Problems with two-way return

Boris Raseta

WED, 12 APR 2000

Zagreb, April 5, 2000 - At the recently concluded Donors' Conference of the Stability Pact, Croatia was granted the entire amount it requested for the project of the return of 16,5 thousand refugees, mostly citizens of Serbian nationality - USD 55 million! This is more than a clear sign that the international community supports the new Croatian government, but also an unambiguous signal that it wants a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic Croatia which would serve as an example for the entire South-East Europe. According to the plans, these funds will enable the repair of 6,5 thousand housing units with a varying degree of damage on the entire Croatian territory from which people were forced to flee during different stages of the war, and which will, at least partially, annul the policy of the previous Croatian government which openly obstructed the return and which refused to even consider the renewal of the houses of returnees.

Simultaneously with this process, some 7,5 thousand exiled Croats who live today in Croatia and want to return, should return to Bosnia and Herzegovina, including the territory of the Republic of Srpska and the Federation. Returnees would be returning both ways in the organisation of the same agency - UNHCR. Plans, projects and lists of people who will be included in the organised collective return are nearly finished and the implementation of this project should start with the beginning of spring.

In one of his public speeches, the new Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Racan has already invited the exiled Serbs to return, guaranteeing them equality as well as abolition of all laws which contain discriminating provisions. Stipe Mesic, President of the Republic, sent the same invitation and since they have the backing of a firm parliamentary majority and the greater part of the electorate in Croatia, it is clear that - on the highest level - there will be no problems with the process of return to Croatia. In this respect Croatia has experienced a true Copernican turnabout. In Banja Luka, with the American blessing, an agreement was signed with the Republic of Srpska so that there will be no opposition to the return there either. However, that doesn't mean that everything will progress smoothly. Quite contrary, problems have already appeared and at the level which will, perhaps, be decisive for the success of the overall idea, i.e. on the ground. It is already clear now that the new Croatian top state leadership will have to overcome four serious obstacles. On the one hand, the local authorities are opposed to the return.

Mile Cancar, Prefect of the Plitvice Lakes Commune, openly said that he disagreed with new legal regulations according to which it would be necessary to evict refugees from Bosnia who are now living in private houses of Serbs from Croatia. "I refuse to talk like that any more - go ahead, evict them and that's that" was Cancar's message to the state leadership in which he also stated that both him and the refugees from Bosnia have been cheated because for years they were given promises that the property which they were using would one day become theirs, and now everything has changed. It has changed declaratively, but until now a negligible number of refugees has managed to repossess their houses, although decrees on the restitution of property to their true owners are already being distributed all over the country.

"I remember it as if it happened yesterday. They sent me twelve buses with Bosnian Croats - refugees and ordered me to find them shelter. Now, they order me to evict them. I won't do it".

Some 400 families have come to Korenica from Croatia and Bosnia, which is under Cancar's jurisdiction, and for the time being their fate is uncertain. There is another grave problem here. Since Serbian returnees will most certainly get their private property back, it will be necessary to find shelter for the exiled Bosnian Croats. However, most of them want to stay in Croatia, or better said, do not want to return to Bosnia, either to the Republic of Srpska or the Federation. "If we have to move, we shall go where we want and not where they tell us to go", says Drago Bozic, President of the Association of Bosnian Croats for the "Novi List" (the New Paper).

"We are not chess-pieces. Even if we did not fear for our lives in Bosnia, what would we live on, where would we work when people starved there even before the war? No one can tell us stories about good life in Bosnia since no one knows the situation there better than we do. Would Picula dare go to Banja Luka and openly admit there that he is a Croat?" asks a refugee from Banja Luka living in Korenica, in the Split paper "Feral", adding that the state has behaved as a "whore".

The Bosnian Croats in Kordun say the same. "Tudjman gave us homes, and Picula will not force us back to Bosnia", says Milko Valjan, refugee from Vares living today in Krnjak. "We have made a new life for ourselves, our children go to school here and we have something to live on, while in Bosnia they are not offering us anything but persecution and harassment. I know that eight returnees were killed on the territory of my commune alone, and even my war commander Jozo Leutar was killed too. And nobody did anything about these murders after that. That is why I am asking you, who in his right mind can go back?"

