Refugees Magazine Issue 106 (Focus : 1996 in review) - Letter from Sarajevo: Traffic jams and tragedy, one year after Dayton
Refugees (106, IV - 1996)
Bosnia slowly recovers from four years of carnage. But the wounds of war are far from healed. UNHCR faces an uphill struggle in trying to help refugees and the displaced return to their homes.
By Kris Janowski
As Bosnia slowly recovers from four years of carnage, things are going well - on the surface. But the wounds of war are far from healed, and ethnic divisions, often fuelled by cynical local politicians, run deep. UNHCR faces an uphill struggle in trying to help refugees and the displaced return to their homes. There may be a light at the end of the tunnel, but it's sometimes hard to make it out.
Sarajevo. Welcome to Sarajevo 11 months after Dayton. The city has almost everything, including atrocious traffic jams. The streets are full of people until late at night. New elegant shops, restaurants and bars have been springing up everywhere. Pricey and shiny products of Germanys' automobile industry cruise along Marshal Tito street. Western limos have become as frequent a sight as little rickety Yugos. Potholes are being filled and street lamps shine again.
In the evening, countless restaurants fill up with affluent expats and well-to-do local businessmen. There are beauty parlours, health clubs and saunas. Soon, Sarajevo will have two restaurants offering Asian cuisine. The city has already hosted its first international soccer match and received its first post war package tourists (from Barcelona, a sister city).
Sarajevo's battered airport, once a favourite target of besieging gunners, is open to commercial flights. The train station is again a train station, rather than a burnt out shell. Last summer, for the first time in five years, Sarajevans could again take their children to the warmth of the Adriatic coast.
But the bustle of Sarajevo is only one face of Bosnia today. The other is that of crowded refugee centres filled with people who are slowly abandoning their hope of ever being able to go home.
It is the grim reality of the women of Srebrenica who still do not know where their loved ones are or how they died.
It is the reality of terrified ethnic minorities in Banja Luka, who still fear violent eviction from their homes.
It is the reality of indicted war criminals who are not just at large but also continue to wield considerable power, instilling fear in all decent people.
It is the reality of nightly destruction of minority property, precisely aimed to ensure that minorities never return.
It is the reality of millions of deadly land mines that have yet to be removed.
It is the reality of tens of thousands of people physically maimed and psychologically scarred by war, many of whom lack the stamina to face the future.
It is a sad reality of tens of thousands of Sarajevo Serbs who fled the city last winter in an senseless exodus encouraged by their own leaders. These urban people are now crammed into refugee centres in the middle of nowhere.
Over a year after the guns fell silent, there are still no telephone connections between the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serb entity of Bosnia. From either Sarajevo or Pale it is an easy matter to call New York or Rio de Janeiro. But one cannot simply pick up the phone in Sarajevo and call Pale, a few kilometres away.
The river Neretva, which passes through the ancient city of Mostar, in Herzegovina, is spanned by new bridges. But few Muslims and Croats dare to venture to the other side.
Despite the arrival of peace and the stabilizing presence of the NATO-led Peace Implementation Force, efforts to rebuild the multi-ethnic fabric of Bosnia-Herzegovina have encountered huge resistance, making UNHCR's task of assisting in the return of refugees and displaced persons immensely difficult.
A year after Dayton, only an estimated 220,000 to 250,000 people (out of 2,000,000 refugees and displaced) have returned to their homes. This figure comprises some 20,000 organized returns and many spontaneous movements, both within the country and from abroad. Though substantial, it is way below UNHCR's original expectations.
UNHCR has focused on fostering voluntary return. The agency has even resorted to such unusual measures as establishing free bus services between the entities. Despite occasional harassment by the authorities, the busing operation has been quite successful, allowing thousands of people to travel across the inter-entity boundary line on a daily basis. The white-painted UNHCR buses have now become a familiar sight on Bosnia's roads.
In another effort to bring the ethnic groups together, UNHCR has organized assessment visits by the displaced to their places of origin. But this effort has been largely blocked by hostility - displayed openly or more discreetly - by local authorities who simply do not want any minorities to return. In some cases, visiting groups of refugees have been greeted by a hail of stones from very well organized "spontaneous demonstrators."
And yet, in conversations with individual people in both entities, one seldom encounters the hostile attitude which seems so prevalent in the officialdom. Many people have told me they are sick and tired of the official separatist propaganda beamed daily by state-controlled media. Many people say they actually miss the good old times when ethnicity did not matter. Some say they are hurt and embarrassed when they hear foreigners talk about the Balkan ethnic groups hating each other and not being able to live with each other. All that most people want is to be able to go back home and live peacefully alongside their neighbours. In fact, many people in this country - on all sides - despise the entire concept of ethnic purity.
During one of few successful assessment visits by a group of Muslims to the town of Sipovo, in Republika Srpska, my UNHCR colleagues witnessed a very warm and friendly reunion of former neighbours who were genuinely moved and happy to see each other again.
Despite all odds, there is some hope that Bosnia's ethnic groups will one day be able to live together again - if they are allowed to do so.
Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 106 (1996)