25 September 2003, Volume
THE VICIOUS TRIANGLE OF RETURNS.
A program of RFE/RL's Radio Most (Bridge) by Omer Karabeg with Ozren Tosic, high commissioner for refugees of Serbia, and Mirsad Kebo, minister of human rights and refugees of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Mr. Tosic, how many refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina are there in Serbia?
According to the latest data (from 1 August 2003), there are 91,000 refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina in Serbia.
Mr. Kebo, do they all want to return to Bosnia-Herzegovina?
We have no recent data. The latest we have is from the 2001 refugee census, when some 25,000 people were registered to return. For the most part, refugees from Serbia and Montenegro have been returning to Bosnia-Herzegovina spontaneously, on their own initiative. That, perhaps, is the main reason why the results are so modest.
Our data are also based on the 2001 census. Of some 370,000 refugees from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, only 5 percent are ready to return.
Mr. Tosic, what about the Serbs from Bosnia-Herzegovina who decided to stay in Serbia? Do they have places to live and jobs there? As far as I know, the people of Serbia did not really give them a warm welcome.
I beg to differ with you on that. Far richer countries could not have done a better job in taking in a refugee population equivalent to 10 percent of their own pre-existing population.
Only a small number of refugees were housed by the state in reception centers, while most of them stayed with their friends and relatives, or even with complete strangers.
Do they have work? Refugees in Serbia have employment rates equivalent to those of the citizens of Serbia, or perhaps somewhat less. They all share the same lot.
As far as accommodations are concerned, many refugees live in rented flats and houses. Those from Bosnia-Herzegovina are in a better position than the refugees from Croatia, since 84 percent of their restitution demands have been approved [by the authorities at home], which is not the case with the refugees from Croatia.
Mr. Tosic says that houses and other property have already been returned to the majority of Serbian refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina. As far as I know, most are trying to sell their property as soon as possible. The price of flats in Sarajevo is very low because the market is glutted with Serbian-owned flats. Mr. Kebo, why do the Serbs want to sell?
It is very hard to say why. All I can say is that Bosnia-Herzegovina holds first place in the region regarding the return of property and respect for ownership rights. We expect all the houses and flats to be returned to all the refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina by the end of the year.
Even the flats owned by the former members of the Yugoslav People's Army [JNA] will probably be returned, although this issue was hotly disputed for a long time. Each entity will deal with the matter itself.
I must say that Bosnia-Herzegovina is crying out for the return of its citizens. It needs to preserve its multiethnic and multiconfessional character. This is why the decision of the Serbian refugees to sell their flats in Sarajevo was not welcomed there. Sarajevo can be the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina only if all the inhabitants feel themselves to be citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Mr. Tosic, how do you explain the fact that the Serbian refugees sell their flats as soon as they get them back?
After four, five, or six years of absence from one's hometown, social ties get severed. For instance, I spent some time out of Belgrade and when I returned, it took a while before I got accustomed to living in Belgrade again.
That is also the case with the refugees from Sarajevo. Many of them have become integrated into their new environment, made good, and may not want to go back because they have some bad memories from the war. But I find the economic factor the most important.
What about the people who are afraid to return to Bosnia-Herzegovina because of the crimes they committed there?
Certainly. Criminals are always afraid to go back to the scene of the crime, knowing that somebody might be waiting to punish them. I arrived from Sarajevo three years ago, after living there during 1999-2000. I lived well there and felt welcome as a Serb.
However, some of my friends were too afraid to come and visit me there. I think that a lack of information and communication is to be blamed for the situation in which we have found ourselves for the past decade.
Mr. Kebo, are there people who are not welcome in Bosnia-Herzegovina?
All those who are not wanted by the Hague-based tribunal are welcome in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and that is the majority [of those who left].
But it seems to me that some members of the former JNA -- those who took part in the war one way or another -- are still afraid to come back.
They have nothing to fear. All members of army units that did not commit crimes have been granted amnesty. They are free to return to Bosnia-Herzegovina and stay.
We should leave the past behind us. I think that Bosnia-Herzegovina should be open towards Serbia and Montenegro and treat them as good neighbors and friends.