Refugees Magazine, 1 September 1997
Bosnia's first post-war movie is titled 'The Perfect Circle' and is playing to packed audiences. Civilians and soldiers alike have been mesmerised by reliving their war experiences on screen; some instinctively duck for cover during the movie's mortar attacks, remembering the never-to-be-forgotten whistle of incoming shells, but others shrug that the movie can never do full justice to the terror. 'I was in the real movie when God was on vacation,'shrugs Aida, a UNHCR employee in Sarajevo.
God may be back from vacation, but two years after Bosnian, Croatian and Serb leaders signed the Dayton Peace Agreement, international officials describe the peace effort as akin to a 'patient on a life support system.'
True, as many as 400,000 refugees and displaced people have returned to their pre-war homes. They include a sizeable number who have taken the biggest gamble of all – returning to areas where they are now in a minority, principally to the Bosniak Croat Federation. Several federation towns have embraced UNHCR's 'open cities' project which rewards areas encouraging minority return with additional aid. 'We may not have made enough progress, but thanks to Dayton I'm home again, freezing of course, but it's one hell of a feeling' says Rahela who recently returned to Bosnia after living for three years in Israel.
But for an estimated 1.5 million people scattered across Bosnia, Croatia, Yugoslavia and Western Europe, the prospects of an early return are still bleak. Annex 7 of the Dayton accord guarantees everyone the right to return to their former homes but this particular annex is perhaps the least implemented part of the Agreement. 'Dayton is still in Ohio,' says one UNHCR official and Azra, a Sarajevan whose gutted apartment lies in a former frontline area still in dispute, adds bitterly: 'What's Dayton good for, if two years later I am still unable to go back to my place?'
Returnees face a veritable minefield of obstacles, often literally. Bosnia's rural landscape is awash with hundreds of thousands of deadly mines and other explosives. Travellers use only a few selected corridor roads, but even on those their vehicles are often stoned. UNHCR's inter-entity bus lines are popular because they are considered as a reasonably safe method of crossing the dividing line but troops from the NATO-led stabilization force were deployed several times this year to protect returnees from attack and renewed expulsion.
The picture is bleakest in Republika Srpska, one of two entities recognized under Dayton, whose hardline leadership openly defies Dayton by opposing minority return and enforcing ethnic separation, but even here there are glimmers of hope for future reconciliation. In September's municipal elections, large numbers of people currently living in the Federation voted for councils in their original homes in Republika Srpska – indirectly expressing their determination to eventually go home. A small number of multi-ethnic municipal councils have been established and international observers believe that if election results were enforced, it would be a 'unique opportunity to patch the country together again.'
This guarded optimism is tempered with wariness. Bosnia's future is linked inextricably with 'external' events in Croatia, Serbia and other areas of the Balkans. Reconstruction and reintegration is agonizingly slow. Too, Bosnia will need a credible security umbrella well beyond June 1998, the date the Stabilization Force is scheduled to leave. Anne Davies, UNHCR programme officer in Sarajevo describes efforts to rebuild Bosnia as akin to "squeezing toothpaste back into the tube."