The long way back to Zepa

Lt. Eric Bouysson
First published in
SFOR Informer#134, March 14, 2002

Displaced people from the area of Zepa are back in their pre-war homes seven years after leaving them. This has been made possible by the support of charitable organisations, which have rebuilt their houses, and SFOR, who have moved their belongings. Time is healing the wounds.

Zepa - For Zilka and Omer Avdic the arrival of their modest pieces of furniture is the hallmark of the end of an exodus. They have been living as Displaced Persons (DP) for seven years in Sarajevo Canton since the war. Their current house will be sealed after their departure: the municipality does not know where the owners, possibly Bosnian-Serbs, are. Some 50 other families from Zepa have filed requests with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to return.
International teamwork
Mr. Bhandari Bishnu from Nepal, the head of the Local Return and Reconstruction Task Force (L-RRTF), has been the co-ordinator. "The funding is coming from the International Community, mainly from the Qatar Charitable Society (QCS) and from the Royal Embassy of the Netherlands." Dutch Capt. Bert Jongepier, SFOR liaison officer to UNHCR for south-eastern BiH, explained how he made a lot of phone-calls to get the four-wheeled trucks he was looking for. "I intended to ask the Greeks, but their trucks were not available. Both the Italian Battle Group, where they are coming from, and the German one, where they are going to, are involved."
The arrival of the couple's belongings is a moment of happiness, but their feelings are mixed. "We are very grateful to SFOR. We could not afford the cost of moving, which is as much as 200 KM," says Omer. "I have been missing my home, but not as much as I am missing my children. There is no school for them here; they have to stay in Sarajevo till June," says Zilka with tears in her eyes.
Not a rosy future
"We did not receive any help from the government, neither at the State nor at the Entity levels," says Omer. "We have very little to leave with, just some cattle," adds Zilka. "I have been jobless for more than ten months. I was not a farmer before, I was working in a nearby sawmill before the war, but it is closed down now," Omer reflected. "We cannot do without help. Who would want to live here?" asks Zilka. Mohamed Ouchene, the Algerian director of the delegation of the QCS, explained that there is a plan to connect some of the houses to the power grid, but that there is not enough money for all the houses. Srecko Neuman, from the UNHCR headquarters in Sarajevo, recalled that the houses were finished in November, but snow falls blocked the roads, preventing the DPs from returning.
A safe area, eventually
As far as security is concerned, Zilka and Omer feel confident and safe. The German Battle Group will continue to routinely check that the area remains as quiet as it has been for the last three months when the first returnees arrived. As the economy improves and allows people to bet on the future, time may eventually heal the wounds. The commitment of the International Community, including SFOR, is still seen to be essential for a secure future.

Humanitarian Aid

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Photo: Capt. Russel Craig

Engine power for the steep roads, manpower for the heavy items.


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Photo: Lt. Eric Bouysson

Zilka, protecting a shy child. The school has not opened yet in Zepa.


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Photo: Capt. Russel Craig

With SFOR, home deliveries guaranteed for happy returnees.


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Photo: Lt. Eric Bouysson

The destroyed body of a tank, one of the many heavy fighting artifacts on the road to Zepa, former 'safe area' of UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force).