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End of an era as UNHCR closes local offices in Croatia

News Stories, 7 January 2004

© UNHCR/A.Hollmann
At the height of the war in Croatia, UNHCR relied on ferries to transport aid convoys to coastal areas cut off by fighting. Today, the refugees' needs have changed but are no less challenging.

KNIN, Croatia, Jan 7 (UNHCR) The last days of 2003 marked the end of an era for the UN refugee agency as it closed its three remaining field offices in Croatia in recognition that local relief agencies and the government are now meeting many of the needs of asylum seekers and refugees.

Croatia has undergone enormous changes since 1991, when UNHCR first arrived in a country then fighting for independence.

Initially operating out of quarters within a historic Austro-Hungarian military barracks in the Croatian capital, Zagreb, the agency relocated its premises several times as its operation expanded. Eventually it established 10 offices throughout the country, with hundreds of staff members working to protect the rights of traumatised refugees and overseeing convoys of trucks crossing frontlines to deliver relief aid.

After such a dramatic decade, a sea change is the only way to describe the refugee agency's closure of its three local offices in Knin, Sisak and Osijek at the end of 2003, all located in cities once on the frontlines of war zones and crowded with victims of the conflict.

In the early 1990s, the former Yugoslavia became the centre of Europe's largest relief operation since the end of the Second World War as fighting also erupted in Croatia's neighbouring state of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

During the years of war, UNHCR protected people fleeing for their lives. This was no easy task in a region that gave birth to the phrase "ethnic cleansing", coined to describe the brutal efforts by various parties to carve out territory at the expense of civilians.

UNHCR workers, most of them local staff, risked their lives on a daily basis to protect and assist refugees amid the worst of the fighting. A number of the agency's staff and humanitarian partners lost their lives in the process.

The period saw UNHCR face one of its most trying moments as it worked to deliver aid to some 3.5 million of people throughout the former Yugoslavia in a vast operation directed from its regional headquarters in the Croatian capital.

As the region's wars grew in intensity, UNHCR staff often worked through the night to assist refugees, sometimes carrying war victims off trucks that had brought the "ethnically cleansed" straight from concentration camps.

UNHCR brought in international non-governmental organisations to help, and built up national agencies in Croatia to cope with the needs of hundreds of thousands of displaced persons and a flood of refugees arriving from neighbouring states. Government counterparts were given useful training to augment their skills in dealing with asylum seekers and refugees.

The signing of the Dayton peace agreement in late 1995 brought new stability to much of the region, allowing UNHCR to focus on the return and reintegration of refugees in Croatia. By the end of 2003, over 100,000 Croatian Serbs had returned to their homes, while an estimated 230,000 internally displaced persons had also gone back.

In order to mobilise further support from the international community for the sustainable return of refugees to Croatia's hinterland, the agency recently organised a visit for donor country representatives and aid organisations to areas of return in central Croatia's Lika region.

The trip was more than just a briefing on the state of returns by minority groups like Croatian Serbs and the need to support sustainable return and rehabilitation initiatives. It also enabled the diplomats to come face to face with the challenges facing some 220,000 Croatian Serbs who remain in exile, mostly in Serbia and Montenegro.

"For most of us, this visit was indeed the last field trip in our official capacity," said Segolene Adam of UNHCR's Knin office. "The returnees we visited were sometimes very old acquaintances who came back with the first repatriation convoys to Krbava field near Udbina with UNHCR assistance."

The officials encountered an old woman now living under the stairs of her family's destroyed house in Bobodol in Drnis. This helped them put a human face on the enormous need for rehabilitation and development assistance that still exists in rural regions far from the thriving capital.

"There is a feeling of achievement when we see that some of them managed little by little to rebuild their lives since they returned in 1997 and finally, in 2003, obtained the assistance from the state to reconstruct their homes," said Adam.

The delegation that toured the Lika region late last year visited an old couple in the hamlet of Krbava who had just returned to the area. Their own home was destroyed during the conflict, so they must live in a friend's house that lacks proper windows and doors, as well as electricity. Reconstructing their house will take at least two years since they must go through lengthy legal procedures to prove ownership.

The couple have so far only received UNHCR assistance in the form of stoves and plastic sheeting distributed by the Croatian Red Cross. They must rely on support from a son and neighbours who are themselves lacking adequate resources.

Despite the progress elsewhere in Croatia, conditions have not improved much for today's destitute returnees in the hinterland. However, they take pride in their decision to return home and be part of a new Croatia, flashing smiles at the visiting diplomats and UNHCR staff.

The closure of UNHCR's Knin, Sisak and Osijek offices does not mean that returnees are being abandoned. UNHCR will continue to visit the areas from its Zagreb headquarters and work through local partners to ensure that needs are addressed. The agency is also working to ensure that local structures will provide humanitarian and legal assistance to refugees and internally displaced persons going back to zones ravaged by the country's independence war.

The successful reintegration of returning refugees also depends on reviving Croatia's economy. Many people return to economically depressed rural areas and face high unemployment. UNHCR encourages international development organisations and donors to support the reconstruction of infrastructure in return areas, and to establish income generation and other schemes that will help rebuild returnee communities.

© UNHCR/A.Hollmann
Refugees from Bosnia queuing up to receive assistance from UNHCR in Gasinci camp, Croatia.

Among other challenges for UNHCR in the near future is the development of a national asylum system that meets international standards. The agency will also provide advice for the government's efforts to bring its refugee protection mechanisms in line with neighbours in the European Union.

Twelve years after arriving in the country, UNHCR is now back in the square opposite its one-time headquarters in a former army barracks where the movie, "The Tin Drum" was filmed.

Like the life of the young protagonist in Gunter Grass' famous novel about life and displacement in war-time eastern Germany, the refugee agency has also gone through many horrors and seen some triumphs in its work in the young south-eastern European state. The continuing needs of Croatia's refugees and returnees will ensure that UNHCR stands by them for some time to come.

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