Half-Empty or Half-Full Towns?
Many refugees have returned to towns synonymous with ethnic cleansing. Many have not, and it doesn't look likely they will return soon. A success or a failure?
by Tim Judah
VUKOVAR, Croatia, KOZARAC and DRVAR, Bosnia and Herzegovina--Are you an optimist or a pessimist? You know how to tell. When you see a half-full glass of water do you say that it is “half full” or “half empty”? That was easy. Now for a hard question. When it comes to the former Yugoslavia, and you see a town with half its prewar population, do you say that it is “half full” or “half empty”?
Consider this: At the end of 1995, the formerly Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) town of Kozarac lay in ruins. It was almost completely deserted.
Vukovar, in eastern Croatia, was also still in ruins. Its Croatian population had gone, much of it replaced by Serbian refugees from elsewhere.
Drvar, in western Bosnia, was not a ruin, but its entire Serbian population had fled, only to be replaced by Croatian refugees.
Consider this: Today almost every single house in Kozarac, which lies deep in Bosnia’s Serbian entity, Republika Srpska, has been rebuilt. Half of its pre-war population has returned.
Vukovar has been almost entirely rebuilt, but only half its pre-war population lives there.
In Drvar, everything has changed too. The vast majority of the Croats has gone and the local Serbs are back. Now this is a solidly Serbian town again--but deep inside the Bosniak- and Croat-dominated Federation entity.
With the end of the wars and the absence of the “big story” some amazing changes on the ground have gone virtually unnoticed by the rest of the world.
And not just the rest of the world. Ask someone in Belgrade, Zagreb, or Sarajevo who lives in these three towns today and the likelihood is that they’ll look completely blank--if not a little disdainful too.
These three towns may be far-flung provincial backwaters, although actually not that far from the three capitals, but it is in these three towns, perhaps more than anywhere else, that you can see the new frontline. That is, between optimists and pessimists.
For the optimists there is plenty of good news. In Vukovar Serbs and Croats live and work, side by side. In Kozarac, Bosniaks are back in force and in Drvar Serbs are home too.
And ammunition for the pessimists? Only half the prewar populations are back. People live side by side, maybe, but not together like before. It seems unlikely that any more people will return.
But that is not necessarily because they don’t want to--it is because they can’t. There is no work for them.
Lying along the road between Prijedor and Banja Luka in northern Bosnia, Kozarac became a symbol of the wartime ethnic cleansing.
In the summer of 1992 Serbian forces simply drove out the entire population. Thousands of local Bosniak men also ended up in the most infamous and murderous of the wartime camps, Omarska and Keraterm.
Houses were then systematically dynamited. The architects of Serbian wartime policy deemed it necessary to completely cleanse a solidly ethnic Bosniak wedge deep in an area they wanted to claim.
In the aftermath of the Dayton Accords, which ended the war in 1995, Bosniaks were left in no doubt that they would not be welcome if they tried to return.
But that was then.
From 1999 onwards, through a combination of the determination of the people and international aid and pressure, the return began.
Now 10,000 Bosniaks, half the original number, are back and some 90 percent of houses have been rebuilt.
As everywhere in Bosnia, 90 percent of legal claims to have houses returned to their lawful owners have been solved. Bosniaks here are also back because they feel physically secure.
Nineteen ringleaders of the wartime ethnic cleansing in the area have been indicted and tried by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.
In eastern Bosnia by contrast, where fewer people have been indicted or arrested, the rate of return is far lower.
Overall, far more people have returned home, or at least have resolved their status, than many realize. According to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, almost a million refugees out of an original total of 2.2 million have come home. The agency estimates that today only some 400,000 still want to return somewhere in Bosnia.
Someone who did not know the history of Kozarac and who was just passing through could be forgiven for not realizing the extent of the horrors that happened here.
Jasmin Jakupovic, a Bosniak returnee, has invested heavily in building a large new restaurant in town. It is called Stara Basta (The Old Garden). Jakupovic has even hired a sculptor to create stone figures to decorate the garden and buildings.
He says he returned because he “can’t live without Bosnia.” But why, I asked him, has the rate of return been so high here as compared to so many other places? He replied: “We are different because of the will to return. And we suffered most after Srebrenica.”
Close by is the police station, from which hangs the Serbian flag, the police here being Republika Srpska police even if some of the policemen themselves are ethnic Bosniaks.
A little further down the road is a renovated school, which works according to the Bosniak curriculum. Bosnian Serb and Croat schools have different ones.
Across the road from the school locals point to where some of the family of Dusko Tadic still live. Tadic, a Serb, was the first man ever to be convicted by the ICTY.
Locals say that more people would have returned if there were more jobs, but much of the former heavy industry and the mines around here, as elsewhere in Bosnia, is defunct.
Still, even before the war people from Kozarac had a strong Gastarbeiter, or guest worker, tradition, for many worked in Switzerland. These links helped cushion the blow of being forced out in 1992 and provided money or refuge for the exiles.
During the holidays many more return to Kozarac, and some of those who work in Slovenia or Austria often drive home just for a weekend.
