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Another season in Gorazde

By Sgt. Jean-Philippe Lavigne
First published in
SFOR Informer#128, December 12, 2001

A symbol of resistance, Gorazde was the only United Nations Protection Forces (UNPROFOR) "Safe Area" that didn't fall. Thousands of Bosniac Displaced Persons (DP) sought shelter in the city during the siege. Since 1995, the Inter Entity Boundary Line divides the city. On one side, Bosniac DPs are waiting to return to their homes in Southeast Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), to Visegrad, Rudo, Rogatica, Sokolac, Pale and Kopaci - theatre of the darkest episodes of the war. On the other side, in Republika Srpska, B-Serbs are waiting to return to their homes in what is now the Federation, to towns like Sarajevo, Jajce, Bosansko Grahovo and Gorazde.

Gorazde - With the arrival of the Alpine Italian patrol, the seemingly uninhabited district suddenly comes to life. People begin gathering around the soldiers. They emerge from the few newly-constructed houses, harshly juxtaposed against destroyed homes.
Obarak district shelters the biggest organised community of Bosniac returnees in Gorazde. Some 80 men, 60 women and about 40 children started to come back here this year, but are still unable to settle permanently. Five houses are in liveable condition and only one has been completed. Before the war, a thousand people lived here, and the district was mixed. "They are in the first phase of return and still need assistance," explains 2nd Lt. Igor Piani, team leader from the 14th Alpine regiment of Friuli, actually based in Rogatica. "United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provides them with food, clothes and basic supplies, and we assure the distribution during our patrols."
"I'm old and I refuse to spend the rest of my life as a DP. I feel like a stranger in my own country," protests Stana Perendija, spokesman for the local community.
"The determination of the returnees to recover their pre-war homes is a very important factor," explains Bashir Khan, head of the UNHCR Field Office for Eastern BiH.
In past years, violent attacks by Bosnian-Serb hard-liners slowed the process. While physical attacks rarely happen these days, harassment of returnees continues to be a problem.
"Obarak community, because of its size is an easy target and has to face provocation from the other side," observes Piani. "B-Serbs try to keep the balance between the two communities, as the return are going on both sides of the IEBL, some metres from here."
Gorazde, the largest town straddling the river Drina in eastern BiH, was one of the several "Safe Areas" (along with Srebrenica and Zepa) that UNPROFOR were assigned to protect. The total population of Gorazde was 37,000 with around 30 percent (11,000) of that being B-Serb. Close to the border with Montenegro, Gorazde remains a geographically important city; a munitions factory in town made it a target during the war. The city was established as a military centre in 1993 by Bosniac forces, but B-Serb forces, supported by Serbia and Montenegro, launched a counteroffensive and laid the siege of Sarajevo and Gorazde. The city, surrounded by high steep hills, was repeatedly attacked, exposed to frequent shelling and considerably damaged.
In March 1994, the Bosniacs started another offensive and destroyed many B-Serb positions, but the siege was soon re-established. NATO then produced a series of ultimatums requiring the B-Serb withdraw. April 24, UN Forces take position in the city. However, at the end of the war, villages around Gorazde that fell to the Serbs, like Kopaci, on the Right Bank of the Drina, were incorporated into a new municipality in the RS, termed Srpsko Gorazde. There were 3,668 Bosniacs living in that part of the municipality in 1991, and 674 B-Serbs. Around 1,200 houses were destroyed in Kopaci.
The level of industrial production in Gorazde before the war was higher than the rest of BiH. Four factories were located in Kopaci. Today, industrial activity is almost non-existent. The RS surrounds Gorazde. It is connected to the rest of the Federation by an access road, as stipulated by the GFAP. The economy continues to stagnate. It is now hoped that the old factories can be restored and new ones built. "The International Community must also play its part, giving more emphasis to sustainability by assisting with agricultural tools, professional tools and establishing a team of skilled workers to assist with selected cases of self-help projects," explains Khan. "The most important thing is to create the conditions for sustainable return: job creation, restarting of pre-war enterprises, stimulating the economy and revitalising pre-war co-operation."
Kopaci is a strategic town in the return process. Returnees could support themselves by working in nearby Gorazde and in the factories in Kopaci itself. It can serve as a logistical point of departure and support for return to Visegrad, Rogatica, Rudo and other locations further afield in Southeast BiH.
Despite the lack of economic opportunities, hundreds of persons expressed their willingness to return. During 2001, 1,489 properties were claimed in Gorazde. A total of 1450 decisions were approved and 623 were implemented. Concerning Srpsko Gorazde, 1,706 were claimed, 914 were issued and 359 effectively repossessed. The implementation ratio is 41.84 percent on the Federation side and 21.04 percent on the RS side. "These results are reasonable," comments Khan. "But hundreds of displaced Bosniacs have set up tents, waiting for permission to rebuild their houses." They are mostly concentrated on the Inter Entity Boundary Line (IEBL), separating Gorazde from its former suburb Kopaci.
"There are about 180 people living in extremely poor conditions in the area for the time being," says Piani. "Twenty-five percent don't have access to water. They are mostly elderly and retired. Some receive a pension, about 60 to 70KM. The great concern for us is the people living far from the centre of the city. In winter season, the transit of material and food can be very difficult and some families remain isolated."
Over the last few months, Upper Drina Economic Working Group initiative started operating. Members of the group are representatives from each municipality in the upper Drina region. The point is to put those people at the same table and to give one voice to the region instead of separate voices. In 2002, Islamic Relief is planning some projects in the Foca/Srbinje and Gorazde areas. The Italian CIMIC Unit initiated some projects (Gorazde Hospital, road and bridge construction), but is still waiting for donations. These projects could determine the outcome of the coming year and help people to definitively re-establish themselves in the region. Unfortunately, the returns have stopped for now and returnees have abandoned their unfinished homes, condemned to live as DPs for another season.

Related links: Nations of SFOR: Italy