Accessibility links

Breaking News

Syrian Migrant Situation Reminds Activists Of Croatian War Refugees

Refugees and migrants have been streaming into Serbia in recent months on their way to Western Europe. (file photo)
Refugees and migrants have been streaming into Serbia in recent months on their way to Western Europe. (file photo)

Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing a devastating civil war at home have made their way through Serbia on their way to the haven of more prosperous Western European countries in the past several months.

That onslaught of desperate people streaming into Serbia has struck a nerve in many who are reminded of the 150,000 to 200,000 ethnic Serbs who flooded Serbia in 1995 in the aftermath of the Croatian Army's sweeping Operation Storm, a key battle in the campaign for Croatian independence and the Bosnian war.

In the middle of that mass migration of people was Stasa Zajovic, who was working in camps, at bus and train stations, and in parks across Serbia with other volunteers to provide refugees from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina with basic necessities and trying to give them hope for the future.

Exactly two decades later, the 62-year-old Zajovic and other members of the Women in Black NGO that she coordinates are doing the same things for people fleeing war in Syria who are crossing through Serbia.

The ethnic Serbs fleeing their homes in neighboring Serb communities of Croatia and Bosnia were relatively easy to deal with -- since they shared a common language and culture -- unlike the refugees today hailing from the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Northern Africa, who speak different languages and come from radically different cultures.

But Zajovic, a native Montenegrin, tells RFE/RL's Balkan Service that there are many similarities between the 1995 refugees and the groups of people streaming into and through Serbia in 2015.

She recalls how the ethnic Serb refugees were put into programs in which they were asked to write, as therapy to help them get through their ordeal.

Zajovic says the rights activists noted how much the refugees wrote about "their past lives, their neighbors...everything from their everyday life and what made sense in their lives. Those things that were taken away from them."

She says war destroys not only people but also the "relationships and environment [the people] used to live in and some symbolically important objects [and] memories."

A Long Goodbye

Zajovic says the mainly Syrian refugees now in Serbia also talk about missing many things left behind in their homelands.

But she says one major difference between the two groups of refugees is very apparent: "We had people here from the former Yugoslavia and their main wish was to go back home...[a] wish to return was their basic and only yearning."

But Zajovic says the "Syrian refugees, the men and women I met [in Serbia], know it will be hard for them to go back. I think that the destruction in Syria, the persecution, and the other interventions have made those people say goodbye for a long period of time."

To emphasize that, she notes that refugees coming to Serbia in the mid-1990s were in desperate need of material assistance but today's refugees are often only seeking information on how to get to the next border so they can continue their journey to Western Europe.​

Stasa Zajovic (center) with refugees and migrants taken in Subotica, Serbia.
Stasa Zajovic (center) with refugees and migrants taken in Subotica, Serbia.

The treatment of the refugees by the various governments is reminiscent of the way it was 20 years ago, Zajovic says.

The migration of people after Operation Storm was considered one of the biggest refugee crises since World War II, she says, and at one point, the terrified migrants were banned from entering Belgrade, the Serbian capital.

Zajovic compares that to some of the strict measures currently being employed by countries like Hungary to keep the refugees out of their country.

As in 1995, official Europe is confused and uncertain of how to handle the refugee crisis.

Zajovic says it is NGOs and other groups that are saving the day for the refugees now, just as they did then.

"That is the Europe we belong to -- the Europe of 'social movements,'" she says. "That is the Europe we had been integrated in a long time ago. If not for that Europe, I do not know if an idea of European values would have developed."

She adds: "Those enormous funds Europe is giving to maintain those terrible borders, that European fortress, should be focused on the needs of civilians."

Zajovic says one thing seems universal within the current wave of refugees: Just as the men fleeing Serbian communities in Croatian regions like Krajina and other places -- where they were expected to join in the fighting they were running from -- the men from Syria also "do not want to be 'cannon fodder' or 'dogs of war.'"