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First visits to Potocari

By 2nd Lt. Alexandre Barbé
First published in
SFOR Informer#112, May 3, 2001

About 250 Bosniac displaced persons and refugees (DPRE) visited for the first time since the war their village of Potocari, near Srebrenica. The recent opening of the American base Camp Connor, near Bratunac, helped United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to perform this operation.

Potocari - The first women end their journey walking onto the snaky soil path that goes through the green hills of the village. They came from Sarajevo and Tuzla by buses chartered by UNHCR. In two different waves, these refugees came back for the first time to their pre-war village to clean their houses and try to set up life again.
"So far, that's the first village where we begin to have returns in the area and we're expecting a lot of them for this year," said José Sieber of the UNHCR Zvornik office. Indeed, according to the UNHCR's latest statistics published at the end of February, only 70 refugees came back since the end of the war to set up in the Srebrenica municipality (see box).
Below the village, newly prefabricated houses are growing. Bosnian-Serb families recently set up. As for the upper part of the village, originally populated by Bosniacs, nothing remains of the scattered houses. "We advised the refugees to be very careful because we don't know very well about the mine situation here," Sieber said. "We can't provide the refugees with materials to rebuilt their homes, so we give mattresses or food to those who want to stay here overnight." Indeed, about 10 people spent the night in the village of Bacuta, near Potocari.

Difficult returns to Srebrenica
According to the latest statistics published by UNHCR and OHR at the end of February 2001, the area of Sbrebrenica has a rate of 3.29 percent of repossession by the former owners having filed a claim. This rate is 3.37 percent in Zvornik and 4.98 percent in Bratunac. The re-installation rates are much lower. Repossession doesn't mean re-installation in every case. Since the end of the war, 4,790 people returned to live in Zvornik municipality, 70 in Srebrenica municipality and 33 in Bratunac municipality.

"We try to bring the non-governmental organisations (NGO) here to see what they can offer. But they first want the refugees to show their will to come back and set up life again here," Sieber continued. According to him, the NGOs are very sensitive concerning the question of returns in the area of Srebrenica.
Among the refugees are a lot of women - some of them old - and few men and children. During the bus travel, no incidents were reported.
Daily work
It seems the situation is now quite appropriate for the refugees to come back to this area. According to different members of the UNHCR Zvornik office, which has been working on the ground for many months, this is due to the recent set-up of the new American base, Camp Connor, about 10 kilometres from Bratunac. As described in its mandate, SFOR is in charge of providing a safe and secure environment. But that is not the only job of SFOR.

A monument against oblivion
As he already declared it on July 10, 2000, in a speech in remembrance of the victims of Srebrenica five years before, High Representative Wolgang Petritsch decided to set up a cemetery for families who want to bury their dead and the raising of a monument against oblivion. On October 25, 2000, the high representative chose a plot of land, located opposite the battery factory in Potocari. An International Advisory Group has been set up to assist the victims' families to plan the cemetery and monument and to raise funds for this project.

That day, Maj. Ruffin, chief of the CIMIC team of Camp Connor, was on the field. "We are here to see how the returning process is going on to determine the needs of the people," he declared. That's the daily mission of the CIMIC team. They cover the Republika Srpska area that goes from Zvornik to the south of Srebrenica, one of the most injured areas by ethnic cleaning and the departure of inhabitants.

Policemen from the International Police Task Force (IPTF) were also on the spot. "We are leading joint patrols with the local police to check if everything is right," Indian inspector Ghanendra Bundela said. "We're making five patrols a day with the local police that are very co-operative, because a lot of people are coming back in Srebrenica area."
UNHCR now has to convince the non-governmental organisations to fund the refugees' return to the area. There's a lot of work but there are great hopes, as well.

Related links:
Nations of SFOR: US