I joined the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina on the 27th November 1997 and my assignment was Prijedor, Republika Srpska, where I was going to serve as a Human Rights Officer. When they learned the news, my colleagues patted me on the back and smiled ironically at me. The next words were “good luck”. For the first serious assignment in my professional career, it definitely looked challenging.
Prijedor at that time was regarded by the international officials in BIH as a “black hole” and with some good reasons for it. Prijedor had in fact become sadly famous during the war for the discovery of the three infamous camps of Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje, where non-Serb citizens of Prijedor had been detained, tortured and very often killed. As a result of this, 19 citizens from Prijedor were on the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia list of indicted war criminals. The war had left its mark on the municipality: the SDS had taken over control of the area at the beginning of the war, dismissing the elected Mayor, who was a Bosniak and creating a climate of terror for the non Serb citizens of the municipality. At the end of the conflict, as a result of ethnic cleansing and war activities, the municipality changed completely its profile and the multiethnic life of the town had been completely destroyed.
A few figures can help better understand how Prijedor changed in just 3 years: Bosniaks were a slight majority before the war, 44% on a population of 112,000 people. At the end of the war, as result of the ethnic cleansing operations, only a few of them had remained in the municipality (no more than a couple of thousand), the same goes for the Croats, whose numbers were however significantly lower (6% of the pre-war population). This means that approximately 50,000 persons were expelled from the municipality and a few thousands more had been killed. The houses of the expelled Bosniaks or Croats had either been destroyed (especially the ones located outside the municipality) or occupied by Serb displaced persons and refugees. At the end of the conflict, in fact the municipality was swamped with Serb refugees, coming from Bosnian Krajna and from Croatia, who had fled their homes before the advancing of the Croatian and Bosnian Army. The municipality at that time estimated that their figures were around 37,000. However, a few months before my arrival there, things had slowly begun to change and a couple of major events are worth being remembered on these pages.
The first event was the so called Tango operation, carried out by SFOR in July 1997. This was the first attempt by SFOR to arrest indicted war criminals in BIH. On that day, SFOR arrested Milan Kovacevic , the Director of the Hospital and member of the war time Crisis Committee, while Simo Drljaca, the war time chief of police, was killed while he was resisting the arrest and firing at SFOR. A few days later, the Mayor, Milomir Stakic (the one who had taken the power during the war), “went on leave” to Serbia and actually never returned to the municipality . In the summer of 1997 the chaos reigned in the municipality as its political structures had been completely disbanded. As a lucky coincidence, the second important event took place a few weeks later: the municipal elections. Following the rules foreseen by the Dayton Peace Agreements, all the 1991 residents of Prijedor could elect the new municipal bodies. This allowed the renewal of the war time political leadership and the creation, after some months of negotiations and discussions, of new municipal bodies, which contained a significant representation of Bosniaks, belonging to the Coalition for a Democratic and Unitarian BIH. The point now was to make those bodies work for the benefit of all Prijedor citizens.
The situation in Prijedor at that time largely reflected the one of BIH two years after signing Dayton. The country was in fact deeply divided and little progress had been achieved in the implementation of the peace agreement. Freedom of movement between the two entities was less than minimal and there were neither phone lines nor mail services working between Republika Srspka and the Federation. The joint institutions of BIH were paralyzed, the local police forces full of former military and paramilitary personnel, responsible for atrocities during the war, incidents and attacks against minorities were still frequent in the country. In this context, the return of DPs and Refugees was simply not possible. However the division of the country in (more or less) homogeneous ethnic ghettos was not a factor of stability. Hundreds of thousands of DPs and Refugees, displaced from their homes, could have very easily started another conflict, if their rights were not respected. DPs and refugees claimed their right to go home or at least to repossess their properties. The International Community could not fail them and the 1998, following the Peace Implementation Conference, it was declared the “year of return”. With this purpose, all the resources of the IC were supposed to be mobilized in support of the process. It was only the first of such years: it was a brave decision taken at that time, which does not always occur to diplomatic conferences. However, even within the International Community there were numerous voices that were very sceptical about the fact that return was possible at that time.
The year of return for Prijedor signified a lot, it meant essentially hope for the thousands of displaced persons living in the area of Prijedor and Sanski Most that their plight might come to an end. In a memorable meeting, in February 1998, displaced persons from Prijedor and Sanski Most, Bosniaks and Serbs respectively, joined their forces and stated clearly their intention to return to their homes, asking for the support of the local authorities and of the International Community. The event, known as the “Prijedor-Sanski Most Declaration” marked the beginning of the return process in the area. Such process would continue for the following years and that is still going on. To describe it properly we can divide the process in 3 essential moments, which overlapped in time.
