in Bosnia's south-east. Before the war, the town was populated by 51.58 per cent Bosniaks and 45.27 per cent Serbs. Out of 180 civil servants in Zvornik, in eastern Bosnia, only three are Bosniaks. According to the 1991 census, 59.43 per cent of the population was Bosniak and 38 per cent were Serbs. The problem is worst in the RS but is not restricted to areas under Serb control. In the Bosnian Croat stronghold of Čapljina, only one Bosniak works for the local authority. And in Bosniak-dominated Sarajevo, of the 211 civil servants in the Novi Grad municipality 185 are Bosniaks.

Divided education

The education system has also been divided up between the three ethnic groups, encouraging segregation at an early age. Gornji Vakuf - Uskoplje, for example, has two separate primary schools - one for Bosniaks and the other for Croats, while the two secondary Bosniak and Croat schools operate under the same roof. At the secondary school, the children even use separate entrances. Dževad Dedić, a health-centre worker, said, ‘The breaks between their classes are not concurrent so they cannot meet. There is no way they can make friends.’

Dedić says health in Gornji Vakuf - Uskoplje is also divided, with two health centres, working for Bosniaks and Croats Amnesty International's report has referred to problems concerning minority groups' access to health care, welfare benefits and pensions. Human-rights and refugee- ministry officials also refer to violations of international and local regulations concerning access to health care and benefits. Many returnees have no access to any kind of insurance or benefits. Some still have no access to electricity.

In some places, physical safety remains a major issue. Fadil Banjanović, a community leader in Kozluk, near Zvornik, recently told the media that fear and safety concerns were a serious problem for returnees. ‘People are still afraid because war criminals walk freely here,’ he said. ‘No war crimes trials are under way in this part of Bosnia.’

Census dilemma

These are all reasons blocking sustainable return. Quite how many people have actually returned is impossible to find out, however, until a new census has been made. The federal statistics office says this might take place in 2011. But there is no agreement even over this. While some argue that a new census is a must, others warn that it may validate the ethnic cleansing that has taken place. Senad Slatina, head of the Centre for European Integration Strategies, based in Sarajevo, says the census is primarily ‘a political and not an economic issue’. ‘This is because of many relevant constitutional provisions prescribing proportional representation in public institutions in accordance with the figures from the last census,’ Slatina told Balkan Insight.

Slatina agrees that the return of refugees and displaced persons is crucially tied to the issue of employment options, and that the biggest employers are public institutions. ‘The existing constitutional arrangements - albeit formally and ineffectively - order government institutions to employ returnees in an attempt to restore mixed ethnic composition even in those places where ethnically motivated crimes were the most rampant,’ he adds.

Ten years on, it is hard to say who is responsible for the fact that there is no sustainable return.

The Helsinki Committee says that local authorities and the international community are equally to blame. ‘The intention of the international community to present the return process as something which is drawing to its successful conclusion, or perhaps something that is already concluded, is quite noticeable,’ said the Helsinki Committee report on human rights in Bosnia-Herzegovina. ‘The Dayton Peace Agreement envisaged it all well, but the implementation has been flawed,’ said Mirhunisa Zukić. ‘But we are optimists and it's not too late. People have

hopes. Those who are involved in farming will stay in their homes. The problem is the cities. We need an economic recovery.’

Some young people of Gornji Vakuf - Uskoplje do not want to give up, either. The Youth Centre, a local NGO, has been working for some time to bring together young people from both sides of the divide. Although this proposition sounds innocent and simple, they say it is hard work. One project involves setting up vacation trips of ethnically mixed groups of children. ‘When we take them out of this environment, children are happy,’ said Adnan Gavranović, one of the trainers. ‘They play together, they are very close to one another, but already on coming back home they tend to separate, and they seem to part ways.’ Adnan and Sead Masetić, both in their early twenties, say they have grown up together with the Youth Centre, which helped them to develop a healthy approach to life. But they say the older people in the town pass on their prejudices to their children. Yet, neither Adnan nor Sead actually lives in Gornji Vakuf - Uskoplje. Adnan lives and studies in Austria, while Sead studies in Zenica. Both spend their summer vacations in their hometown. ‘Every time I come here, I feel so sad,’ said Sead; you expect things to change, but it's painstakingly slow. I can't remember when anyone asked me last time if I'd like to stay here.’

Nidžara Ahmetašević is a regular Balkan Insight correspondent. Balkan Insight is the online publication of Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN). This report appeared in Balkan Insight, 31 August 2006


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