In the neighbouring commune of Vojnic another 2 thousand Bosnian Croat are not even thinking about going back. Some fifteen old men would go back - provided that the conditions are right. Marijan Slavica, Prefect of the Vojnic Commune, claims that a satisfactory solution will be found for everyone: private property is sacred, he says, so that everything will be returned, and the Bosnian Croats will get houses because the state agency has bought enough of them to house all those who want to stay. Some 1,600 Serbs would like to return to Okucane, in Western Slavonia, but they have the same problem - their houses are occupied.

The problem of security - both as regards that inner feeling as well as the objective indicators - bothers Bosnian Croats and the Serbian refugees alike. Allegedly, a returnee of Serbian nationality was recently killed on the Island of Vir, near Zadar, as well as an old lady in Western Slavonia, which were clear signals to returnees, and very efficient ones, at that. According to estimates of Dr Lino Veljak, Vice-President of the Action of the Social-Democrats of Croatia, one third of exiled Serbs, at the most, intend to return to Croatia. Namely, Veljak talked to representatives of some fifty refugee organisations, mostly those which encourage the return. "Some of them cannot reconcile themselves to the position of a national minority, while others consider Ivica Racan a traitor and Stipe Mesic the destroyer of Yugoslavia and therefore do not trust the promises of the new authorities", says Veljak.

In addition, fear and paranoia are intensified by emissaries of the Serbian regime, including those in Croatia, who still want to preserve the results of ethnic cleansing.

Thus, Borislav Mikelic recently demanded in Belgrade "that Serbs be reintroduced into the Constitution", "given political autonomy" and similar things which is a clear provocation aimed at creating additional animosity towards the Serbs in Croatia and further aggravating the condition for their return. Similarly ideas are advocated by Petar Djodan and Boris Martinovic in Banja Luka, who demand of Stipe Mesic to come to the church in Glina and pay his respects to the victims of the Ustasha terror, and while caring for the dead intentionally forget the living. "The mentioned statements aim at preventing or slowing down the return of the refugees, and certainly at hindering it as much as possible" agrees Veljak. "It is hard to say how deeply rooted is such policy among the refugees, but it certainly enjoys a strong support of the official Belgrade. Attempts at preventing the return, by making it as difficult as possible, and at spreading a negative image in Croatia are part of the policy from the Karadjordjevo agreement, policy of continuity, agreed war and agreed exchange of the population".

"It is a continuation of the agreement between Milosevic and Tudjman and this is simply the paying back of debts to partners in Croatia who are today losers. Despite political changes in Croatia, they want to prevent the return of refugees and, on the other hand, aim at provoking conflicts so as to cause instability and assist the renewal of partnership relations. Naturally, that is possible only if HDZ or HSP come to power in Croatia, although these parties are extremely anti-Serbian, at least verbally. However, brotherhood and unity, which were forged in Kiseljak during the war when oil was exchanged for arms, that brotherhood of the Croatian and Serbian extremists, remains at the level of day-to-day politics".

Veljak thinks that it is a pity that the new authorities did not condemn murders on the Island of Vir and in Western Slavonia which were politically motivated, but also thinks that the return process will not be significantly disrupted by them. "I think that deeds are more important than words", says Veljak. "As far as the return is concerned, I think that of exceptional importance is the soonest possible revision of laws which contain discriminating provisions and, on the other hand, the elimination of those individuals from local self-governing or state bodies who are still pursuing discrimination. What Assistant Minister Josko Paro, President of MVP, has recently promised is very important. He claimed that within a reasonable time period, each returnee will be informed whether he is on the list of persons suspected of acts that are not subject to pardon, which would prevent harassment of innocent people without any reason". Communal prefects who do not want to implement the law should be replaced with trustees", says Veljak.

Property, fear and obstruction of local authorities - these are the three main obstacles to the process of return - problems that Racan's Government will have to solve urgently in order to prove its credibility to the international community which, as it was said on several occasions, demands deeds instead of words. For the time being, the Government is behaving rather leisurely, in a rather opportunist manner and with unsatisfactory efficiency, and not only as regards the return or exiles. Two months are left for changes and removal of obstacles. Will Racan make it?

Original article