POTOCI, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — The Bosnian landscape is dotted with villages like this one - a flock of devastated homes, some flattened by artillery, the rest gutted by explosions and fire, their remaining walls perforated by heavy machine-gun fire. There is no electricity, heat, or running water; no schools, hospitals, stores, or workplaces; there are no people.
In attempting to return to their homes, Bosnia's 3 million war refugees and displaced persons face either this kind of desolation or the ardent antipathy of people of different ethnic groups who settled in the villages they vacated.
And thus far, the international community's efforts to return them to their homes continue to yield few results. Those involved say the sharply divided political environment has made the return of refugees across ethnic lines extremely difficult.
Thus the concern over Germany's decision to begin repatriating 320,000 Bosnian refugees on Oct. 1. The majority of Germany's refugees are believed to be Muslims "cleansed" from Croat- or Serb-controlled regions of the country who are still unwelcome there. And the cities and villages of the Muslim-Croat Federation still lie in ruins.
"Winter is coming, and the country has neither the shelter nor the infrastructure for refugees to return," says Manuel Carballo of the International Center for Migration and Health. "If Western countries force people to return, it will result in a major catastrophe."
Ethnic cleansing was one of the primary aims of the war and resulted in the forced expulsion of an estimated 3 million civilians from their homes, the vast majority of them Muslims. That's more than half of Bosnia's prewar population of 4.5 million.
Of these, nearly 700,000 have sought refuge outside of former Yugoslavia, with Germany hosting the largest number.
Sweden - with more than 122,000 - has by far the highest concentration per capita.
The degree to which refugees can safely cross ethnic lines to return to their original homes is perhaps the most vital barometer of the Dayton peace accord's progress toward restoring a united, peaceful, multiethnic Bosnia. Relief officials say more time will be needed to achieve results.
"The commitment of the Republika Srpska [Bosnian Serb] leadership at the top level for the return of Muslim refugees is zero. Remember these are the same people who were in power there four years ago when these areas were cleansed," says Kris Janowski, Bosnia spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Conditions are little better in the Bosnian Croats' ministate, Herzeg-Bosna, where aggressive crowds recently expelled Muslim refugees trying to repair their homes in West Mostar. UNHCR reports of explosions, burnings, or vandalism to the property of newly returned Muslims in Serb- or Croat-held territory are routine.
With cross-ethnic resettlements impossible in Srpska and extremely rare in the Federation, Muslim refugees forced to return to Bosnia could opt for housing on territory controlled by the Bosnian government.
"Since most can't return to their original homes, abandoned homes would have to be reconstructed for them," says Steven Segal, head of the Commission for Refugee Property Claims, a new office which will arbitrate property disputes in Bosnia. "Then we'll see if the original owners come forward to reclaim the property."
The UNHCR estimates some 50,000 housing units are needed before winter if people are to return, but Mr. Janowski says only a fraction of those are being built at present for lack of contributions and manpower. He says UNHCR has received only half of the donations required by its $354 million budget for former Yugoslavia.
Germany is under financial and domestic political pressure to return Bosnian refugees promptly. Social spending is being cut to meet the preconditions of the European currency union, and deporting foreigners can earn votes in some regions of the country.
Under the plan agreed upon by the country's regional interior ministers Sept. 19, single adults and childless couples will be returned first, and preference will be given to those whose homes are in territory held by their own ethnic group. Families would follow next summer.