Retired police officer Milic Djakula, 68, had tears in his faded blue eyes as he recalled the home where, until recently, he had lived all his life. “The best thing about it was the wonderful garden. I loved the trees, the fresh air. Friends in the navy used to bring me back plants.” Now, in the offices of the Helsinki Committee in Belgrade—where hundreds of people crowd daily to fill in unofficial claim forms for the property they left behind—his frail body shook. “I want to go back home,” he said. “Each man wants to die where he was born. I want that too.”
Last week’s Bosnian peace accord in Dayton, Ohio, should, in theory, make Djakula’s dream possible—a dream shared by some three million other refugees. The agreement
provides for their return, whatever their nationality—Muslim, Serb, Croat or a mixture. But, as so often in the Yugoslav wars, the agreement on paper does not quite match the realities on the ground. Djakula’s yearning to return to his house outside Knin in the Krajina region of Croatia, 400 km away, may never be realized.
The past, as many people in ex-Yugoslavia are now learning, is a different country—the postwar place where it was possible for different ethnic groups to live side by side. That country is gone. Djakula fled Krajina last summer along with 200,000 other Serbs, in the face of a Croatian advance. Many of the Serbian houses in the region have been burned or destroyed. Others have been given to Croatian refugees driven out by Serbs. The hatreds and emotions stirred by the horrors of the Yugoslav wars—massacres, ethnic cleansing, neighbor turning against neighbor—have divided the region along ethnic lines that are not just physical. They are also burned into people’s souls.
“I would never accept a Muslim back into this town—not after what they did. They
murdered my husband. I used to have Muslim friends, but not any more,” said one embittered Bosnian Serb woman in the eastern Bosnian town of Zvornik, which was once 60-per-cent Muslim but was ethnically cleansed by Serbian forces three years ago. She said Serbs, many of them refugees, have moved into Muslim houses and that they “will never give them up—the town council gave them the right to be there.”
The UN High Commission for Refugees says it is preparing for the mass return of displaced people from March next year as guaranteed by the Dayton agreement. But it is unclear how many will go back. Up to 3.2 million people are thought to be refugees. Those who have registered, numbering 2.6 million, include 1.3 million in Bosnia,
600.000 in neighboring republics and
700.000 in the rest of Europe.
Officials say the probable outcome
is a de facto exchange of population. “We stress that people will have to go back voluntarily,” says Belgrade’s UNHCR spokeswoman, Tina Andersen. “But if people do not want to go back because of traumatic experiences, we will look at local reintegration in the places where they are.” An international conference in London in December is expected to set up a program governing the reconstruction of property and the return of refugees.
The human dramas of the coming months promise to be intense. “This is a terrible agreement,” said Dusan Grbic, a 24-year-old Bosnian Serb who lives in the Vogosca district of Sarajevo. His district, now in Bosnian
Authorities on all sides in the conflict routinely give “abandoned” houses to refugees. In some areas, the real owners are likely to return to stake their claim, with potentially explosive results. This is especially so, say refugee officials, in Eastern Slavonia, the last slice of Croatia still in rebel Serbian hands. Under the terms of the Dayton agreement, Croatia is to regain control of the region with the backing of NATO forces. The main city, Vukovar, was the site of the worst fighting of the Croatia war. Thousands of Serbian refugees from Bosnia and other areas of Croatia have since moved in. “I’m afraid there is going to be some bloody fighting,” says one UN official. “Croatian refugees want to move back in and they are full of bitterness against the Serbs—I don’t see how the two can ever live together again.”
Serb hands, will be put under the control of the Muslim-Croat federation. “I hope our leaders will fight it. But if they don’t, I will have to leave. It will be terrible, difficult. But I would not be able to stay.”
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