Hungarian Odyssey for Sick Bosnians Ends after 17 Years

Tuesday 20, October 2009 Debrecen – Modriča (20 October) – 19 psychiatric patients who were evacuated from their hospital during the war in 1992, saw the long-awaited end of their Hungarian exile. Last week they were taken back to their former mental ward in near Modriča in North-Eastern Bosnia. The […]

Tuesday 20, October 2009

Debrecen – Modriča (20 October) – 19 psychiatric patients who were evacuated from their hospital during the war in 1992, saw the long-awaited end of their Hungarian exile. Last week they were taken back to their former mental ward in near Modriča in North-Eastern Bosnia.

The tired faces of the Bosnian refugees, eight women and 11 men, lit up when their bus approached the Jakeš Institute for psychiatric care near Modriča in the a dark Bosnian night. Their excitement was palpable. “Look, we’re back home!” someone shouted. The passengers of the bus, patients of that hospital, had been waiting for seventeen years for this moment of return.

Back in 1992, at the height of war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, more than hundred of mental patients were evacuated to Hungary by the medical staff of the Jakeš Institute as the frontline approached Modriča region. Doctors and nurses took the patients out of the danger and across the border into Hungary. They handed the patients over right to the Hungarian authorities and rushed back to see to the safety of their own families.

For the next seventeen years the Hungarian authorities took care of those vulnerable refugees. They remained at the reception centre in Nagyatád until 1996 and where then transferred to a similar facility in the Debrecen reception centre for refugees in eastern Hungary.

Senad, in his late fifties, spent half of his adult life in Hungary. But he never gave up hope that he would return home one day. When the State Secretary of the Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mario Nenadić announced their departure to Bosnia for the next morning, Senad could not help but yell, “We all want to go home!” He was surrounded by his fellow patients who reacted somewhat confused and still too cautious to believe the just-heard news. As the State Secretary’s words and Senad’s shouts sank in, tears started streaming from the wrinkly faces of this last group of Bosnian refugees in Hungary

Most of the patients repatriated earlier

Senad and his friends were not the first ones to return. In 2002, one group of 40 patients has already been repatriated to Bosnia and Herzegovina in a joint effort by UNHCR, the Bosnian Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees and the Hungarian Office for Immigration and Naturalization. There were also several individual repatriations for those who had relatives able to take care of the patients.

Senad and his mates were not that lucky. Although their cases were closely monitored by the UNHCR, even with strong ministerial backing it took eight years to clarify issues related to their citizenships and to create suitable conditions for their accommodation and medical care. Meanwhile they kept waiting at their ward in Debrecen.

The UNHCR, present both in Bosnia and Herzegovina, closely monitored the progress of preparations for their return. From Sarajevo, UNHCR staff paid multiple visits to the Jakeš Institute, to evaluate the conditions for accepting the patients. A Bosnian psychiatrist has also been engaged to travel to Debrecen and perform individual assessment of the patients, in particular their ability to travel. UNHCR Budapest, involved with the fate of this specially vulnerable group during the seventeen years made several interventions on their behalf concerning issues as fundamental as the determination of their status in Hungary to items that made the life of the group a little bit more comfortable, like ensuring that they could watch a TV program in Bosnian, the only language members of the group understood.

Finally, on 14 October, surrounded by dignitaries, employees of the reception centre and medical staff and blinded by camera flashlights and spotlights of the numerous TV crews Senad and his mates spent their very last evening in Hungary.

In a short speech, Nikola Djukic, Ambassador of Bosnia Herzegovina, described the efforts his Government to facilitate the return. Zsuzsanna Vegh, Director General of the Office of Immigration and Nationality, praised the preparations on the Bosnian side where two newly built family houses were waiting accommodate the patients. But they had stopped listening and in their minds, were already packing their few belongings, to be ready for the early morning departure.

Moving into brand new houses

When the bus started its journey the next day, the patients broke out into an emotional song, “Bosnia, homeland, faraway we have gone” Soon enough though, unaccustomed to long travelling, they became tired of singing. Except for a short outing in the vicinity of Debrecen, they have rarely travelled for more than a decade. Their slow journey home took more than thirteen hours and required lot of patience both from the group and the escorting medical staff. Their special conditions required frequent short brakes during the trip and a huge work from the staff to meet the needs of the returnees.

Dr. Biljana Zelinčević, neuropsychiatry expert of the Jakeš Institute accompanied the old/new patients of her institution. About the plans for the patients’ future she said: “For the next two months they will stay at the Institute. This period will allow us to evaluate their conditions and to decide on the needed therapy. During the same time, we will engage in tracing their relatives.”

Most of these people would be able to take care about themselves with very little assistance or supervision, said dr Zelinčević. “For those, who have relatives able and willing to look after them, the best solution will be to reintegrate into family life, supported by lifelong medical and mental care. For those, who have no living relatives, we’ll try to ensure accommodation that feels like home.”

Exhausted but happy, the travellers finally reached the Jakeš Institute in the late evening. They were tired, but eager to move into their new rooms.

A small handover ceremony took place at the office of the Director of the Institute, and handshakes of Agnes Garamvölgyi, Head of International Affairs Department of the Hungarian Office of Immigration and Nationality and Safet Halilović, Minister for Human Rights and Refugees of Bosnia and Herzegovina signalled the accomplishment of the project. At the same time, Senad and his friends, the group settled in new buildings, which some of them will call home just for two months, and some till their very last breaths.

By Zoltan Toth

UNHCR Budapest