Serb refugees return to their homeland

She returned in the spring of 2002 to a home looted and bare, stripped even of its stairs. Nothing was as Sonja Leka had left it seven years earlier, except the pink roses her aunt had planted there decades before.

In 1995, after four years of fighting between Serbs and Croats, the Croatian army launched "Operation Storm," which drove more than 300,000 ethnic Serbs from their homes in Croatia. Ms. Leka, who's in her late 30s, is among the 137,000 refugees who have returned from neighboring countries.

Returnees face daunting obstacles. Many of their homes have been destroyed or occupied by others, unemployment is high, and there is little infrastructure in the rural areas where a third of the population was once Serb and ethnic tensions still linger.

"To some potential returnees, Croatia as a state evokes ambiguous feelings," says Peter Semneby, ambassador for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Croatia.

Still, repatriation of Serb refugees has become a national priority in order for Croatia to become a member of the European Union in 2007.So policies have been adopted to facilitate housing reconstruction, property repossession, job growth, and social integration.

The early signs are positive. The number of returnees is on the rise. Earlier this month, Kathleen Stephens, US assistant secretary of State for South and Central Europe, praised Croatia for its return policies and noted that the US will continue to encourage the Croatian government to ensure cooperation of local communities in creating a "hospitable" return for refugees.

To create such an environment, the Croatian government has committed $300 million this year to mend homes and compensate those whose houses are occupied. Returnees are eligible for reconstruction funds, free health services, and 50 euros ($60) a month per person.

Yet such entitlements do not always reach the refugees.

The Lekas - Sonja, an only child, lives with her father, Dmitrije - have received no compensation from the state for the repairs to their home.

They did apply for funds to replace the walls and stairs and nearly all of their belongings. But they were rejected because their house in Novo Selo was only a summer house. Their primary residence was an apartment in the city of Karlovac, to which the Lekas have not been allowed to return because it is now occupied by others, as are the homes of an estimated 24,000 other Serb families.

Progress has been made on the repossession and reconstruction of private homes, said Mr. Semneby in a press conference July 6. But he pointed to the lack of housing for refugees who had lived in government-owned apartments as a major obstacle preventing refugees from coming back to Croatia.

Before returning, Leka was a refugee in Belgrade, Serbia. She worked first for a newspaper (shut down by President Slobodan Milosevic) and then for a Greek cosmetics company that sold Christian Dior. But she missed her homeland. "I was fed up with living in Belgrade," she says. "I wanted to change my life."

That, combined with her father's poor health, sent her back to live with him in Novo Selo, a shell of a village that has not recovered from the bombings in 1995 or even from the ravages of World War II. Still, Leka says she is glad to be living in the countryside, noting the presence of "clean air, good food, healthy water."

She doesn't have a job, so she and her father rely on his pension and save money with a garden, filled with vegetables grown from seed.

She and a few village women have started selling crafts - woven baskets, handbags, and greeting cards. She has tried to sell the bags to a nearby gift shop, but the owners said no. "It's because I am Serb," she says.

Yet with 20 percent unemployment nationwide, Croats, too, struggle to find work.

The barriers Leka faces help explain why the majority of returnees are older or those who come back only for the tourist season. Observers acknowledge that Croatia needs to provide incentives for young people to return and to create jobs for them.

"There are serious opportunities for infrastructure development and small entrepreneurship," says Zarko Puhovski, director of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Zagreb, of the rural interior of Lika County, the largest in Croatia. "We are building a highway down the country and there are not enough people to man the gas stations [planned] every 20 miles."

It could be that Croatia's efforts to join the European Union - with its economic and social advantages - will spur a new wave of returnees.

"In the meantime, the government should launch programs to attract younger generations to return," suggests Milorad Pupovac, a Serb member of Croatia's parliament.

An aid worker agrees that the key to successful return, to reconciliation and tolerance, rests with youth. "Serbs should be perceived not as a threat but as a benefit for Croatia," says Manuel Antonio, head of OSCE's office in Lika County. "Reconciliation is a long-term investment; it does not happen overnight. Because of this, we concentrate ourselves on the youth, who were not involved or even born during the war."

As for the Lekas, they expect that their branch of the family will end with Sonja. "I don't want to have children if I can't give them half what my parents gave to me," she says.

"I went to kindergarten, to theater, to music school. How can I provide to my child the possibility to see the world under these living conditions?"

Instead, she grows tulips, impatiens, irises, and her favorite, roses. Her aunt's rosebush has died since her return, but Leka has planted dozens more to take its place.

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