New Bosnia Tack: Reward 'Open' Towns

An innovative plan gives aid directly to towns that welcome back refugees, pressing Serbs

A team of German NATO soldiers is contributing to the Bosnia peace effort in an unusual way. It is speaking with the mayors of Bosnia's municipalities personally, and asking them if they will welcome former inhabitants, now refugees, back into their towns - whatever their ethnicity.

The effort is part of a new program called "Open Cities," designed to offer financial and rebuilding assistance directly to the cities and towns that let refugees come home. The program is part of a broad strategy to reward places that will work toward one of the chief goals of the Dayton peace process - ethnic reintegration and the return of some 1.4 million Bosnian refugees displaced by the war.

Countries contributing to the Bosnia peace effort have taken a hard look at ways of directing aid and pursuing their objectives for Bosnia. Their joint decision: Concentrate reconstruction assistance on the towns willing to allow refugees to return.

This targeted strategy, adding a carrot to the stick of threats, is broadly called "conditionality." And it is being adopted in a dramatic way in Bosnia, which is slated to receive $1.2 billion in foreign assistance this year.

"Especially in the longer run, conditionality is important," says Kris Janowski of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Sarajevo. "Slowly, it will become clear to the man on the street in the Bosnian Serb entity that the Muslim-Croat Federation is becoming more colorful and lively every day. And his Serbian Republic is staying just a bunch of ... villages, with no aid."

Mr. Janowski adds: "It will be like the East Berlin-West Berlin contrast. It will get people thinking about their leadership."

Janowski is referring to the refusal of Bosnian Serb leaders to allow non-Serb refugees to return to their homes, or to turn over war-crimes suspects. That stubbornness has met with an increasing unwillingness on the part of the international community to extend its generous reconstruction assistance - more than $3 billion since January 1996 - to the Bosnian Serbs.

A model for aid programs

A recent wave of bombings against international peacekeepers in the Bosnian Serb entity, the Republika Srpska, led the European Community, at a conference last week in Brussels, to announce it was not prepared to embark on reconstruction projects there.

But rather than simply heap more condemnation on Bosnian Serb leaders, the EC has joined the US State Department in backing conditionality and supporting it through Open Cities, which it hopes will serve as a pilot project.

By offering financial and rebuilding assistance directly to the communities that let refugees come home, and keep war-crimes suspects at bay, Open Cities is meeting with initial success in the Muslim-Croat Federation. It is turning into the model by which the international community plans to deliver aid to Bosnia in the future - one town at a time.

"Municipalities love it," says Norma Browne, refugee affairs coordinator in Bosnia for the US State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. "Despite all the money that has been put into Bosnia, very little trickles down."

The UNHCR recently approved three Bosnian towns - all in the Muslim-Croat Federation - as open cities:

* Konjic, in southwestern Bosnia, will have 60 houses rebuilt (half for returning Croat families, half for returning Muslim families), a new primary school, and a social services center.

The UN will also remove mines from the town, and two European Union organizations will repair the town's electrical system.

* Busovaca municipality, a split Muslim-Croat town in central Bosnia, will allow the return of 4,000 displaced minority residents.

* Vogosca, one of the Sarajevo suburbs held by Serbs during the war and which now belongs to the Muslim-Croat Federation, has also been recognized for its willingness to let refugees return.

But analysts and aid workers on the ground point out that Open Cities has met with little success in the Republika Srpska. Only one Bosnian Serb town, Sipovo, is even being considered.

"The Bosnian Serb establishment doesn't mind turning down international aid, which it feels is a tool to subordinate them," Janoswski says. "That mentality is still alive there."

The fate of some 1 million non-Serb refugees originally from the half of Bosnia now held by Serbs hangs in the balance.

European countries, in particular Germany and Switzerland, are eager to begin returning more Bosnian refugees home this year. Political analysts are also highly concerned that sending large numbers of refugees to towns from which they didn't originate could lead to social instability and renewed war after NATO pulls out next year.

But first, arrests

Analysts say tying economic assistance to compliance with the Dayton peace accords will work only if the men who led the war are brought to justice.

"It is naive to expect a large number of returns unless there is a fundamental shift in the political climate from one of separation to one of reconciliation," states a report by the International Crisis Group, a Bosnia peace-monitoring organization. "Any strategy to help minorities back to their homes must therefore also be one which seeks to break the vice-like grip of the nationalist parties on Bosnian society."

The report adds: "To this end, the issue of war crimes must be tackled head-on, and those indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia must be arrested, surrendered to the Tribunal, and prosecuted."

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