Refugees Magazine Issue 103 (IDPs) - Back to the future

Refugees Magazine, 1 March 1996

Of all UNHCR programmes involving the internally displaced, former Yugoslavia has perhaps been the most problematic and by far the biggest and most high-profile of them all.

By Victoria Graham, Mans Nyberg, Ron Redmond

Jela M. is building a brand new life in her old hometown, and UNHCR hopes that thousands more will soon follow her brave footsteps back to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

One day in April 1994, some 20 months before the Dayton Peace Agreement, the chain-smoking, straight-talking widow decided she could no longer tolerate life among Bosnia's estimated 1 million internally displaced persons. Jela and her son packed up their meagre belongings and headed back across the front lines of central Bosnia to their burned-out home in war-ravaged Travnik ignoring warnings that they would be among a very small minority of Bosnian Croats in a supposedly hostile, Muslim-controlled town.

"When I first came back, the police asked for my papers and registration and would have sent me back," recalled Jela, a big, exuberant woman always ready to opine on what ails Bosnia and the world. "But I told them, 'you fellows just try to stop me, if you dare and if you can!'"

Today, Jela and her son are staying in her brother's house in Travnik as she tries to scrape together enough money to fix up her own burned and roofless home next to a small plum orchard across the road. Life is difficult for a returnee, she says, but acknowledges it could be a lot worse.

"Apart from needing money and building materials, I have had no problems whatsoever," Jela said. "We have been well-treated."

Despite the bitter fighting that had raged between Muslims and Croats around Travnik, Jela and her Muslim neighbours got along fine upon her return. When she first arrived, one of her old Muslim friends stopped by to ask what she needed to get settled. "I didn't have a thing and I asked for kitchen utensils," she recalled. "He brought me everything. His simple gifts were like gold, and his friendship is like gold.

"The Croats and Muslims who were friends before are still friends," she added. "We are the same as before; I am the same. In the three parts of Bosnia Croat, Serb and Muslim there are many roses, but all this intrigue and war also brought out the weeds."

The world is hoping that the entire garden will soon be blooming with roses, and that stories like Jela's will become commonplace as UNHCR this spring begins one of the most complicated return and repatriation programmes it has ever conducted. Under the Dayton Agreement signed last December, UNHCR is responsible for the return and repatriation of more than 2 million people who were forced to flee their homes in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war. About half of them left Bosnia and became refugees, crossing international borders to seek safety in the neighbouring republics of former Yugoslavia and some 25 other countries outside the region. The other half remained internally displaced within Bosnia itself, often living in extremely difficult conditions.

Although repatriation will be a new and welcome facet of its work in Bosnia, UNHCR is not a newcomer to the region, nor is it new to the task of repatriation. From Cambodia to Guatemala and Mozambique, the agency has helped millions of refugees return home in recent years. And it has been the lead U.N. humanitarian agency in Bosnia and the neighbouring republics throughout the war, providing well over 1 million metric tons of assistance to more than 3.5 million beneficiaries in all five republics.

Of all UNHCR programmes involving internally displaced persons (IDPs), former Yugoslavia has perhaps been the most problematic and by far the biggest and most high-profile of them all. When UNHCR was asked by the Secretary-General to take the lead humanitarian role in the region in late 1991, few imagined that the conflict would grow so big, that the victims would eventually number so many, and that within months the programme would be costing UNHCR so much nearly $1 million a day.

To be sure, there were many misgivings within UNHCR from the very start, particularly among those who worried about the agency becoming deeply involved in an operation that dealt with IDPs in a Europe that was increasingly closing its borders to asylum-seekers. Critics said that by agreeing to work inside the country of origin helping people to remain at home or as close to home as possible UNHCR was in effect "containing" potential refugee movements and taking the pressure off asylum-weary European states. It was certainly very evident that donor governments were more than willing to ante up hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for UNHCR's in-country operations.

From an agency long used to protecting and assisting refugees once they had reached the relative safety of an asylum country, UNHCR soon found itself squarely in the middle of a war zone in the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. UNHCR humanitarian staff, most of whom had never worn a flak vest and helmet or ridden in an armoured vehicle, suddenly found themselves caught in the crossfire while trying to help, not refugees, but millions of IDPs and other "war affected" people in besieged communities like Sarajevo, Gorazde and Bihac. Twelve were killed in UNHCR operations, and dozens were wounded. By 1993, UNHCR found itself, for the first time in its 40-year-history, caring for almost the entire population of a country, in the midst of a conflict that the international community appeared powerless to stop. There seemed to be no way out.

One of the main lessons to be learned from Bosnia and one that High Commissioner Sadako Ogata repeatedly stressed is that UNHCR's humanitarian work must never be seen as a substitute for a political solution.

