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Bosnia: Muslim Returnees Face Hardships In Bosnian-Serb Entity

  • Jolyon Naegele

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the Dayton peace accords that ended four-and-a-half years of fighting in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The wars left 200,000 dead and forced two million inhabitants from their homes. In recent months, the displaced have been trickling back and momentum has picked up substantially. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports from the west Bosnian border town of Bosanski Novi, known by Serbs for the last few years as Novi Grad, where several thousand Muslim returnees are trying to make a new start.

Bosanski Novi, Bosnia-Herzegovina; 20 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Eight years ago as Serbian nationalist forces fought to consolidate their hold on the lower Una river valley, a convoy of several thousand Muslims fled the Bosnian border town of Bosanski Novi for exile in Croatia and beyond.

The Dayton peace accords, which ended the fighting in Bosnia and Croatia five years ago, placed Bosanski Novi in the Bosnian-Serb entity, Republika Srpska. Serbian residents renamed the town Novi Grad in an apparent bid to erase its heritage.

In the first years after Dayton, Muslim returnees risked confrontation if they went beyond demilitarized zones along the inter-entity boundaries. But now, five years later, police checkpoints and SFOR (that is, the UN's stabilization force for Bosnia) tanks are gone, and the sense of fear is dissipating. Residents are free to travel where they like, and a growing number of displaced Muslims are moving back to their homes in an orderly manner.

But there have been incidents. The most serious in Bosanski Novi occurred last month when a 66-year-old returnee was killed one morning when he went out to open his front gate and set off a booby-trap bomb. In addition, unknown assailants have stoned the homes of Muslim returnees.

Bekira Kulenovic is a 39-year-old mother of two from Bosanski Novi. Her situation could be described as typical: she spent most of the war in exile and returned to Bosnia two years ago, settling temporarily in Bosanska Krupa in Bosnia's other entity -- the Muslim-Croat Federation -- about 30 kilometers from Bosanski Novi in Republika Srpska.

She now works in a small pastry shop/cafe and is living in a house owned by a displaced Serbian family that is exiled in Bosanski Novi. Her unemployed husband has returned to Bosanski Novi to repair the two homes they have there. But Kulenovic is delaying her return until her daughter finishes secondary school in the spring.

Asked how she expects to reintegrate, Kulenovic is circumspect, saying that while she can hope for a brighter future, she knows prosperity and normalcy are still a long time off.

"I and most of my people know that (overcoming the past) will take many, many years. Our returnees who live down there (in Bosanski Novi) live next to them (the Serbs) -- not with them. That means there is nothing left from the pre-war era -- no socializing, no friendships, and no assistance. Quite simply, each nation (ethnic group) looks after its own."

Kulenovic recently began commuting to Bosanski Novi on weekends to help fix up one of the two houses. One is still occupied by a displaced Serbian family that refuses to move out and remains off limits to the Kulenovic family. The other building contains a cafe that the Kulenovic family built themselves in the 1980s and a flat above it that was trashed in their absence.

Last week, she was given back the key to that flat. She says she has an agreement with the current Serb tenant of the cafe according to which he pays her 500 German marks [about $230] a month rent until she moves back and assumes control of the cafe. She says she is looking forward to the day when she can take over her cafe and give the place a thorough cleaning.

But 18-year-old daughter Ada, having spent the last eight years in exile, mainly in Germany, says she has no desire to live in Bosanski Novi. She says even the relatively big lights of Bosnia's capital Sarajevo do not attract her. Rather her dream is to be able to attend university in Germany.

Considering what Bekira Kulenovic has been through and the pressures she is under, she is optimistic.

"I hope next year, I'll return to my town, that I'll succeed in making ends meet, that I'll be able to work and make money for my family, to educate my children. If I couldn't hope for a brighter future, I wouldn't be here. In the meantime, some 2,000 people (Muslims) have returned to our town."

Although Bosanski Novi suffered minimal damage during the fighting -- in contrast to the destruction just across the Una River in the Croatian border town of Dvor wrought in fighting between Serbian rebels and Croats -- Serbian refugees from Croatia and the Federation occupied many Muslim-owned homes. The town's buildings have undergone little, if any, modernization in the past decade. The bridge was heavily damaged but has now been replaced with a new bridge and a modern covered border crossing facility.

Kulenovic has been relatively lucky. Some other returnees have faced worse.

A businessman living in exile in Sanski Most in the Muslim-Croat Federation returned to Bosanski Novi in July to open a store. He then gave an interview to a television station in the Muslim-Croat Federation saying he believed it was safe to come back and urging Muslim exiles to return to homes in Republika Srpska.

The day after the interview someone set his car on fire. He has also received various threats, provocations and racketeering demands. But he remains undeterred. As he puts it, "I am from (Bosanski) Novi and always will be. There are opportunities for business here and someone has to start."

He notes the town has always been a trading center for western Bosnia and neighboring Croatia. He says he has no problem attracting clients -- Bosnian Serbs as well as returnees from the Federation -- because he offers what he calls "good prices." But he also notes that the nearest office of the UN police is 50 kilometers away in Prijedor.