Half full or half empty? Reflections on restitution and return in Bosnia by a returned expat

by Massimo Moratti

The implementation of ‘Annex VII’ is again hitting the headlines in Bosnia as the Parliament discusses a national strategy for return and restitution. One of the most contentious issues, if not the stumbling block of the whole process, is the issue of compensation for those who don’t want to return to their previous homes.

The conflict in Bosnia was waged between the three predominant ethnic groups of the country (Bosnian Croats, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims or Bosniaks), each of them represented by one main ethnic political party. It lasted from 1992 to 1995, killing between 100,000 and 200,000 people and causing the displacement of half of the population. It ended only with the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, which foresaw the continued existence of the state of Bosnia in the form of two largely autonomous entities with a weak central government.

One of the key provisions of the peace agreement was Annex VII, which granted to all IDPs and refugees the right to return home or be compensated for the properties they lost. However the positions of the three warring parties was not symmetrical vis-à-vis Annex VII. Bosniaks, being the relative majority were strongly in favor of return and adamant in asserting the “svaki na svoje” principle, e.g. that everybody should go back to his home, in a unconcealed attempt to blur the dividing line between the two entities. Meanwhile, the Croats and Serbs favored local integration and thus compensation of lost property for IDPs.

For many who worked on return in Bosnia immediately after the end of conflict, reading about the current debate over this contentious issue will have a rejuvenating effect. It will make them feel as if time didn’t pass since the end of the conflict, as the topics remain largely the same as during the initial phases of the return process. For those few who have been following this issue since its early phases, the debate is also incredibly frustrating. For the majority of expats working in today’s Bosnia, however, it will sound like just another dispute between the eternally litigious Bosnian politicians, who can’t agree on anything.

The focus of the ’international community’ (IC) in Bosnia today has moved away from the implementation of Annex VII and its controversies, to the point that once familiar terminology like CRPC, RRTF, PLIP are completely emptied of any meaning. To quote a prominent article on the topic by Charles Philpott, “the dog is dead”, e.g. the issue per se is no longer a priority amongst the members of the international community. It becomes relevant only if the local political factions quarrel about it, threatening Bosnia’s progress toward Euro-Atlantic integration.

At the same time, the local political debate on this issue is largely out of focus. To cite Philpott once again, the pig has escaped, there is not really much to debate about. Local politicians’ ongoing attachment to the positions held for the last 15 years are merely an indicator of how deeply entrenched the parties are and how much they have become detached from the reality that the return issue has been somehow solved to date. I am well aware that amongst the readers there are those who will jump at this statement, quoting the figure of 117,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) who still need to find a durable solution.  It is my observation that the overwhelming majority of Bosnians who could find a durable solution have already done so and started a new life. Those remaining are most likely in need of social assistance to integrate locally.

The question that remains to be answered is how the issue was solved. UNHCR return statistics indicate that more than one million people have returned and more significantly that 467,297 returned to areas where they constitute a post-war minority. These are the numbers to focus on, as the real issue with displaced people in Bosnia is the fact that returnees belong to the “wrong” ethnic group.  It would be helpful to know whether more information could be provided on how those figures were collected and on the sustainability of return: information is often cited about returnees who chose to permanently leave their reclaimed homes and move back to the place of displacement, but there have been no reports or figures on this.

In reality, lacking a country-wide census (another topic of fierce political debate), it is difficult to produce accurate figures on the numbers of minority returns and conclude whether return was a success or not. Therefore there are only grounds for speculation on whether it functioned at the global level or not. Some conclusions can be inferred though, regardless of the debate on figures.  Minority return is visible: in many places returnees are clearly present, ranging from well known sites such as Prijedor, Doboj, Janja, Drvar, Grahovo, and Central Bosnia to other less-well known areas, like Milici, Zvornik, Bratunac and Srebrenica. In some municipalities like Drvar or Grahovo the current ethnic composition is very similar to the one predating the conflict.  In other areas, however, minority return is not visible and the impression is that it occurred only to a very limited extent. Sarajevo and Banja Luka, the two entity capitals, are amongst these areas and this undoubtedly influences the perceptions of the international community, given the fact that they have their main presences in these two cities.

