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Along the Drina

By Cpl. Jean-Philippe Lavigne
First published in
SFOR Informer#123, October 3, 2001

Every day and every night, during APC patrols, the Priboj Russian Battalion faces problems inherent in dealing with the people in Republika Srpska: high unemployment, uncertainties, fears and resistance to change, suspicions towards other communities, but mostly a lack of perspective in a vision for the future. A few kilometres from here, on the other side of the River Drina, lies the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY).

Bijeljina - Bijeljina municipality is located in the easternmost corner of northern BiH, bordering Yugoslavia and Croatia. It is politically dominated by SDS, the ethnically based Serbian Democratic Party. Bijeljina is the second biggest urban centre in the Republika Srpska, and Janja is one of its suburbs. It was a 97 percent Bosniac community before the war. But as a result of demographic changes from the war, the town is now 75 percent Bosnian-Serb.
Janja witnessed some of the most violent incidents against minority returnees in BiH during 2000. A total of 13 individual incidents were recorded that year, apart from particularly serious events of July 24-26, which involved arson, stoning and grenade attacks against returnees. Since Jan. 1, 2001, the International Police Task Force (IPTF) has reported more than 20 incidents in Janja. June 3, a hand grenade was thrown at a Bosniac returnee's house in Janja. The patrol team's mission in the area is broad, from checking the roads and demonstrating military presence to co-ordinating with IPTF and local authorities, and providing emergency care and supplies to the locals. The patrol also looks into the locals’ needs, performs CIMIC tasks, Harvest operation, and ensures protection to organisations to maintain stability, said Lt. Col. I. Maslovsky.
Russians at school
The APC first stops in Milijas. The school in the village used to have 600 children before the war. Today, only 178 children study here with 26 teachers. All the little Bosniacs are now going to Teocak School, a few kilometres from here. In the hall, the many children's drawings of the two Republika Srpska eagles and mine accidents are testimonies to the situation here. One teacher agrees to speak only on condition of remaining anonymous, and she requests help from the Russian team. Like many other schools in BiH, there is no heating system, a lack of books, and only one computer, which was donated by some wealthy men in the community. The only help the school receives from the government is hardly enough to pay the teachers. Some of them are displaced persons. They used to live in Tuzla (Federation) and are compelled to share housing with three or four families. The patrol heads next to Teocak, 30 kilometres north of Zvornik on the River Drina bordering FRY. A rumour says that Gornji Sepak, a little village in the neighborhood, is scheduled to be used as a centre for Bosniac returnees.
The rumour
The village is nestled in low hills. It is an idyllic setting but a poor area. The inhabitants of the village mostly earn their wages from farming. Nobody seems aware of the rumour. A woman curiously staring at us approaches. She lives with her husband and their two sons in the former medical centre, expected to accommodate returnees: a roof, four non-insulated walls, no windows, no anything. Rada Cvjanovic (Bosnian-Serb) has been living here since 1996, after her house in Visoko was destroyed by the war. But they face being evicted without any explanation. "I didn't want to live in another person's house," she explains. Her husband works as an engineer because it was difficult for him to find a job in his profession. Official unemployment estimates range from 40 to 50 percent, and many individuals are forced into the "informal" economy to work. Workers in the black market receive no benefits, but those with formal employment often are paid only partial salaries and months late. Pensions and other benefits are also paid only in part and are delayed by six-months or more due to the lack of government resources. The continuing return of refugees from abroad is expected to compound the problem of job creation and reducing remittances. The minimum monthly wage in the RS is 65KM (200KM in the Federation). The minimum wage is insufficient to provide for a decent standard of living for a worker and a family. Some have claims for payment of salaries and pensions.
Despite an unresolved security situation, continual acts of violence directed against returnees, and a consequent pervasive sense of insecurity, an estimated 4,000 Bosniacs have returned. Large proportions of the returns have occurred thanks to the implementation of Property Legislation (PLIP). However, repossession has often meant only partial repossession, so that an estimated 60 percent of PLIP-related returns to Janja inhabit only part of their property. In addition, there are among returnees persons who are living with friends or relatives while they wait either for the PLIP process to free their properties or for international assistance to be identified to reconstruct their damaged or destroyed houses.
Their own worlds
After a break in Kozluk to visit local police, feel the atmosphere and register people's requests, the team travels to Lupici where three Bosniac families live. They don't seem to have any problem but their fear. Across the mountains along a heavily damaged and partly destroyed road to Sapna it's easy to see that these villages, cut off from civilisation, suffer the effects of isolation. People are condemned to live in their own worlds while the other world remains strange and unknown. The only visit they receive is the Russian soldiers. "We must demonstrate our presence," explains one of the patrol. "Many people ask for our presence here. 'If you leave they can start again,' they say." The APC goes slowly, heading back to Priboj Lake. Half of the road has collapsed and eroded away after the heavy rains, but the driver obviously knows the way. They do this several times a day. This is everyday life.

Related link:
Nations of SFOR: Russia
SFOR at Work