Better late than never as displaced woman finds a home in Croatia

News Stories, 4 March 2009

© UNHCR/K.B.Belavic
Ljubica Mihajlovic feels quite at home in her new apartment.

OSIJEK, Croatia, March 4 (UNHCR) It's taken almost two decades, but Ljubica Mihajlovic is finally back home and living in her own apartment thanks to a Croatian government programme that has found housing for thousands of people displaced in the 1991-95 armed conflict in Croatia.

The 78-year-old grandmother, a Croatian of Serb ethnicity, was forced to flee her home in the town of Osijek in 1991 to escape the fighting and found shelter with her late husband in Beli Manastir, some 30 kilometres away. She has lived in the small town in eastern Croatia ever since.

Five years ago, Mihajlovic applied for housing under a new government programme set up to help internally displaced people and refugees who before the war had lived in housing provided either by the state or large enterprises. These people did not own their homes, but held occupancy or tenancy rights.

However, those people who were absent from their apartments for more than six months regardless of the fact that it might not have been possible for them to return lost these rights. Moreover, they were not given the opportunity to buy their old apartments and many could not even retrieve their personal belongings.

Some 13,500 families have signed up to the Housing Care Programme since its launch, of whom around 5,500 have been provided with accommodation, according to government figures. The UN refugee agency supported and assisted the process.

Mihajlovic had to deal with a lot of red tape over the years, but she persisted with her application and achieved her dream in October last year, when she moved back to Osijek and into her home in a brand new apartment block.

"I am very satisfied with this apartment. Although I had to wait almost five years, it was worth it," she told UNHCR. "It meets all my needs. Also, I am now much closer to my children and grandchildren in Osijek.... This is all I need in my old days."

The housing programme was slow to take off, but it has gathered pace in the past two years as the government strived to help people who had, in some cases, been waiting for homes for more than 15 years. In the past 12 months, some 2,000 families have been provided within homes.

UNHCR, meanwhile, is advocating that the government accept applications to the housing programme to uprooted people who formerly held occupancy or tenancy rights and who want to return home, but failed to apply for housing assistance within the deadlines.

"Some 14 years after the conflict in Croatia ended, it is high time that the remaining refugees and displaced persons who have lost their flats or whose homes were destroyed have access to adequate housing solutions and can rebuild their lives," Udo Janz, deputy director of UNHCR's Europe Bureau, said during a visit to Croatia last month.

There are still some 80,000 registered refugees from Croatia in neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia, part of Europe's most prominent protracted refugee situation. The speedy provision of housing is an important part of the quest for durable solutions for the displaced.

By Nikolina Balija in Osijek, Croatia