Basic conditions for return were created throughout the country, based on housing land and property restitution and reconstruction. More significant problems related to the sustainability of return, as provisions meant to ensure employment, education and health assistance to returnees on a non-discriminatory basis were not really effective. However, returnees found their way in many cases thanks to their spirit of adaptation, as well as the support of friends, relatives and their former neighbors: these are the small, encouraging stories happening in Bosnia that don’t make it to the headlines but are more common than the official evidence indicates. While returnees often found policies to reintegrate them lacking, they nevertheless felt that it was easier for them to live in their own property than to occupy someone else’s.

It remains to be proven that the lack of proper conditions for sustainability was the main factor deterring return in Bosnia. I am skeptical that returnees themselves considered the sustainability of return as such as more important than other factors such as the availability of housing in choosing whether to return or not. In this regard, it would not be completely accurate to state that it was unfair for the international community to prefer the option of return to that of local integration as suggested by a recent article in the Journal of Humanitarian Assistance. I think that such strategic choice was justified not only by the political desire to reverse ethnic cleansing and reintegrate Bosnia, but also by the fact that returnees themselves chose to live as minorities in their places of origin in an environment that was largely hostile to them. Hence support for return becomes an affirmative action, in support of a group currently facing particularly disadvantageous conditions and previously victimized by forced displacement.

It is also incorrect to state that no solutions for local integration were provided. The central government didn’t focus on the issue as it was paralyzed between the opposing stances of the two entities. However, entity and local governments, in particular in Republika Srpska and Croat cantons of the Muslim-Croat Federation, engaged in extensive allocation of land and construction materials to support the local integration of IDPs, who were members of the local majority ethnic group and therefore presumed to be voters for the local nationalist parties. It is sufficient to visit Eastern Sarajevo or western Mostar to understand how extensive this phenomenon has been. In such cases, IDPs integrated into local communities where they were the majority, or as in the case of Eastern Sarajevo, created completely new communities. Property restitution, through its return-neutral approach, did to some extent contribute to local integration efforts, as persons who repossessed their properties often did so only to sell them on to members of the post-war majority community (who may often have been IDPs that had sold their properties as well).

In my view, the successful implementation of a return plan doesn’t depend only on the numbers of those who returned, but on whether it enabled all those who wanted to return to do so. Those who didn’t want to return could integrate locally as conditions for such existed for the majority of them. IDPs felt that by having their property returned to their disposal, they got a choice on whether to return or not.

This is an issue that shouldn’t be overlooked: by having solved the property issue, the property restitution program has defused a very serious threat to the stability of post-conflict Bosnia. In 1996 and 1997, IDP leaders approached international officials threatening to organize walks across former frontlines to go back their homes. In 2000, after the first unsuccessful attempts at property restitution, the same IDPs threatened to organize protests meetings. Given the number of weapons still present in the country, IDP masses could have been violently mobilized by local politicians playing on the frustration of having lost their homes. However, ten years later, the issue has completely disappeared. Property claims are no longer a reason for protests and tensions amongst IDPs and the reason for this is quite simply that the issue of contention has been resolved.

In the end, return should not be overloaded with too many expectations. The International Community set excessive expectations concerning return and when it became clear that those weren’t going to be met, the response was to say that the whole process had been a failure. From the field perspective, it was clear from the outset of the process that many people were firmly committed not to return and they never changed their attitude.  It was also erroneous to expect too much from return: forced displacement was one of the effects of vicious wartime policies of discrimination and ethnic cleansing.  By addressing forced displacement, the international community was addressing the symptoms, rather than the disease that caused them, namely the nationalistic policies of the parties to the Bosnian conflict.

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3 responses to “Half full or half empty? Reflections on restitution and return in Bosnia by a returned expat

  1. Pingback: TN at five months « TerraNullius

  2. Pingback: Upcoming guest-postings on Bosnia by Massimo Moratti and Gerard Toal | TerraNullius

  3. Pingback: Back to the Balkans – upcoming guest postings on restitution issues in Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo | TerraNullius

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