INVESTIGATIVE REPORT: The Repatriation Struggle

Serbian refugees face a mountain of obstacles in attempting to return to Croatia

By Feral Tribune journalists in Croatia and Danas journalists in Yugoslavia (October, 2001)


In April this year, after six years in exile, Milica Romic, 50, returned to Lasinski Sjenicak, a village in the Kordun region of Croatia, which from 1991 to 1995 formed part of a break-away Serbian state, the self proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina, RSK.

The RSK collapsed in 1995, when the Croatian army launched two military operations against them, Bljesak (flash) and Oluja (storm). Fearing retribution from the returning Croats, at least 200,000 Croatian Serbs - almost the entire population of the Krajina - fled to both Yugoslavia and Republika Srpska.

Milica Romic was among them. Today, she is one of about 50,000 Serbs who have returned to Croatia, according to NGO data. Like most returnees, she came back to a home that had been wrecked and plundered, which she must repair herself.

The village - like most of the Serb villages in the Kordun area - still has no electricity supply. She survives on a small pension and humanitarian aid. The returnees are elderly. Their advanced years means they are less vulnerable to retribution from their Croatian neighbours and they wish to end their lives in the place where they were born, raised, and spent most of their lives.

"It's mostly the old people who return. I'm 50 and I'm one of the younger ones," said Milica Romic. The others, she explained, preferred to search for a new life in the US, Australia, and Western Europe.


According to official data, Yugoslavia, comprising Serbia and Montenegro, hosts 393,413 refugees. This figure includes Serb refugees from Bosnia and Kosovo. Only about 8 per cent live in the country's more than 400 collective centres. Less then 10 per cent live with relatives. The bulk are private tenants. As a community, they have a poor economic and social profile, with higher death rates than average.

Struggling to bring up their families, most work semi-legally in the "grey" economy. Some have now been in this position for ten years, ever since Croatia's independence from Yugoslavia, when the exodus of Croatian Serbs first began. "The only thing that keeps me going is hope... if I had no hope, I'd poison myself instantly," said a refugee from Petrinja, a small town south of Zagreb. He declined to give his name "just to be on the safe side".

He lives in a refugee centre called Trmbas, in Kragujevac, in central Serbia, with 96 others. Unlike some Croatian Serb leaders who started new lives in Belgrade with substantial amounts of money, most refugees brought only what they could carry in their hands. Their houses and land remained behind.

Even if they still possess their deeds and other property documents, they have no automatic right to return to their home if it is occupied, or to get compensation. This will remain the case until the six republics of the former Yugoslav Federation sign an agreement on the division of its assets.

According to Ratko Jovanovic, head of Kragujevac's humanitarian affairs office, an agreement has been initialed but will have to wait for a long process of ratification in all the national parliaments.

Some refugees in Trmbas have been forced to move house several times. Dusan Kordic, 51, left his home in Sunj near Sisak, south of Zagreb, in June, 1991, for another family property in the Serb-held Krajina near Kostajnica, on the Croatian-Bosnian border.

After operation Oluja, the family fled to Suva Reka in the Serbian province of Kosovo. After the 1999 NATO air strikes against the Yugoslav army in Kosovo, most Serbs fled from the province. The Kordic family had to shift once more, this time to the camp at Trmbas, where they now share a single room with a family of three. They maintain a little privacy in this tiny space by suspending blankets across the room.

Dusan Kordic has revisited his home in Sunj. But he found it occupied by a Croat who "does not intend to move". His second home in Komogovina, near Kostajnica, is a wreck. Even the floors, doors and windows had been removed.

"We filed a claim for the return of our property to the local authorities in Sunj last November," he said. "They promised to resolve our demands in a month, but nothing has happened.

"Now we just want compensation as we are no longer planning to return to Croatia. Even if their government allows us back on our land, what will the Croatian neighbours say or do? If we can't stay in Kragujevac we wish to move to a third country."

The regime in the camp at Trmbas is grim. "This is not life, this is survival, we live like animals," said the Petrinja refugee. For him, the past ten years have been a bitter process of political re-education, which has substantially altered his old feelings about Serbia and Croatia.