As mentioned above the return to Prijedor consists of 3 critical steps: assessment visits, reconstruction of empty and destroyed villages and implementation of the property laws. We will describe them briefly trying to give an overview of the importance of each of those moments.
The assessment visits represented the first organized attempt for DPs and Refugees to make a “free and informed choice” about their future. Displaced persons, thanks to trips organized by their associations and supported by the International Community, could go and see their destroyed homes in the rural villages of Prijedor. Given the scarce freedom of movement for many of them, that was the first time they could see their properties since the outbreak of the conflict. Literally thousands of Bosniaks could visit their homes, their villages and understand how was the situaation. The same happened for displaced Serbs who were living in Prijedor. This was also a very important confidence building exercise for Bosniak and Serbs living in the area. Such visits involved large numbers of people, 300-400 hundred at a time. Republika Srpska police was in charge of providing security, supported by SFOR and the UN International Police Task Force. Thanks to good preparations, incidents during those visits were reduced almost to nothing.After the first visits, DPs and Refugees started also the “go and clean visits”, when they started cleaning up the rubble and preparing their homes for reconstruction, so to facilitate the work of reconstructing agencies. On these occasions, many potential returnees camped outside their destroyed homes, in tent settlements, stressing in this manner their determination to return.
Following the assessment visits, DPs and Refugees drafted lists of potential beneficiaries of reconstruction projects and asked the municipality of Prijedor to approve a return plan containing those villages, which, being empty and destroyed represented the ideal areas to start return. This type of return did not involve further displacement, i.e. returnees would not cause other people to move out from their homes. The principle was to follow the will of the people, i.e. where people wanted to return. This involved some negotiations with the municipal authorities, as in many cases the municipal authorities were trying to slow down the return process and the International Community was ready to intervene to make sure that the will of the potential returnees was respected. Several donor organizations came to Prijedor to provide reconstruction assistance to DPs and Refugees and they were co-ordinated by the Office of the High Representative and its local representative, Mr. Milburn Line, who, for his human and professional skills, soon became very popular amongst the returnees and the local authorities. In October 1998 the first returnee families moved in into their reconstructed homes in the villages of Alisici and Kozarac. Reconstruction then picked up speed in the course of 1999, 2000 and 2001 and contrarily to what feared by us, security incidents were extremely limited and did not deter return. The first large places where return took place were the villages of Kozarac in 1998, then the left bank of river Sana in 1999, all areas inhabited before the war mainly by Bosniaks and where thousands of houses had been destroyed. As of 2000 return did not need to follow strictly any plan and it was allowed in the whole municipality: this was also facilitated by the new municipal elections and a change of leadership in the municipality that became more moderate. International resources were not sufficient to meet all the demands for return and in many cases returnees themselves were the ones helping each other to reconstruct their homes. In the summer 2000, not only houses but also religious objects were rebuilt. It is significant in fact that the first mosque to be reconstructed in Republika Srpska is located in Prijedor municipality, in the village of Kozarusa.
Restitution of Property is otherwise known as Property Laws Implementation Plan (PLIP). This was the third and most delicate phase of return to Prijedor, where as a Human Rights Officer I was directly involved. OSCE in fact was tasked with monitoring and intervening in the process. This phase of return involved further displacement, in the sense that returnees would return to their homes that had been previously occupied by some other families. The process occurred was based on an administrative procedure: Bosniaks and Croats willing to return to Prijedor would have to claim their properties with the local authorities in Prijedor. Subsequently the authorities were supposed to confirm the ownership (or occupancy right) of the claimant, determine the rights of the current users of the properties and then enforce the decision, by evicting the current users of the property. To put in very simple words, this meant that the Serb authorities from Prijedor, with the support of the Serb police, would have to evict Serb DPs or refugees to give back the properties to Bosniaks. It is easy to imagine how tense this phase was at that time: we monitored numerous evictions and it was not rare the case when during the evictions angry crowds gathered trying to stop the evictions, threatening the police and the housing officials, trying to block the return of the Bosniaks. The Bosniak claimants were very well organized and they received proper legal information by the Prijedor Fondacija 98, the DP Association that offered legal support to property claimants. Their work was extremely serious and professional and we started a very good cooperation with them and the housing authorities in Prijedor.