"Unfortunately, for much of the war, our humanitarian work did provide a far too convenient substitute for any significant political action aimed at actually stopping the bloodshed," said UNHCR's Sarajevo-based Special Envoy, Søren Jessen-Petersen. "While the international community spent four years grappling with the difficult questions of whether and how it should intervene, we humanitarian agencies and UNPROFOR (U.N. Protection Force) were left holding the fort in Bosnia. It's no secret that some of us felt used a humanitarian alibi for political inaction and indecision."

UNHCR is hoping that millions of people like Jela M. will start going home this spring when the return programme in Bosnia begins in earnest. Initially, most of the returnees are expected to be IDPs within Bosnia itself who will either go to their original homes a relatively straightforward proposition or relocate to other areas where they will be part of the majority. Those IDPs and refugees who wish to return to an area where they will be part of the minority ethnic group a much more complicated process are expected to move later.

For planning purposes, UNHCR is assuming that up to half of the 1 million IDPs in Bosnia, as well as some 370,000 refugees from outside Bosnia, could return in 1996. But those maximum planning figures are based on the assumption that the conditions for return will be optimal. This means that many other players domestic and international are going to have to carry out their responsibilities in the region; everything from implementing all the Dayton Accords to removing millions of mines and beginning a massive reconstruction and rehabilitation effort estimated at more than $5 billion.

In addition to the 1 million IDPs in Bosnia who receive help, UNHCR also aids another 1.4 million "war-affected" people inside the republic, many of whom still live in their original homes but who have no means of support. As the peace plan firmly takes hold, reconstruction progresses and the economy gathers steam, it is expected that the dependency of these beneficiaries will decrease and UNHCR will be able to increasingly shift its focus from relief to return.

The return programme is expected to take more than two years. UNHCR's budget for 1996 is $353 million, the biggest single portion of an 11-agency U.N. consolidated appeal seeking a combined total of $823 million for the year. Between half and three-quarters of UNHCR's portion is related to the return and repatriation programme.

One of the first UNHCR-assisted returns of internally displaced people took place in Sarajevo in early March when some 6,000 predominantly Muslim returnees began going back to their original homes in the Vogosca suburb of Sarajevo. Vogosca reverted from Bosnian Serb to Federation control, under the Dayton Agreement. Most of the Serbs left prior to the handover, often leaving nothing behind for the Muslims who would be returning to their homes. Under a $30 million emergency shelter programme, UNHCR provided the returnees with building and repair materials so they could make their damaged homes habitable.

But Muslims and Croats aren't the only IDPs in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Well over 400,000 Bosnian Serbs have also been displaced and are currently living in very difficult conditions throughout northern and eastern parts of the country. UNHCR has continually emphasized that programmes to rebuild Bosnia-Herzegovina must be even-handed or the whole peace process could be jeopardized.

In northern Bosnia's Banja Luka region, for example, there are an estimated 220,000 displaced Serbs 100,000 from Federation-controlled central Bosnia, and 120,000 who were displaced by fighting in western Bosnia in August and September of last year. These people are currently receiving assistance from UNHCR Banja Luka and other agencies, along with some 60,000 Serb refugees from nearby Croatia and more than 130,000 "war-affected" local residents who need help.

Of the 220,000 IDPs and 60,000 refugees in the Banja Luka region, some 264,000 live in private accommodation and 15,000 are in collective centres. All of them are anxious to begin rebuilding their lives.

By early March, an estimated 40,000 internally displaced people and refugees had returned to their homes in Bosnia. More than 10,000 refugees returned, with assistance from UNHCR, from the Kuplensko camp in Croatia to areas around Bihac and Velika Kladusa. And several thousand Serb IDPs in February began going back to their homes in the Mrkonjic Grad-Sipovo area of north-western Bosnia, which had just reverted to Republika Srpska control under the Dayton Agreement.

In early February, UNHCR field officers also confirmed that a handful of displaced Bosnian Serbs had returned to their hometown of Breza, in Federation territory. About 21,000 people currently live in Breza 20,000 of them Muslims. Only 270 of the original 5,000 Serbs who lived in the town remain. The few Serbs who had returned reported no major security problems. One Serb family found their house occupied by a displaced Muslim family. The two families sat down in the kitchen together and, over coffee, began discussing how they could solve their problems. Their ability to work together would be much appreciated by Jela M., back in Travnik, who is a firm believer in the common sense of the common man and woman.

"Those politicans who say they speak for us don't you believe them," Jela declared. "They don't speak for me and they don't speak for most people Muslim, Serb or Croat. We should put all those politicians in a room and let them fight it out among themselves. Then the rest of us could get on with our lives."

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 103 (1996)