Boom year seen for homecoming refugees

Five years after the worst civilian massacre in Europe since World War II, Srebrenica, a grim mountain town in eastern Bosnia, remains little more than a charred memorial to the worst crimes of the Bosnian war.

But walk up a side street and down a leafy path and you'll see why the international community remains hopeful about this country. Here visitors will find Sacir Halilovic, an elderly Muslim man, and his wife, Mevlida, painstakingly rebuilding the home they fled during the Serb siege of July 1995.

For years, Srebrenica was home to some of the country's most fervent Serb nationalists and remained all but off-limits to Muslims, even for visits.

But no more

In April, Mr. Halilovic became the first Muslim to move back to Srebrenica since Serb forces stormed the town in what became the most notorious massacre of the war.

"Something pulled me back here," Halilovic said. ."My land is here. My son is buried here. It is where I was born and where I feel free. "Nothing can frighten me anymore."

In the July 1995 siege, Serb forces surrounded Srebrenica, overrunning the Dutch peacekeepers and forcing the town's starving, terrified Muslim population to leave at gunpoint. During that time Serb forces rounded up and executed at least 7,000 Muslim men and boys.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in the first four months of this year, 11,445 refugees or displaced persons have returned to homes in Bosnia, where their ethnic group has now become a minority due to "ethnic cleansing." The return rate of minorities is more than four times that of the same period in 1999. Were this pace to continue, some 160,000 refugees would move back this year.

Interviews with officials and residents show that while tensions remain in this devastated land, the prospects for returns have improved remarkably in the past few months thanks to measures by the international community that have improved local attitudes toward integration.

One such move occurred in October, when the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the chief civilian body mandated by the 1995 Dayton peace agreement to implement the accord, imposed strict new property-restitution rules that give returnees greater rights in repossessing their homes. In November, the OHR also sacked 22 Bosnian officials who were obstructing returns in violation of Bosnians' constitution rights.

"In 1996, 1997, and 1998 you couldn't even think of returns to these areas.... Something has shifted in people's minds," says Srecko Neuman, an associate field officer at the UNHCR in Sarajevo. "We're excited because this is the first year after Dayton when we have significant numbers of returns to eastern [Bosnia], which has been a Serb stronghold for years."

The trend means that a key aspect of the Dayton agreement is finally seeing modest progress after years of delay and more than $5.1 billion in aid from the international community.

All over the country, former residents of once-hostile areas are returning home. About 10 miles from Srebrenica in Suceska, some 45 Muslim men have begun rebuilding the settlement from which they were expelled in the early days of the war. In Doboj, also located in Republika Srpska, the Serb parastate in Bosnia, a Muslim jeweler is running a thriving business. Even Sarajevo, Bosnia's Muslim-dominated capital, is seeing a new wave of Serbs trying to return to their homes.

The Serb returns are particularly significant because they represent an indictment of nationalist Bosnian Serb leaders, such as indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic, who remains in hiding in Bosnia and who has declared Serbs will never again live with Muslims.

These Bosnian Serb leaders have characterized Muslims as bloodthirsty religious fanatics bent on vengeance. It was due to such scare-mongering that many Serbs fled Sarajevo after the signing of the Dayton accord. But many Serbs are now changing their minds.

"I left because of a stupid decision based on fear," says Visnja Trkulja, a returning Bosnian Serb woman. "I believed their propaganda. They said we have to leave or we'd be killed, and I panicked."

Ms. Trkulja, who came back to Sarajevo last year after a three-year absence, said that her old neighbors - Muslims, Croats and Serbs alike - have welcomed her and helped her repair her flat.

So far this year more than 1,180 Serbs have returned to the city, double the number for the same period in 1999, according to the UNHCR. But not all are as enthusiastic as Ms. Trkulja.

Other Serbs in Sarajevo described how the city's environment of multethnic tolerance has disappeared and how they feel local officials have obstructed their attempts to reclaim their homes. "I have old friends in my building, but none of them have even come to say hello since I returned," said one elderly Serb.

Serbs in Sarajevo say that Bosnian Serb leaders have failed to live up to their promises to create a prosperous Serb mini-state within Bosnia where jobs and homes would be plentiful.

About 1.1 million people - Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Muslims - were driven from their homes in the Bosnian war, and about 300,000 have moved back to date, most to areas where their ethnic group maintains a majority.

Jovo Janjic, the executive director of the Democratic Initiative of Sarajevo Serbs, says he knows many Serbs who would return to the city but who don't because jobs are few and homes remain difficult to take back. Despite the challenges, however, he expects some 10,000 to 15,000 Serbs to come back this year.

"We think this will be the boom year," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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