Transmission of Friday 29 August at 21.30 CET on Europe by Satellite, Re-transmission on Saturday 30 August 2003 – 9.30 CET

Do Serbs return to Croatia?

Commentary and interviews

Postcard from Croatia. This summer, the beaches of the Adriatic coast were full of tourists again. Thousands of them travelled to Croatia from all over Europe, to enjoy the natural beauty of a country trying to build up its image as one of the most popular European tourist destinations.

But only a few kilometres away from the crowded beach, the country offers a different picture and reality. This is the village of Kasic near Benkovac, completely destroyed during the 1991-1995 war and abandoned for many years now. The village is still full of reminders of the tragedy that happened here: a monument to the Croatian soldiers who died in the fights, traces of clashes and warnings of minefields. The inhabitants, mostly Serbian, fled to seek refuge in Serbia.

Some of them were recently offered a chance to return. Supported by the European Union, the German NGO ASB cleared a big part of the village from mines, found the trace of the people who fled, and invited them to come and see their native village. For those expressing a clear wish to return after this visit, ASB offered to help rebuild houses.
Stojan Drca was among the first to discuss the possibility of return with his fellowmen.

Stojan Drca, Serb returnee

Most of them told me they wanted to return, and I made a list, and handed it to those guys in Knin (ASB office), and here we are working on it for already one year.

Drago Drca, Serb returnee

I used to transport loads of paprika, tomatoes and water melons from this village to Rijeka, Pula, Zagreb, Ljubljana, Karlovac - everywhere - more transports than I have hair on my head. I had my own lorry, here's my vehicle registration and driving license.

It's mostly elderly people who want to return, but here twenty younger families have also registered for the project. To rebuild their houses, ASB first had to provide the documents and permits as part of the necessary procedure. The procedure lasts for months, sometimes years, and the returnees often can't go through it without assistance.

David Haines, the chief of ASB's office in Knin, is trying to breathe life into the abandoned villages. It's not an easy task in a region traumatized by war, where Serbian returnees are not always welcome. Trying to build a consensus on return within the local community, ASB contacted the president of the association of Croatian war veterans in Benkovac and explained that they are working for the benefit of the whole community rather than some particular groups.

Croatian war veteran

It is said that this area of Benkovac is a conflict area, that Croats and Serbs can't get along well - it's absolute nonsense. Down there, my first neighbour is Orthodox, and we talk. Me as an ex-Croatian soldier in special forces and other boys, my fellowmen, we don't mind. Don't touch me and nobody will touch you. It' simple - but it's those politicians talking nonsense..

At official level, ASB closely cooperates with municipal authorities. In cooperation with the Mayor of Knin, the main city of this war-torn region, many infrastructure projects have been carried out to facilitate life of all citizens and improve the economic situation - the town's water reservoir, the upgrading of the fire service. It makes no sense to work on return if you don't work in the interest of the whole community which already lives in difficult conditions. Here in Knin, the unemployment rate is almost 40 %.

Vinko Maric, Mayor of Knin

The projects that we presented to ASB are really for the benefit of all the citizens of Knin, no matter what their nationality is, take for example the reconstruction of the city market, which was in bad conditions, the city didn't have the means to rebuild it. We present our problems to ASB, and we offer them all our expert services, our logistics, so that they can obtain all the necessary papers for their activities.

The beautiful landscape in the Knin region could also become attractive for tourists, if only there were not all those scars of war. This is the village of Cetina, in which ASB is already rebuilding a few houses. As in many other places in Croatia, this one lacks basic infrastructure. ASB's work here started with connecting the electricity. Out of hundred villagers living here before the war, today there are only a few. For many of those who had to flee, return is not an option. They simply don't see how they could come back.

David Haines, ASB in Knin

There are many people who do want to return but just don't know how and don't know who to turn to. In doing this, our office normally goes across to Belgrade and actually meets the people so they can gain trust from us, so that when they say :`my house is next to the church, we can relate to that and understand exactly where the house is.` This instils trust into the beneficiary, that we are not lying, and we are not just another organisation…

On the other side of the border, in Serbia, many villagers from Cetina, as well as thousands of other refugees from other areas still live in harsh living conditions in collective centres. Djuro Ostojic from Cetina has been living with his family here, in the refugee centre near Stara Pazova in Vojvodina, for eight years. He has been thinking about returning to his hometown but he doubts whether life will return so easily to the abandoned village.

Djuro Ostojic, refugee in Serbia

`For a start, the village must have electricity. Then, they should build a school and open a store. As for the job, I don't know how we could get some job, how to find some job? To start cattle-breeding, you need money, you have to buy one hundred sheep and two or three cows if you want to live on it, I don't know...`

The return process begins at a common meeting like this one (in the Serbian Democratic Forum office in Belgrade) where ASB's staff from Croatia and Serbia, together with interested refugees, try to establish their rights and possibilities. The first thing is to listen patiently to each individual case.

