Crossing the line

Sgt. Jean-Philippe Lavigne
First published in
SFOR Informer#130, January 17, 2002

Six years after the signature of the General Framework Agreement for Peace (GFAP), the Inter Entity Boundary Line (IEBL) winding 1,000 kilometres through the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, still represents a physical and psychological barrier to returnees on their way back home. According to the Office of the High Representative, of the 250,000 people who have already claimed their pre-war property, only 37 percent have effectively returned.

Ugljevik - Though a growing number of obstacles have now fallen, fears remain, and the unavoidable administrative steps required to return home are still numerous and complicated. Nevertheless, during the past year, 30,100 Bosniacs, 7,190 Bosnian-Croats and 28,750 Bosnian-Serbs settled back in their pre-war homes.
Displaced Persons
In 1996, the municipality of Ugljevik was divided into two parts. The major Bosnian-Serb district was included in the Republika Srpska (RS), whereas the minor Bosniac one was annexed to the Teocak municipality in the Federation. This area suffered so much during the war, that thousands of Bosniacs were forced to leave their homes and settled in Teocak, Rastonica and Tuzla, where they found temporary accommodation in emptied B-Serb houses.
Similarly, within the municipality of Ugljevik, numerous Bosniac-owned houses are still occupied by B-Serbs who originally lived in various places within the Federation. But the situation is continually evolving, with new opportunities to return being offered. Capt. Pekka Iivari, Lt. Mika Rekkonen and their interpreter Meliha, of the 3rd CIMIC centre, have been assigned the mission to convince B-Serb people to return to Smoluca, in the municipality of Lukavac, within the Federation. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is now ready to assist about a hundred families intending to settle there again.
In Janjari, a few kilometres from Ugljevik, Nenad Cvijanovic, spokesman of the local B-Serb community, is waiting on the doorstep. He has now been in temporary residence at Janjari for the past six years. He claims to have made numerous offers, but to no avail. "We have filed 22 applications to recover our properties in Smoluca, but the Tuzla Canton never forwarded them."
When he went to the municipality to apply for a job, he was told there was already a waiting list of 8,400 people. His two sons are working in Bijeljina and Janja. For him, "It is out of the question to live in the former school or in any alternative accommodation." Nevertheless, he agrees to convene the Displaced Persons from Smoluca for a meeting to discuss the possibility of return with the representatives of humanitarian organisations, while confessing: "We really need help, since we are running short of everything."
CIMIC action
His cousin Mico Milinkovic, assisting him as a spokesman, tells a similar tale. He shows pictures of his property as it was before the war, with its 180 square metres of land, and what remains now - barely nothing.
"Many returnees have no chance to visit the village where they were residing," explains Iivari, "since they live too far away and would be unable to afford the transportation costs. The situation is different for those who are still living in the vicinity of their former village, since they can at least repair their house during the day and return at night. Milinkovic talks about his apprehension; he knows that UNHCR offers only 5 to 8 square metres per person, and that it will now be difficult for him to bring the whole family together. In 1997, when he succeeded in organising a visit to Smoluca, the Federation Army (VF) blocked the way. He now wants to be absolutely sure that the army is no longer there. Suddenly, he can hardly talk, while relating the 170 days of siege during the war. He recounts the destruction of his village, which was shown on TV and of which he keeps pictures. "Some 4,400 people were living in the village. Of the five families who stayed there, none survived." Then, he tells about his shame of living in someone else's house. Like most of the 265 B-Serb families living at Janjari, he may be expelled. The owner of the house he is occupying is presently living in Germany and owns a house in Bijeljina and another one in Tuzla, which he intends to sell before coming back here in March. "Life is easier for those who have relatives abroad. I have no income, and will become homeless as soon as the owner comes back."
Iivari reassures him, explaining to him that the law at least guarantees housing in a collective centre. Milinkovic has no real choice. He is expecting to be able to reassemble more than 200 families with a view to organising a return to Smoluca. There is no doubt that the decisions of the meeting will be decisive for the former inhabitants of villages spread throughout the RS. But the long rehabilitation process of the B-Serb community will just be beginning. Another step forward will then also be made by the CIMIC, present at all stages of the return process. "The CIMIC's action rests on four pillars," explains Iivari "The patrols, who collect the information; the meetings, which allow us to co-ordinate our action with the local representatives; the CIMIC houses, from where we can assist the local populations in their administrative steps; and finally, the construction or reconstruction projects we are implementing."

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Photos: PO Andy Gedge

Nenad Cvijanovic makes a deal with Capt. Iivari and Meliha. He will arrange the meeting for 200 of Smoluca's families.


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Mico Milinkovic shows the pictures of his pre-war home to Capt. Iivari and Meliha.


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Rado Mitrovic explains to the team that he will now settle in Obrijez where he bought a plot of land.


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The CIMIC team helps Ramic Meludin to take water from a well. The water pipe was cut by B-Serbs during the war in Glinje and the Bosniac villagers have to get potable water from 4 kilometres away.


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Milinkovic's grandson is intimidated by Lt. Rekkonen's presence.


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The smile of Mladenka.