Banja Luka, September 23, 2000




The Drina River Valley, municipalities of Prijedor, Sanski Most, Kotor Varos.. are marked by tent settlements. They are home to people tired of waiting, hoping and false promises, whom the war granted the status of displaced persons and refugees and who live next to the ruins of their pre-war homes in order to "return home."

According to the Alliance of Associations of Displaced Persons and Refugees of Bosnia-Herzegovina, at the end of August 28,000 people lived under the open sky throughout the country.

Too many words have been wasted already only to say what everyone knows very well: that the return of the displaced and exiled people of Bosnia-Herzegovina, five years after the war ended, is proceeding slowly and is being obstructed in a number of ways. Those who are supposed to do something about it believe that people should take charge of their own future.

The first such settlements were built more than a year ago, in Kopaci, near Gorazde, then in the vicinity of Kotor Varos. After that, new tent settlements stopped making the headlines. The chairwoman of the Alliance, Mirhunisa Zukic, cites "a new policy of donations" as one of the reasons people keep returning to the areas where they used to live before the war despite the fact that all their property had been destroyed. "Funding for reconstruction is approved in line with the principle 'live money - live people' which should stimulate the returnees, but in reality it all works in a different way," says Zukic. According to her, the 50.1 million ECU Bosnia-Herzegovina received for this purpose at a May donors conference, started coming in only at the beginning of this fall. "This is why it is almost certain that the returnees will spend this winter not in their homes, but among the ruins of what they once used to be, or in tents," she adds.

Werner Blater, the head of UNHCR mission in Bosnia, says that the mission never encouraged people to return to places that lack even basic living conditions. "The UNHCR helped those people who decided to return to devastated rural areas by giving them tents and other basic means so that they could survive," Blater explains. One issue on which Blater and Zukic agree is that the funds are coming in slowly and are not sufficient to meet the needs of all people who require reconstruction assistance. This is why, according to Blater, the UNHCR has expressed concern that this winter some of these people might again return to where they used to be sheltered before.

A visit to any of these settlements can leave no man indifferent. As many as twenty tents can be found around the least damaged house, which is often used to house the common kitchen. As a rule, these areas have no running water, no electricity, and the closest store, if there is one, is miles away. Here the dreams of returning to one's home region turn into an actual nightmare. Those who see them off on the journey equip them with a sack of flour and a blanket or two, sighing in relief, and the authorities of the entity they return to, if their arrival fails to pass without incident, simply pretend not to notice them.

The first time the tent settlements were seriously discussed in public was when some fifty Bosniak families returned to the Stari Grad district in Prijedor this summer. Their return, secured by strong police forces, was peaceful, and tents were put up where once stood the largest Bosniak settlement.

This manner of implementing Annex VII of the Peace Agreement leaves much to be desired by both the returnees and the authorities of Republika Srpska. The former are disgruntled because for five years nothing has been done to improve their Living conditions, and the latter because they believe the return "should proceed in an organized way, be simultaneous, and take place when conditions allow."

In a situation that for years failed to show any substantial progress, someone obviously has to take the first step. Still, due to the lack of even basic living conditions, only a portion of the families decide to live in tents. The others await better days, because children and the elderly cannot live in such improvised conditions.

Who knows how long this issue would continue to be marginalized if it weren't for a report that arrived at the end of August that said several hundred exiled inhabitants of Banjaluka were preparing to return to their hometown to live in tents. A decision to construct a tent settlement in Banjaluka was announced by the association of people exiled from this town, who explained their intention as due to "unacceptable delays in implementing property laws" in the largest town in Republika Srpska. In the following days the entire political public of both the town and the entity, outdid themselves in a bid to prove that such allegations could not possibly be true.

Banja Luka Mayor Dragoljub Davidovic, refuted a priori the very idea that Bosniaks should return in such a way. "As mayor I cannot possibly allow something like this," Davidovic said and warned he would not be held responsible "for possible incidents." Saying that the process of refugee return must proceed "in an institutionalized manner," Republika Srpska Premier Milorad Dodik stressed that "we have institutions and laws governing this, and cannot allow anarchy by letting anyone erect mass tent settlements wherever they please."

The RS premier described this as yet another political manipulation and expressed his surprise that the refugees had allowed themselves be manipulated. This was backed by some news media who immediately joined the controversy. In an editorial on its front page, the Glas Srpski paper extensively elaborated on the Sarajevo apartment of Mirhunisa Zukic, showing a complete lack of even basic respect of human dignity. Editor Zoran Mihajlovic accused Zukic of being a tool in politics and of allowing herself "to coordinate, from someone else's comfortable apartment, the construction of a tent settlement in a town in which according to reports of international officials, 15 to 18 users of other people's property are being evicted per week." In the same paper and on the same page, columnist Djordje Vukovic labeled the support extended to exiled inhabitants of Banjaluka by the Council of Congresses of Bosniak Intellectuals as "tent intelligence."

Whether these people, who for almost eight years have been roaming, deprived of their homes, are tools of political manipulation or victims of the policy of chaos reigning in Bosnia-Herzegovina is hard to say. The Party of Democratic Action has denied any influence on the intention of the exiles to return to Banjaluka and live in tents. "Do you really believe that the party has enough influence to motivate people for such a move?" party vice-president Sulejman Tihic asked. "The only thing we can do is to support them, because the RS authorities have done nothing to speed up the return process," he said.

Serbs exiled from Sarajevo immediately responded to the announcements of a tent settlement in Banjaluka by saying that they would erect similar settlements in Sarajevo -- in front of the Holiday Inn hotel and on Vilsonovo Setaliste Street. A similar threat came from representatives of the association of exiled and Displaced Serbs Ostanak (Staying Home). They announced tents as a means of drawing public attention to their intention to permanently settle in Republika Srpska.

To all criticism that property laws are being slowly implemented in Republika Srpska, the authorities respond by saying that a majority of exiles wish to permanently settle in that entity and that there is insufficient funding to accommodate them all. It is difficult to say whether "staying home" is indeed encouraged in Republika Srpska, but the figures show the following: in the first half of this year instead of the planned 2.5 million convertible marks, the government spent 5.7 million for that purpose.

But let us return to the tent settlements that already exist. It is obvious that they house people whose homes were completely destroyed. According to the RS budget, 2.5 million convertible marks should have been used to finance the return of refugees to Republika Srpska. Not a single mark has been used for that purpose so far. The government explained this briefly by saying that priorities in this sector could not be established. This, obviously, warrants no further elaboration.




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