"I loved Serbia before and I don't hate it now, but I should have respected Croatia - the land I came from," he said. "We were victims of a political fraud. We realise that but now we can do nothing to help ourselves."

His room-mates agree on the horror of their new life in the country they always used to think of as their home. "We're not used to living like this," said a middle-aged woman who lives there with her husband and three daughters. "We are forced to live with cockroaches and mice, with no money and no jobs, in damp rooms with one meal a day."


Croatia's new left of centre government under Prime Minister Ivica Racan is more cooperative with the international community over the issue of returnees than the former nationalist Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, government of Franjo Tudjman.

The HDZ, which governed throughout the 1990s, took no steps to encourage Serbs who had left the country to return. For example, years after operation Oluja, hundreds of villages in Kordun, such as Lasinjski Sjenicak, have still not had their electric power reconnected.

Djuro Milosevic, a human rights activist in Karlovac, accuses the government of repairing only one Croatian Serb home since operation Oluja and says this was an accident. "It was probably a mistake since the woman who received help for rebuilding her house was in a mixed marriage," he said.

Whenever the reconstruction of Serbs' homes is discussed in the Croatian parliament, he says, the HDZ deputies, now in opposition, complain of special treatment for Serbs, which they say comes at the expense of ethnic Croat and Bosnian Croat refugees.

A visit to the Kordun area reinforces Djuro Milosevic's gloomy claims. Most returnees appear to be grandparents in the 50-plus age bracket, living in remote areas and returning to devastated homes. Often they do not have windows.

According to the Human Rights Board in Karlovac, the returnees can only count on foreign humanitarian organisations to help rebuild their homes. But fewer such groups now operate in Croatia. Furthermore, they will only help rebuild private properties. In contrast to the situation in Bosnia, Croatia's housing regulations do not entitle refugees to return to state-owned apartments. This is why most returnees are villagers. The thousands of refugees from the town of Karlovac itself have no chance of going home.

Jelka Glumicic, head of the Human Rights Board in Donji Lapac, a remote municipality which before 1995 had an almost entirely ethnic Serb population, says the housing bureaucracy is what makes life most difficult for returnees. "Governments change but the obstruction remains," she said. "The Serbs want to return and in Kordun as many as 90 per cent have come back. But with no help from the government it's not possible to do much. People can't return to burned down villages even if they want to."

She says the change in government in Croatia at the start of 2000 has had no effect on the local authority housing departments, which manage the allocation of state apartments. "They are all working against the returning of refugees and people are losing their patience. They have already been waiting for five years to get their houses repaired and they are desperate," she said.

Glumicic complained that some Bosnian Croat refugees who have been living in Serb homes in Croatia have been hanging on to these houses in spite of the fact that their old homes in Bosnia have been returned to them.

Nena Zigic, a lawyer in Korenica, another municipality in the Krajina, agrees that the hostility of the local authority housing departments is the main obstacle to returnees. So far, about 20 per cent of Serb refugees have returned their homes in Korenica. "Since the election nothing has changed. The housing committees still act the same way as before," she said.

"They make things worse. Even when the returnees fill out all the necessary papers, the local authorities often return them, claiming that they still lack something."

About 25 per cent of refugees have so far received Croatian identity papers. According to the chairman of the Association of Serbs from Croatia and Krajina, Petar Dzodan, without a citizenship certificate, identity papers and a passport, the procedure for the return of property cannot be initiated.

Apart from administrative obstacles to the return of property, anxiety over personal security is another disincentive to returnees. Many fear they could be arrested for war crimes committed during the "Serbian Krajina" regime. The new government in Croatia has already arrested around 50 of those under suspicion of war crimes.

The media in both Croatia and Serbia has increased this unease. When the Belgrade weekly Ilustrovana Politika published last year a list of 2,800 Serbs suspected of war crimes committed in Croatia, it caused great unease among the refugees and almost halted the process of repatriation.


Not all returnees have encountered insuperable problems. Milan and Nada Savatovic, from Obljaja, near Donji Lapac, returned with their two sons three years ago. About 40 per cent of the pre-war population has now gone back to this municipality.

