No. 6 - Nov. 1996
Vol. 44 - pp. 17-19

UNHCR in Bosnia:
an uphill struggle 11 months after Dayton

Sadako Ogata
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Sadako Ogata
(UNHCR photo 25Kb)

UNHCR, the United Nations' Refugee Agency, delivered humanitarian aid during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and, since the signing of the Peace Agreement, has been engaged in a number of humanitarian tasks crucial to the maintenance of the peace there. Among its notable activities, it has been organizing the repatriation of refugees and displaced persons, promoting freedom of movement by running inter-entity bus lines, and helping to repair thousands of homes.

I have travelled to Bosnia several times since the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner became the lead humanitarian agency there nearly five years ago. During my last trip in May of this year, I noticed a huge change. Fear of sniping and shelling, once a dominant feature of Sarajevo and Bosnia and Herzegovina's other besieged cities, had disappeared and life was returning to normal. The then commander of the NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR), Admiral Leighton Smith, told me that his troops had opened 95 per cent of the country's roads, filling in thousands of potholes and repairing countless bridges. Indeed a journey between some Bosnian cities - once an odyssey of several days - now takes just a few hours.

But mental and spiritual bridges take much longer to repair. That is why UNHCR is facing an uphill struggle in trying to do its job - organizing the repatriation and return of some two million refugees and displaced persons to their homes.

There has been some success. Since the signing of the Peace Agreement last December, around 230,000 people have returned, some in an organized way, many more spontaneously. However, this falls well short of UNHCR's expectations.

The main reason for this situation is the refusal by the parties to allow the return of ethnic minorities, despite commitments they made when the Peace Agreement was negotiated in Dayton, Ohio (USA).

IFOR and UNHCR working together

Bosnian Muslim refugee
A Bosnian Muslim refugee hugs his wife as he returns to Sarajevo with a group of refugees on 26 September.
(EPA/Belga 28Kb)
Throughout the past 11 months, the troops of the Implementation Force have provided a much needed stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Without them, much of the normalization that has taken place since Dayton would not have been possible. IFOR has done a superb job in separating the former warring factions and subsequently policing the zone of separation. My Office has received excellent cooperation from both IFOR commanders and the troops on the ground who are eager to help whenever needed.

But IFOR's and UNHCR's tasks are fundamentally different. While IFOR's job is to temporarily separate the entities, our job is to return the refugees and the displaced persons. Without such solutions, it is highly dubious that there will be real and lasting peace in Bosnia.

Dayton has confirmed the right of people to return to their homes and thereby to rebuild a multiethnic society. However, many leaders in the region appear to pursue in peace the same goals of separation and ethnic purity which they had fought for in war, ignoring the reunifying provisions of the Peace Agreement. Official media outlets beam separatist propaganda, advocating ethnic purity.

An overwhelming majority of those who have returned this year have gone back to areas controlled by their own ethnic group while only very few have dared to return to areas where their former foes are in control. In fact, 11 months after the signing of the Peace Agreement, UNHCR still has to resort to evacuating members of ethnic minorities from Republika Srpska - the Serbian entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina - to protect them from attacks and harassment. Sadly enough, at a time when my Office is supposed to bring people back, in some cases it is actually forced to help them leave.

I am convinced that much more pressure should be put on separatist leaders to make them abide by the humanitarian commitments they made in Dayton. This is the only way we will see the return of refugees and displaced people to their homes in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

UNHCR, which ran convoys to deliver humanitarian assistance during the war, is now operating buses to restore humanitarian faith and contact in time of peace. My Office has established nine inter-entity bus lines throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina to foster contacts between the entities and to promote freedom of movement. For many, the UNHCR buses, which are being used by up to 11,000 people a day, are the only way of staying in touch with friends and relatives, since neither telephone nor postal services work between the entities.

Our white painted buses, so much appreciated by passengers of all ethnic groups, have incurred the wrath of some local authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina who have tried to ban them and periodically harassed them. But despite all odds, we are not giving up.

UNHCR staff have spent a huge amount of time trying to negotiate assessment visits to the homes of origin for members of minorities willing to go back to live in the other entity. Over the past months, dozens of such assessment visits were planned and labouriously negotiated and renegotiated, but only a mere handful have been successful.

In the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina - the Muslim-Croat entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina - my Office has been trying to implement a pilot project under which 300 Croat and 300 Muslim families are supposed to return to cities controlled by the other ethnic group. The project aims to foster ethnic reintegration between Muslims and Croats. The Federation is two years old but the two ethnic groups have hardly seen any reintegration. It took nearly ten months of painstaking negotiations to implement the pilot project in three out of the four selected cities. In the fourth, a breakthrough came only very recently.

Providing shelter

Ethnic hostility and the refusal to accept returning members of ethnic minorities, however, are not the only hindrance to repatriation and reintegration. The other major problem is the lack of housing. Hundreds of thousands of housing units throughout the country have been damaged or destroyed as a result of war activities or simply blown up in barbaric acts of hatred towards the 'other' ethnic group. On top of this, the areas along several thousand kilometres of former confrontation lines are virtually littered with minefields, laid in a completely haphazard fashion.

UNHCR has launched a shelter project which will help repair some 20,000 houses. The US$85 million project comprises the local production of brick and roof tiles, as well as other building materials, in addition to a huge glazing project.

In Sarajevo, UNHCR has already put in some 400,000 square metres of glass, replacing the ubiquitous UNHCR plastic sheeting which kept the city's inhabitants warm and dry during the war when most of Sarajevo's windows were shattered by shelling. Bosnians showed a lot of ingenuity in using the white and blue UNHCR plastic in many other ways, including to replace car windows or even torn clothes. The plastic-to-glass switch has a huge symbolic value, marking the passage from an emergency solution to a lasting one.

In a separate initiative, my Office has identified 22 areas throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina where return of refugees and the displaced is blocked by damage to housing and infrastructure, rather than ethnic hostility. In those areas, approximately 37,000 housing units, which used to house some 180,000 people, are in need of repair. They could be rehabilitated at a cost of US$180 million, providing an incentive for the pre-war inhabitants to come back. Some additional investment would also be needed to repair the infrastructure and clear mines in those areas.

Mrs Ogata in Sarajevo
Mrs. Ogata watches a window being prepared for installation in a Sarajevo suburb.
(EPA/Belga 45Kb)

What next?

The big question now is what next? How much time will Bosnia and Herzegovina need to return to normality? How much longer will there be a need for an international presence to allow peace and stability to firm up?

All the problems I have mentioned are a clear indication that we still have a very, very long way to go, and that an international troop presence will be needed in Bosnia after the main IFOR contingent pulls out.

I have been concerned about pressure to lift temporary protection and to send refugees back home as early as this autumn, despite very unsatisfactory conditions on the ground.

Many nations have shown a great deal of patience, extending their hospitality to Bosnian refugees for many years. I strongly believe that more patience is needed before all can return home in safety and dignity. The premature return of large groups of people who have nowhere to go would, moreover, risk undermining the very peace process that we are all committed to advancing.

My Office will continue to do all it can to support the process of returning displaced persons and refugees and to improve conditions for the returnees. But the effects of war take a very long time to erase. As a fire ravages a forest, so a war ravages a society. The ethnic fabric of war-torn societies is not quickly repaired and the renewal of Bosnian society may take even longer than a charred forest takes to regenerate.

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