Very soon the number of claims filed with the housing authorities in Prijedor became enormous: around 10,000 claims in fact were supposed to be dealt with by an understaffed housing authority. On top of this, the laws, in their initial draft, proved ineffective as there were several loopholes which frustrated the possibilities for the claimants to return. The anger and frustration of the claimants, as well as ours, was increasing at this slow pace of the return process and this situation lasted for approximately one year, until October 1999, when the High Representative imposed amendments to the laws and created a framework for better monitor the whole process. As of December 1999, the process started to take off and evictions were regularly scheduled and carried out, even during the winter months.
As a Human Rights Officer, I will always remember this period as extremely rewarding from the human point of view: finally after years of displacement, large numbers of persons were in the possibility of regaining possession of their homes and of their properties, as a result of our intervention. The down side of this was that amongst the DP community more and more people addressed OSCE asking for an intervention in their property case: the average was that around 70 persons a day addressed OSCE offices asking for help, which made the job extremely difficult for our staff. In this case, we were increasing the pressure on the housing authorities: our role was to go to the housing offices, almost every day and ask them to issue more decisions and to evict more persons, to accelerate the process because, even at its increased pace, it was clear that it was not fast enough.
By June 2000, when only a few hundred of the 10,000 property claims had been solved, we had highlighted the problem within the International Community and some new resources were going to be assigned to the local housing offices for the purpose of carrying out the task.
However, at that time, I had been offered a promotion in Sarajevo and after 2 and half years in Prijedor, I accepted it, even if I could not conceal the tears at the moment of my departure. Prijedor had been an incredibly intense and rewarding experience, which I will always bring with me.
The work on return continued: my successors at OSCE kept the pressure on the housing authorities and pushed them to finish the job. They were determined and active and kept things going in those crucial years. The restitution of all the properties was completed by the Prijedor authorities at the end of January 2004.
At the same time reconstruction moved faster and faster and ghost villages started returning to look like normal towns, shops, companies, restaurants were opened by the returnees themselves who demonstrated an incredible courage and determination to start again their life in the return community.
My admiration for them is extremely deep as well as the appreciation for most of their leaders: amongst them, I would like to mention in particular Mr. Muharem Murselovic, Ms. Mirjana Vehabovic and Mr. Sead Jakupovic: they were principled and determined to pursue their goals, but at the same time they understood the delicacy of the situation and the human side of the return process. They were also very clear with the International Community and their work was an excellent stimulus and support for us.
Today, return to Prijedor is still ongoing: around 25,000 Bosniaks have returned, making of Prijedor probably the most successful return area in the whole of BIH. However there is still a potential of around 10,000 persons who can return to the municipality: these are Prijedor citizens who have found a permanent solution abroad, but still they want to keep the links with their hometown and consider returning once they retire or once the economic situation improves. There is also a consistent group of young people, who studied abroad but somehow came to the conclusion that Prijedor is the place where they belong and where they want to live.
All this is very encouraging and Prijedor is no longer regarded as a “black hole” in BIH. Prijedor citizens, Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs, have demonstrated that things can improve in the country and will improve if there is commitment and determination. There are new challenges ahead, in the long term period.
I strongly believe in fact that the citizens of Prijedor, all ethnic groups, need to write the history of these past years together. There should be no divided memories about what happened during the war and each group should clearly explain what was happening in those years and what did they do wrong, as a sort of general admission of crimes. All the most serious war criminals have now been arrested and many of them were sentenced already: a basic principle of democratic societies is the fact that criminal responsibility is individual, which means that it can not be placed upon a whole people. This factor should be the cornerstone of a reconciliation process.
In my view, the seeds of Omarska and Keraterm were planted in Jasenovac during World War II. That issue was simply covered by the Yugoslav authorities in the years after the war, victims were never given support and many of the criminals were still at large. The ghosts of Jasenovac lived in the minds of people and at the proper moment they were manipulated to cause more bloodshed and more sufferance. This time the peoples of Bosnia should learn this lesson: it is clear that ethnic cleansing policies failed, that ethnic segregation is not the receipt for stability. It is also clear that Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs and other minorities will continue sharing their future in Prijedor and in the rest of Bosnia: it is up to them now to make of Bosnia a place where peace and prosperity will be ensured to the future generations.