|Bosnian refugees may have a better
chance of returning to their homes now that the peace-keeping forces have
started to show their teeth.
For the first time since the Dayton peace treaty was signed in 1995, NATO-led forces have shown that they were willing to arrest war crimes suspects. Many of these suspects are responsible for the hostile reception accorded to the few refugees who dared go back to the homes from where they were displaced during the civil war. Of some 1 million refugees wanting to return, only about 3 percent have been allowed to do so.
On July 10, NATO soldiers shot and killed Simo Drljaca, a police chief charged with leading brutal ethnic cleansing operations against Muslims and Croats in northern Bosnia in 1992, after he opened fire on them. Another suspect was arrested.
Drljaca used to head the police in the northern town of Prijedor, where thousands of Muslims and Croats were driven from their homes by his paramilitary units at the start of the war. Muslim women and children took cover in their homes as the husbands were seized by armed Serb patrols in the streets of Prijedor and surrounding towns and villages. The region became notorious for the scenes of emaciated prisoners held behind barbed wire at detention camps such as Omarska and Keraterm, where men rounded up by Serb forces were beaten, tortured and killed.
Drljaca was removed from office last autumn. He was, however, suspected of continuing to be covertly leading the resistance to the implementation of the peace process, including the return of refugees to their homes.
Following these actions, there was a bombing campaign aimed at the peacekeeping forces in which two American soldiers have been wounded. Serbs are probably behind these attacks.
The U.N. tribunal has indicted dozens of suspects (most, but not all, Serbs) but the vast majority remain free.
Potentially explosive situation
Just 20 miles away from Prijedor, a potentially explosive situation is gradually evolving. Just across the border more than 40,000 returning Moslem refugees are living in temporary accommodation in Sanski Most. About 9,000 refugees from Prijedor alone are in the town, with another 12,000 expected back from Germany. The refugees hope to return to homes they were forced to flee.
The Bosnian (Moslem) leaders appear to be encouraging the refugees to come here in a risky move to pressure both Serbs and the international community to get on with resettlement plans for the refugees. The they want a reunited Bosnia and are asking NATO to help in resettle thousands of refugees and warn that , if this problem is not solved, there will be a new war when the 31,000 strong peacekeeping force is withdrawn.
Before the war, 60,000, half of them Muslims, people lived in and around Sanski Most. During the war, Serb forces drove out practically all Muslims. They destroyed more than 17,000 houses.
US review of Bosnia policy
NATO's apparent change of attitude could be the result of a formal review of Bosnia policy launched by the new US Secretary of State Madeline Albright. The review concluded with a call for action - warning that war will resume in Bosnia when NATO forces leave in June, 1998, unless indicted war criminals in the Serb-controlled Republika Srpska entity are arrested and unless refugees expelled during the Serb "ethnic cleansing" campaign in 1992 are free to return to their homes.
However NATO is well aware that efforts to ensure the return of refugees could result in clashes with the Serbs. The US government fears that casualties among their troops could put pressure on Congress to terminate the mission.
The problem is not confined to Bosnia. Visiting Croatia recently, Albright publicly criticized President Tudjman for allowing ethnic Croat refugees to burn the houses of Serbs attempting to return to the Krajina region they fled in 1995. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said on July 20 that Croatia's relationship with the United States largely depends on whether ethnic Serb refugees can return to their pre-war homes in Croatia. He implied that Croatia's cooperation in this issue would influence how quickly it would be allowed to regain control of eastern Slavonia, the last Serb-held region.
The civil war of 1992-1995 in Bosnia created around 2,000,000 refugees. About 800,000 left the country; another million are internally displaced in Bosnia itself, often living in houses deserted by other people escaping! This, together with the amount of houses destroyed by shelling, makes finding adequate housing for returning refugees almost impossible.
The shortage of houses for returning refugees was among the main topics discussed at an international conference on July 23-24. The meeting, that aims to raise funds for Bosnia's reconstruction, was originally scheduled for January but had to be postponed many times because of arguments between leaders from the country's Serb and Moslem-Croat territories. The conference also focused on raising funds for the restoration of the country's power and water systems. The World Bank managed to obtain pledges from organizations and more than 30 donor governments for $1.2 billion. Their target was $1.4 billion. Bosnia has said it needs $5.1 billion over five years for post-war reconstruction.
Donors said the Bosnian Serbs should receive very little, if any, aid. The Serb Republic gets very few international funds. In 1996, it received $8 million out of roughly $800 million.
Some 300,000, mainly Moslem refugees from the Serb parts of the country, are in Germany. The authorities of the German states (lander) decided late in 1996 to start repatriating some 60,000 of them. Around 20,000 left voluntarily with about a hundred being forced onto planes. International organizations, including the UNHCR, warned that the premature arrival of so many refugees back in Bosnia could seriously endanger the peace process. Prominent Germans, led by former foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, spoke out against the decision. This pressure seemed to pay off. On June 6, the State ministers for internal affairs decided on amending the repatriation system of Bosnian refugees. Now Croats and Muslims who used to live in today's Serbian Republic, are not to be sent back - for the time being. In May it was announced that the United States were prepared to except 5,000 of these refugees.
In an other positive development, a joint Muslim-Croat police force began patrolling the Bosnian town of Mostar on July 21. If the deployment of such patrols in all the territory that Muslims and Croats share in southern Bosnia is a success, it will serve to decrease tensions and encourage refugees to return.
A new danger?
According to the Dayton accord, all have the right to go back to their villages but this part of the treaty has remained mainly on paper. Leaders of the different ethnic groups, especially the Bosnian Serbs are very reluctant to allow refugees back as this would undo their 'ethnic cleansing' operations!
Bosnia's peace, and the refugees' future, is presently imperiled by an internal feuding in the Serb Republic about corruption and the country's future between war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic and his successor Biljana Plavsic.
Refugee News: More on Bosnia