Bosnians in Germany Wonder, Worry, Wait


By the time you read this, the city authorities in Bonn will have had an opportunity to figure out what to do about the Kustura brothers, Asim and Haris.

As refugees from Bosnia, they have been waiting anxiously to hear whether they will be allowed to stay here for another three months - or be deported.

Germany, its state and municipal finances sorely strained, has been eager to repatriate its 320,000 Bosnian refugees, despite the tenuous state of the peace in their homeland and the lack of a repatriation accord with the Bosnian government. "The peace is like a little child you have to cradle in your hands," says refugee Asim Kustura.

On Sept. 19, the 16 German state interior ministers reaffirmed an earlier decision to start repatriations, by force if necessary, as of Oct. 1.

The announcement provoked a firestorm of criticism. Heide Simonis, the minister-president of Schleswig-Holstein and a Social Democrat, called it "sheer madness" to return refugees "into a broken-down country in winter."

But the decision, as actually formulated, gives each state a fair bit of discretion.

Franz-Josef Kniola, interior minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, the state in which Bonn is located, has publicly said that no one will be returned forcibly before April 1. This puts him at the "soft" end of the policy spectrum, in contrast to some of his colleagues, who are ready to begin deportations this week.

"The guidelines won't be ready till Tuesday [Oct. 1]," Acim Kustura explained in an interview. And only when the guidelines are ready will the state be able to issue the Kustura brothers new Duldungen, or toleration permits, for another three months.

Gratitude ... and uncertainty

Even as the interior ministers' decision reflects a mixture of tough talk with some escape clauses, so the refugees' response reflects a mixture of frustration and fear for the future along with gratitude for what Germany has done for them.

"Germany has done more than the other European countries - that must be emphasized," Acim says. "But now they're undoing all the good that they have done."

Like many of the Bosnians in Bonn, the Kusturas are from Visegrad, a small town of some 20,000, on the eastern edge of Bosnia, near Serbia's border. It was overrun by the Yugoslav People's Army in the spring of 1992. The town was once 70 percent Bosnian Muslim, but no more. "Four to five thousand were killed at once, the rest of them dispersed through all the world," Acim says.

Unfolding a map of his homeland, showing boundaries as determined by the Dayton accord, he puts his finger on one of the main obstacles to repatriation of the refugees: Visegrad is now part of the Republika Srpska, one of the two "entities" making up Bosnia.

Of the Bosnian refugees in Germany, at least 60 percent are Muslims from areas now under Serb control.

In these areas, Muslims are, by all accounts, not welcome. Acim cites the recent election as proof: "Not a single [Muslim] voter was allowed into the city."

He adds, "We want to go back to Visegrad. If we go to another city, we will still be refugees."

A mechanical engineer with 10 years' experience at Unis, once one of Yugoslavia's major companies, he and his brother, Haris, a carpenter, are on welfare here, unable to work. After a year in a refugee home, they now have a modest but neat and attractive apartment in the Bonn village of Friesdorf. They live frugally and, like many of the refugees, are able to send money back to their parents, who are otherwise living on humanitarian assistance in a small town outside Sarajevo. If refugees are forced back into Bosnia, this income stream would be cut off.

Not far away, in Plittersdorf, Racim and Hanomica Kasapovic, also from Visegrad, have been playing the same waiting game as the Kustura brothers. They, too, have heard of Mr. Kniola's promise of no wintertime deportations. But until the guidelines are issued, their permits can't be renewed either. Single people and childless couples are to be in the first wave of returnees, and since their children are grown, the Kasapovices qualify.

Mr. Kasapovic is quite candid about why he came to Germany: "Germany provided the best financial aid for refugees." His wife's brother was already in Bonn, one of the 120,000 Bosnians invited into Germany as "guest workers" in the 1960s, back when the German economy had a labor shortage and when Bosnians were still called Yugoslavs. The brother-in-law "promised financial help, but we ended up on welfare," he adds.

The future seems to be 'on hold'

They have been in Germany for four years and live along with a couple of dozen other families in a refugee home consisting of one-room apartments.

The Kasapovices' unit has some touches of home, such as a Koran displayed on a shelf. But it is clearly a far cry from the house that was burned down in the war. The suitcases stashed above the cabinets are a reminder of their transitory status - however long the "transition" may be.

Their daughter, who asked not to be named, is fortunate enough to have work - as a cleaning woman - but she would like to study to be a mechanical engineer. It is obviously a strain to have her life "on hold," to be unable to plan for the future.

"We can't stay here forever.... What kind of a peace process is it when I can't go home?" she asks.

"We're grateful that we all survived, and we're grateful for all that Germany has done," she adds.

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