The Savatovic family found their house had been burned to the ground. Too young for retirement, they restarted their business life with a stray goat they found tied to a tree. Today they have 50 goats. Nada and Milan are still nowhere close to renovating their home. But their younger son now attends courses in tourist management in Opatija, an Adriatic resort. Theirs is a story of partially successful re-integration into Croatia.

"I will do everything in my power to put him through that school," said Nada Savatovic. "His accommodation alone costs 518 kuna (135 German marks) per month but we will have to manage because we have no choice. It's possible to start from scratch if you really want to." She is irritated by refugees who expect to find everything as it was when they left. "They should come here and see how it is," she said. "I came back with two children and everything was wrecked. We still cannot rebuild the home, so we live in another person's house. We lack legal papers, but that's OK. We are not giving up."


Yugoslavia supports the return of the refugees if it is voluntary. The state is committed to helping returns through bilateral contracts with Croatia and with aid from European countries. It also says that it increasingly supports the integration of remaining refugees into the host society.

From 1990 until the start of 2001, only 40,000 citizenship applications were granted. But in the last few months, as many as 80,000 people received Yugoslav citizenship. This is in stark contrast to the situation in Republika Srpska where no steps are being taken to integrate refugees into the society.

But Sanda Raskovic-Ivic, director of the Serbia's refuge commissariat, and Petar Ladjevic, advisor on refugee issues to Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, say Serbia's attitude to refugees has changed only in that it now respects the right of refugees to stay in Yugoslavia.

Speaking after a visit to Zagreb, Raskovic-Ivic also complained that Croatia was holding up a European Union-mediated agreement to assist refugee returns to Croatia.

"The Croatian authorities refuse to sign deals that would ensure the return of refugees and be legally binding on Croatia," she said.

Ladjevic said the security issue was still important. "There are very few successful returns and there is a lot of obstruction, including arrests," he said. "Sometimes people are arrested and indicted as war criminals years after they returned."

Serbia estimates it needs 13 million US dollars for refugee aid each year. An impoverished country, it needs the funds to provide food, maintain collective refugee centres, health care, schooling and aid for the elderly and newborn.

Both the Serbian and Yugoslav governments believe the long-term solution must include the greater involvement of European governments in financing repatriation projects, as well as granting long-term credits for housing.


The Croatian government has comparable problems. Although not as impoverished as Serbia, the country is in the throes of an economic crisis and has high unemployment. A weak coalition government, already buffeted by the nationalist right over its handling of The Hague war crimes issue, fears similar accusations over its handling of the refugee issue.

While Serb refugees want their issues addressed, there is popular pressure in Croatia for the government to concentrate on housing about 20,000 ethnic Croat refugees from the Krajina whose houses in the Vukovar, Petrinja, Pakrac and Karlovac municipalities were burned down under the rebel Krajina regime and who still remain homeless.

Rebuilding is going slower then planned, as a result of which many of these internal refugees remain in Croatian Serb homes.

As a result, although the return of Croatian Serb property is accepted as inevitable, it remains deeply contentious in practice and is strongly opposed by the opposition HDZ.


Between their home country, Croatia, which does not want them back, and their new homeland in Serbia, which cannot afford to support them, the refugees feel caught between a rock and a hard place.

The guns have long since stopped firing but a host of bureaucratic obstacles impede their return to Croatia. Chief among these is the resistance of the local authority housing departments to re-allocate Serbs to their former flats and houses. Many also fear for their personal security.

The only good news for the refugees remaining in Yugoslavia is that as the country opens up to the world, there are better options for local integration or repatriation under European supervision.

But for the old it is probably too late. "Luckily I don't have much longer to live," said Sava Lesic, from Ramljane, close to Knin. "I hope that when I die, no one asks me again who I am and where I'm from."

This report was compiled by Boris Raseta, Ognjen Alujevic and Igor Lasic, from the Split-based Feral Tribune, together with Bojan Toncic, Zoran Radovanovic, Natasa Bogovic and Jelka Jovanovic from Danas in Belgrade.