Robin Sluyk, ASB Belgrade

`We still focus mainly on people living in collective centres. Because the situation there is very, very, bad and as you may know, the Serbian government is keen on closing a certain number of collective centres and that's our role here: to visit these centres, to see which people want to stay and for these people we might have a solution in providing them with a sustainable future which means putting a roof above their heads, that's where it starts for us: whether it's return to Croatia and Bosnia or whether it's integration into Serbia. First people need a place where they can live.`

To provide shelter for everyone is still a serious challenge for all the governments in the region. Here in Zagreb, the Government often faced criticism for not giving enough assistance or even prevent Serbs to come back. Lately, Croatia has become more active in giving support to return, but there is still a long way to go to complete the process.

Lovre Pejkovic
Croatian government's Directorate for Expelled Persons, Returnees, and Refugees

`Most of the people had one idea on their minds when they applied for the house rebuilding project - the state will rebuild their house, and they will sell it then. But the law is preventing that. When they become aware of this, they hesitate to sign the contract. They will sign it sooner or later if they really want to return, and the state will fulfill its obligations and rebuild their houses.`

The return process may seem like an administrative minefield. In reality, the first step to return in many parts of Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, is still real demining. When people express the wish to go home, ASB first has to literally take away the mines before reconnecting to water and electricity networks.
The next move is house reconstruction and then economic assistance, so that people can have something to live on. Wolfgang Gressmann, ASB's chief for the Balkans believes that ASB, with its integrated approach, creates a space for the Croatian and other governments to take over the process of return even in areas where it seems impossible.

Wolfgang Gressmann, ASB Regional Director

`When it comes to our role I would like to emphasise that I believe that ASB is an excellent example how civil society can act as a catalyst between the international Community, the government, the beneficiaries, local communities and local non-governmental organisations. And in this sense we are connecting people, we are connecting governments and we are bringing the donor closer to the beneficiaries.`

If ASB believes return is possible in Benkovac in the region of Knin, it is because it worked here in Pakrac, in Western Slavonia, an equally war-torn region where there seemed to be no hope for return before ASB came in. Entering the village of Kusonje, one comes across the monument to the Croatian policemen killed in 1991. Memories of the crime were still fresh, the village was ruined and full of minefields, when in 1997 ASB started returning people to Kusonje.

Rebuilding houses and infrastructure for both Serbs and Croats, they won the confidence of the local authorities and villagers. Full dedication to each individual case produced results. More than two hundred houses were rebuilt in this area. The Drekovic family returned in 1998. Nikica Drekovic found a job and his children go to school.

Nikica Drekovic, Serb returnee

`We were aware that there could be some provocations, that such things might happen, but luckily there were none, really, I work in that firm, there are many Serbs and Croats, and Italians, and we have no problems..`

Veljko Dzakula, Serbian Democratic Forum in Pakrac

`I think that the project was very good because now in the village we have Serbs and Croats who live again normally and have a common community council, they communicate again, it means that people are sensible and aware of things, they probably feel embarrassed when they think about what they allowed to happen between themselves, all the destruction and killing, and I hope that they will keep thinking about it and that they will never allow it to happen again.`

If you want to achieve return to places where it seems impossible, the most important is to gain the trust of the people you work for. Aleksandra Basta from ASB in Daruvar knows each family personally, and all the problems they are going through.

Aleksandra Basta, ASB Daruvar

It is our strong wish to help these people that always pushes us to move on. When I remember how it was when we started, even to me it looks unreal now… but I think we had a good cooperation. We were perceived as good and positive and that's what helped.`

Back to the field. Today, the place with the highest tensions and the most difficult climate for return is Kosovo. Here also, ASB applies the same model to demonstrate that, despite the context, return is possible. In the village of Novake near Prizren, 61 Serbian families are to return to their rebuilt houses, but it's the unique example of collective return to Kosovo. This was possible only after a careful planning and checking reactions in the neighbouring Albanian villages.

Bill Foxton, ASB Prizren, Kosovo

I think that, because of the composition of the surrounding villages, with different ethnic and religious backgrounds, there is a will for people to return. We were in negotiations with all villages, there are nine villages in the surroundings, and nobody opposed it. Nobody stood up and said - we don't want this to happen.

Return is successful if it is perceived as a benefit for the entire community. With its personal and committed approach, ASB opens up windows of opportunities for people to return home. The key challenge is now for the governments of the region to take over and build upon ASB's pioneer work.