Serbia grapples with its own refugee problem

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The Independent Online
ZDENKA ALEKSIC, a 23-year-old Serb, gestured with her hand: 'My husband lost his right leg up to the knee. He was wounded in fighting last October at Pakrac. First he was in a military hospital, now he is in a hospital in Belgrade. I've ended up at this place.'

She cast her eye over the block of squat, single-storey buildings at Kolikovo, a rural settlement 10 miles from Belgrade. Once a Yugoslav army reservists' centre, it was later turned into a haven for refugees from Romania. Now it is home to 141 people uprooted in the Yugoslav civil war.

Most are Serbian women, children and elderly men who left their homes in Croatia after fighting broke out last summer. They demonstrate that, while the world's attention is fixed on Croatia and Bosnia, Serbia too has an enormous refugee problem. Red Cross figures show that 387,000 refugees are in Serbia, including 223,0000 from Bosnia. That means more than one in every 30 people in Serbia is a refugee.

The refugees of Kolikovo live in collective rooms that are sparse but clean. Simple food and drink is available. There is little to do except watch television, play with children - Mrs Aleksic has a three-year-old and a one-year-old - and reflect on the war.

'My husband's brother has been up in Bosnia on a cleansing operation,' Mrs Aleksic said, showing no trace of emotion as she referred to the practice by which Serbian forces have systematically expelled Muslim Slavs from their homes in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

'My husband has been on a cleansing operation, too,' chimed in another Serbian refugee, who gave her name as Velika. 'I've lost everything. All I care is that he lives and that soon we'll live together again.' The women sensed a parallel between their experiences and the fate of hundreds of thousands of other Serbs, Muslims and Croats, who have been driven out of their towns and villages.

'I think it is mainly old people and women who are suffering,' Mrs Aleksic said. 'The only people I hate are those who are capable of killing other human beings. I'm sorry for those who are not guilty. But grenades don't choose the place where they fall. It is hard to imagine anything getting back to normal. But it must do. We will all have to live together again one day.'

Dragan Simendic, an employee of the Belgrade Red Cross, said that the United Nations' trade and oil sanctions imposed on Serbia on 30 May were making conditions worse for the refugees at Kolikovo. 'We get all our food supplies from Belgrade, but they are having difficulties because it's financially tough for them now. We also have problems getting medicines. When the weather gets cold, there will be a problem with oil for heating. We will have to chop wood.'

He said some Serbian refugees were determined to return to their homes in Croatia, even knowing that there might be no electricity or running water when they got back. 'People want to live and die in the places where they were born,' he added.

The Yugoslav Red Cross said last Monday that about 5,000 refugees had returned since 10 July to their homes in Serb-held parts of Croatia and Bosnia. Another convoy of buses, carrying about 1,500 refugees, left on Tuesday for Banja Luka, a Serbian stronghold in Bosnia, and Knin and Glina in Croatia.

But the number of refugees in Serbia keeps rising, putting great strain on the already battered war economy. 'It's a big burden for Serbia that is becoming ever bigger,' said a UN refugee official. 'The world community doesn't realise that. The sanctions will have a dramatic effect.'

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