Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1996
Mária Cierna, a Bratislava-based UNHCR Public Information Officer, gets her first taste of field work escorting refugees back to Bosnia.
By Mária Cierna
UNHCR Public Information Officer – Bratislava, Slovakia
It is the hardest day so far on my new job – taking care of 77 refugees returning to Bosnia.
It is 9 a.m. and a cold wind is blowing on the Croatian-Bosnian border, in a small mountain village called Kamensko. Women, children and elderly people, who have filled every seat on two buses, are exhausted. They do not understand why they have to wait so long in a place which is so close to their homeland – yet they do not complain. Four years of war have taught them to wait and suffer in silence. They have pictured this moment many times. Just a few more hours and they will be home.
Border officials are seeking huge customs duties for the truck transporting the refugees' worn-out possessions. It's the third major problem we've faced since yesterday's departure. Last night, a Bosnian returnee was detained at the Hungarian-Croatian border and not allowed to continue the journey. And the Bosnian representative in Split, who was supposed to take responsibility for the group, never showed up.
And now, they want to collect money from the returnees, who don't have a penny! Realizing this, the customs officer runs to me and says UNHCR has to pay. It is obvious that we're going to be stuck here a long time.
At noon, I wonder how long the food we've distributed to the returnees will last. The kids have already eaten the sweets and fruits; the adults took care of the bread and pepperoni. Children who ate all of their food are squinting at kids who still have something left. If they keep us waiting here, there won't be enough food for the journey to eastern Bosnia. If only we could cross the border.
It's now 2 p.m. Nurja and Ajsa M., a married couple in their mid-seventies, are the most silent and patient people on the bus. Quietly, they watch every move of the border officials. They long to go back, to hug their children and grandchildren after four years of separation. "It wasn't bad in Slovakia," they tell me. "We had enough to eat, a heated room, clean laundry. But when your own people are not with you, you have no one to live for."
Rabija Z, a middle-aged woman with two children, sits in front of the old couple. She stares blankly out the window. She is very sad. Nobody is waiting for her at home. She once had a husband whom she loved, a house where they used to live, children. She has lost a lot. She's coming back home a widow. She cries. Her little boy, playing in the aisle, runs to her and hugs her. He wipes away her tears with his small hands.
At 3 p.m., a young customs officer with an unpleasant demeanour tells me to follow him to a small café. I don't know why, but I fear this man. He orders some drinks and inquires about my work. Then he starts talking about himself and the reasons he hasn't married. He eats a sandwich. I think about the lack of food for the returnees.
The customs officer notices that I am nervous. Nevertheless, he keeps saying strange things. Finally, he gets to the point. He informs me that he has decided to arrange our crossing. We won't have to pay anything – he's going to arrange that with his supervisors in Mostar. He finds my embarassment funny. He finally allows me to leave the table. I keep trembling all the way to the bus.
Very quickly, at 3:30 p.m., we move refugees' bags from the truck to two buses belonging to a Bosnian company. We divide people into two groups. The first convoy will go to Kljuc, Bosanski Petrovac, Bihac and Sarajevo. The other will go from Maglaj through Zenica, Tuzla and Zvornik to the eastern Bosnian town of Gradacac.
A few minutes after 4 p.m., we finally cross into Bosnia. I am proud to accompany the very first organized group of Bosnian returnees from Europe. The beautiful, mountainous area is covered with snow, but the country is devastated by war. The returnees are emotional, and many are unable to chase away their tears. Soon they will be home.
Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (1996)