Bosnia's refugees in, donors out

Just as the rate of returns increases, aid groups are running out of funds to rebuild war-ruined homes.

When Dobrilo Joksimovic returned to his home in Sarajevo in May after a four-year absence, his hopes of a return to his old ways of life before the Bosnian war were shattered, as grim as the rubble he had called home.

What he found was little more than a shell without windows, working doors, or a roof to keep out the elements. An unemployed Montenegrin with no savings, he now has no money for repairs and will have to remain in temporary housing.

"I returned 15 days ago, but my house is so destroyed I can't live in it," Mr. Joksimovic says. "How do they expect people to live like this?"

From January to April this year, some 12,000 refugees have returned to their homes in Bosnia, more than four times the number that returned during the same period last year, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Two Muslim families recently returned to Srebrenica in southeastern Bosnia, where as many as 10,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Serbs who overran the UN-designated "safe area" on July 11, 1995. Though tensions were running high on this week's five-year anniversary with a Muslim commemoration of the event, the returns encourage UNHCR officials, who are trying to reintegrate a country still deeply divided by the 1992-95 war.

And though the trend is an important sign that the international community's efforts are finally having an impact in Bosnia, the returns are being accompanied by a parallel abandonment of the country by many international donors.

It's called donor fatigue. At precisely the moment international organizations have been waiting for, many donors have grown tired of pouring more money into Bosnia and have moved elsewhere, particularly to hot spots like Kosovo or Sierra Leone, where needs are perceived to be greater, say aid workers here.

"We are scrambling to find resources," says Barbara Smith, public information officer at the UNHCR in Sarajevo. "The UNHCR has had its budget cut at the same time that we are seeing an unprecedented number of refugees and [displaced persons] returning."

To be sure, Bosnia has benefited from some of the most generous donor funding. Bosnia was pledged more than $5.1 billion in aid after the Dayton peace agreement, while African nations have received only a fraction of that amount.

International organizations, nevertheless, say that abandoning the country now could aggravate the instability that already exists in the Balkans and prolong the need for an even more costly international presence here.

"Failure to support refugee returns will discourage potential returnees from making the move, embolden obstructionist forces, reinforce the power of the ethnic cleansers, and project a lack of resolve on the part of the international community to provide even the modest increase of funding and security support necessary to achieve the core Dayton goal of minority refugee returns," said a recent report from the International Crisis Group (ICG), a nonprofit research organization.

The UNHCR, which provides much of the most-crucial assistance to refugees, has seen its funding cut by more than 40 percent to about $27 million this year, Smith says. This means that the organization may not have enough mattresses, stoves, plastic sheeting, food, and other basic materials that it needs to do its work.

In some cases, and particularly with funding from the European Union, the problem is not the lack of proposed funding, but the long lag times between the pledging of funds and their actual arrival. Much of what Bosnian reconstruction agencies are working with now is coming from money that was pledged to be spent in 1999 but was delayed, said the ICG.

The ICG says that current funding for reconstruction of refugee returns will cover only 10 percent of home reconstruction needs of the refugees who have already returned. That does not include the tens of thousands who are returning to their homes right now during the peak summer months.

In the mean time, refugees wait. The situation is dire in many cases, with funding for home reconstruction lagging so far behind that tens of thousands of refugees lured back to their homes with promises of aid are living among ruins with plastic-sheet roofs, and no running water, heat, or electricity. Some have been living this way for two years.

In the village of Civarli, the American government, through the US Agency for International Development (USAID), installed electricity in 250 houses. Because no funding was available, only 123 of these houses were rebuilt, ICG said. With 163 families returning to the town, 45 families are now living in tents or the ruins of their old homes. Although the school is surrounded by land mines and an additional 350 houses need reconstruction, no new funding is being given to Civarli.

"Having waited nearly five years for serious returns to begin, the international community and Bosnian governments now find themselves unprepared to respond constructively to positive initiatives from Bosnian refugees of all ethnicities," the ICG said.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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