Returning to nothing

Bosnian Muslims returnees to the Serb Republic face legal challenges.

A main street is pictured in Srebrenica
Many Bosniaks went from one refugee camp to another during the war. [Reuters]

Muniza Oprasic opened the door somewhat surprised. “Yes, I’m Muniza. Come in” she said.

Her house lies in a tiny village called Okruglo located a couple of kilometres from Visegrad, the medieval town crowned with the much famed Mehmet Pasha Sokolovich Bridge, a UNESCO world heritage site.

She insisted we come in. “It’s too hot outside” she said. I walked into her modest house not helping but notice the humble life she was living. As is the case in most Muslim homes throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, a picture of Mecca along with some Quranic verses adores her living room walls.

“I have sour goat milk. It’s really good” she insists. I cordially declined, insisting that we move on to the reasons why her story was in news lately.

This old woman’s life story starts on a sad note. She was rasied as an orphan during World War II. Her mother was slaughtered by Chetnik forces, an ultra-nationalist Serb militia that stood behind some of the worst atrocities against Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) during the Second World War. “And my father was killed by a partisan female fighter. She even stole his watch” Muniza tells me referring to the communist “partisans”, the other major fighting force in Bosnia and Herzegovina during World War II.

When the Serb political leadership self-proclaimed its own “Serb Republic in Bosnia and Herzegovina” early in 1992, armed local Serbs along with police and Serb-dominated military units, embarked on a campaign of what is popularly referred to as “ethnic cleansing” – an euphemism for the gruesome murder, expulsion, and deportation of non-Serbs (Bosniaks and Croats).

Muniza tells me she fled her home barefoot. “I was in the stable attending to my cattle when I heard that Serbs were coming for us. I did not even have time to put on my shoes. We just ran into the forest”.

Like refugees throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, she spent the war moving from one refugee center to another. Eventually she decided to return home to Visegrad at the end of 2002.

However, all did not go well.

During the war, local Serb authorities in Visegrad settled a Serb family, the Jokic family, in Muniza’s home. This was standard practice during the war since many families fled or were expelled from territories dominated by other ethnic groups.  

Since Muniza’s home was, like most Muslims homes, burned at the start of the war, the newly settled Serb family decided to do some renovations to make the place more habitable.

They painted the walls, installed doors, windows and a new roof. Some of the money they invested came in the form of local donations, while the rest was their own.

When Muniza returned home, the Jokic family moved out. That’s when the legal battled began. The Jokic family sued Muniza’s now deceased husband Esad for the money they invested into their house while living there until 2002. After a lengthy legal battle, the court ruled in favor of the Jokic family.

Muniza was devastated. In the meantime, her husband died while her son moved to the United States in search of better opportunities. She was all alone.

To make things worse, she had to pay the Jokic family an estimated 10,000 euros for renovating the house from which she was forced to flee. With her pension standing only at 150 Euros a month, Muniza says there is no way she can pay the sum. She fears the Jokic family will eventually evict her.

While visiting Muniza, I met Nedim Jahic, a human rights activist from Sarajevo. He is part of a broader coalition of activists known as the “March 1 Coalition” dedicated to fighting for the rights of returnees. He believed that the verdict against Muniza is absurd.

“If Muniza had returned to an abandoned and empty house in 2003, she would probably have received donations from some non-governmental organization and her house would have been renovated at no cost” he tells me. “And she would not be facing the situation she is facing today – whereby she has to pay 10,000 euros to people who lived in her house at the order to local authorities.”

But Hajor Poskovic, a legal expert with the OSCE in Sarajevo, says that temporary users of abandoned homes, such as the Jokic family, have the legal right to be compensated for any repairs they might have made while temporarily living in abandoned houses. “But the owner also has the right to be compensated from local authorities” he adds.

In practice this would mean that Muniza should, strictly legally looking at the case, pay the 10,000 euros to the Jokic family and then seek compensation from local authorities who settled the Jokic family in her home.

However the problem arises when returnees such as Muniza do not have the sufficient funds to pay such amounts. There have been cases in the past when returnees were sued and if they could not pay the requested sums, that their homes would be confiscated. This is what Muniza fears most.  

Muniza’s case is just one among hundreds if not thousands throughout the country. “Sustainable return” has been the subject of much talk in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina. Much money, both coming from the state sector as well as from non-governmental organizations, has been pumped into programs that aid minority returns.

However, Muniza’s case shows those 18 years after the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords which guaranteed the return of refugees and displaced persons, minority return is far from a settled issue.

Source: Al Jazeera