But not everyone is happy to be back. In a shop in Kozarac a 20-something woman working there, who asked that I not use her name, told me: “If it was up to me I would not have come back to live amongst people who committed crimes. My husband wanted to come back.”
She continued: “Salaries are low and prices high. We have no holiday, no paid social security, and no days off. I would not just leave here, but leave Bosnia.”
In that, she is not alone. Indeed, polls show that two-thirds of young Bosnians want to emigrate.
Before the war the municipality of Drvar had a population of 17,000. It was 97 percent Serbian. Of that number 9,000 lived in the town of Drvar, which had a high employment rate thanks to its thriving lumber industry.
Until the tail end of the war Drvar saw no combat. Its men spent much of their time fighting along the Bihac front.
Drvar, however, had some strategic importance. It lay along the road which connected the Serb-held Krajina region of Croatia with Republika Srpska and Serbia.
As the war drew to a close, Croatian and Bosnian Croat forces closed in on the town. The entire population bar some 80 elderly Serbs fled.
The Dayton Agreement placed Drvar well inside Canton 10 of the Federation. It also called for the return of all refugees. But the new Croatian masters of the region had other plans. With Serbs having fled Krajina, the HDZ felt it imperative to build an ethnic buffer zone along the border.
By 1998 it looked as though they had succeeded. Up to 6,000 Croats, mainly refugees from central Bosnia, had been brought in, plus 2,500 troops from the Croatian Defense Council (HVO), the Bosnian Croat Army, and their families.
When Serbs tried to return in 1997 and 1998, houses were torched, two elderly Serbs were murdered, and the mayor, Mile Marceta, elected with Serbian refugee votes, was attacked.
In Bosnia, the international community pledged tough action to reverse this situation. What is astonishing is that now not many people know what a phenomenal success this has been.
Today Mile Marceta, no longer mayor but an important local figure nonetheless, can easily be found around town.
According to him there are now only 800 Croats left here, while 8,000 Serbs have returned to the municipality. More would return, but as elsewhere, the problem is lack of jobs. Indeed, he says, because of this “people have started leaving again.”
While Canadian troops from SFOR, the NATO-led peacekeeping force, ensure security, Marceta complains that his people are still forgotten by the outside world. As an example, he says, outlying areas of Drvar have not yet been reconnected to the electricity grid.
Today, of 29 local policemen, 20 are Serbs and nine are Croats. Yet a flag emblazoned with the Croatian “checkerboard” still hangs outside the police station. It was deemed unconstitutional by the Federation’s Constitutional Court in 1998, but the local Serbian police, fearing the sack, don’t take it down.
This is because local power does not lie at the municipality level but at the canton level and, although three out of six municipalities in the canton are dominated by Serbs, there are well over twice the number of Croats in the other three.
Thus, local Serbs now go about their business on streets whose names recall Croatian nationalist heroes. It feels as though Drvar were some extremely odd little Croatian colonial outpost.
Mile Marceta complains that while “Europe stood behind Kozarac and everything was rebuilt better than before,” Drvar has been forgotten by the international community and foreign donors.
Local taxes go to Canton 10’s capital Livno, where the Croat-dominated government sends little back, Marceta says. “What we need here is the rule of law, and economic revival.”
The main employer is Finvest, a Croatian company which bought the biggest local sawmill after 1995. Many local Serbs grumble that this was a classic case of a firm being privatized by being given to friends of HDZ leaders. As Serbs began to return to Drvar, it was hard to find work at Finvest. Now, as Croats have moved out, the company has had to employ locals.
Many worry that a huge amount of illegal logging is despoiling the region and undermining chances for a real economic recovery in the future.
As memories of the war years recede, local Serbs have begun to venture back to the Croatian coast to take their holidays. Almost everyone, though, has family in both the Republika Srpska and Serbia and there is a lot of movement between the three places.
And it is not just that. As is the case elsewhere in Bosnia--and much to the rage of statisticians--many in Drvar are registered as living in several places at once. While locals had to register as returnees to get their property back, many have managed to stay registered as refugees in Republika Srpska and Serbia as well, to keep social benefits or to qualify in the future for a passport issued by Serbia and Montenegro.
Drvar, of course, was a famous Partisan stronghold during the Second World War and you can still see the cave where the wartime leader, Josip Broz Tito, lived during his time here. This year locals hope to celebrate the 60th anniversary of a famous battle and in this way gain publicity for their town.
Perhaps it is some of that Partisan spirit that has brought people back. There are those who complain, though, that a lot of that spirit has gone.
One young woman, a member of the small, activist Drvar Youth Council, told me: “It is all about jobs. Here, everyone wants to work, but there are no jobs. So, everyone, even with money, feels trapped. It is just so dead.”
“I would love to stay,” continued the woman, who asked not to be named, “and fight for a better tomorrow, but no one else is interested. There is a real lethargy here, especially amongst young people.”
Almost nine years after the end of the Bosnian and Croatian wars, Vukovar, Kozarac, and Drvar are symbols of something. For optimists it is renewal and the gradual defeat of the ethnic cleansers. For pessimists, it’s the opposite. Watch this space. This story has many years left to run.
Tim Judah is the author of The Serbs: History, Myth & the Destruction of Yugoslavia and Kosovo: War and Revenge.