Croatian Serbs going home after five years

STARA GRADISKA, Jun 25, 2000 -- (AFP) Only an anxious look in the eyes of Ana Pozar, as she stares from a window of the rattling, overheated bus taking her home, reveals the importance of this day for the 93-year-old Croatian Serb.

"All I want is to live long enough to get there, and then I can die in peace," whispered the tiny old woman wearing a black kerchief.

She is in a group of 23 Croatian Serbs, mostly sexagenarians, returning to the homes they fled in August 1995 during a Croatian offensive to recapture the territory, occupied by Serb secessionist forces.

They are returning from the Bosnian Serb entity of Republika Srpska (RS) where they lived in Muslim houses, until their owners started to return.

Ana's son Nikola, 69, and his wife Draginja, 67, visited their house in the village of Klinac Grad, near Petrinja, last year.

"I cried my eyes out. Everything was taken away," Draginja recalls, describing the first visit back to the house which was lacking electricity and water, windows and doors.

"We are returning 300 years back in the past," Nikola said, adding that they had applied for reconstruction assistance.

Pozar's younger relatives are not going back home, an is often the case with returning families.

In the areas they are returning to, unemployment is running at around 90 percent, according to UN refugee agency (UNHCR) spokesman Andrej Mahecic.

"It does not matter if you are a Croat or a Serb," Mahecic said, adding that reconstruction, repossession of property and restitution of property rights remain key issues for the return.

Croatia's new pro-European authorities have pledged to meet the international community's demand to see changes in discriminatory legislation regarding the return and repossession of the property of Serb refugees.

In early June the parliament adopted amendments to the law on reconstruction, recognizing the right to reconstruction of those who were registered as living in Croatia in 1991, previously restricted to Croatian citizens only.

That had been an administrative obstacle for Serb refugees facing difficulties in getting Croatian documents.

"Although the return is solely a humanitarian question, it does not happen in a vacuum," Mahecic said, adding that political changes in the country were "favorable to an atmosphere of normalization of relations" between ethnic communities.

"As I watch the news I hope that better days are coming," said Milica Dragiljevic, 43, returning to Dvor.

According to UNHCR figures some 42,000 Croatian Serbs have returned from Yugoslavia, Bosnia and elsewhere to their pre-war homes, including 6,018 this year.

Combined with some 31,700 Croatian Serbs, displaced in eastern Croatia, who returned to their homes in other parts of the country it brings the total number of minority returnees to some 73,000.

Some 280,000 Croatian Serbs fled the country during and after the 1991-95 conflict, according to UNHCR figures.

In a bid to demonstrate a political will to encourage the returns, Croatian Foreign Minister Tonino Picula and Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik pledged in March to enable the return of 2,000 refugees on each side within three months.

The first figures released by both sides claim pretty good results.

Croatian figures showed that permission to return had been granted to 2,013 Serbs, of whom 722 had actually returned.

Over the same period 984 Bosnian Croats have returned to the RS, with an additional 1,173 approved for return, according to Bosnian Serb figures.

Original article