Mutual mistrust mires refugees in the misery of homelessness

In Croatia yesterday, a jubilant government was celebrating Homeland Thanksgiving Day to mark the first anniversary of the spectacular recapture of the Krajina from rebel Serbs.

Several hundred miles away, in a drab refugee camp in Serbia, there was little cause for celebration as a handful of refugees from last summer's campaign observed the dismal reality of the life they have been reduced to.

"The Croats say we can now return home, but I don't trust anything they say," says Miroslav Devic, a farmer from Kostanica, now sitting out the endless days in a disused electrical goods factory in Arzinja, 40 miles south-east of Belgrade. "If there was any kind of democracy in Croatia we wouldn't have been kicked out in the first place, and they wouldn't have burned what we left behind."

In grand strategic terms, the recapture of the Krajina helped precipitate the end of the fighting in the former Yugoslavia because it tipped the military balance away from the Serbs, who seized the area in 1991, and encouraged them to seek a settlement at the negotiating table.

But for the ordinary men and women whose lives have been overshadowed by five years of war and uncertainty in the Krajina, the offensive only wreaked further havoc in their lives. For them, the future looks almost as bleak as the immediate past.

The reciprocal cruelties of the war have made it impossible for Serb refugees such as Miroslav Devic to contemplate going home: not only would he have to live under a Croatian government, but he would somehow have to live alongside Croatian neighbours who mistrust him as much as he mistrusts them.

The prospects are little better in Serbia, which is already groaning under the weight of up to 650,000 refugees from Bosnia and Croatia and can offer no promises of regular work or housing because its economy has been ruined by the war and by United Nations sanctions. So Mr Devic and his family are stuck in the disused Gosa factory in Arzinja, their few possessions piled up behind their lumpy beds where once hair-driers came off a production line.

There is no running water, so the 80-strong community depends on water tanks which are delivered once a week. The roof leaks, and in winter the heating system is barely adequate to stop them shivering through the night. The only work available is seasonal fruit-picking; local farmers have no resources to take on extra full-time help.

Serbia, together with international organisations like UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), set up 300 refugee camps (or "collective centres", as they are euphemistically known) in the wake of last year's Krajina offensive. Under the terms of the Dayton peace agreement, hundreds of thousands of the people displaced by the war should in theory be returning home.

But listening to the refugees' stories, one quickly appreciates that few will be returning in a hurry. One Serb in the camp, who gave his name as Miodrag, comes from Drvar in western Bosnia, once almost entirely a Serb town but now under Croat control. "There's nothing to go back for except for a few dogs and some old women who are beaten and mistreated by the Croats," he said.

His wife is a Muslim, which will make it almost impossible for them to settle either in the Serb-controlled part of Bosnia or in Serbia proper. "My only chance is to go abroad. I applied for a US visa, but they turned me down. So what do I do now?"

It is not just refugees who are reluctant to return home. Political leaders in the former Yugoslavia are discouraging returnees in the interests of creating ethnically pure blocs, according to UN officials. "I'd say that, in Bosnia, the Serbs are the most recalcitrant, followed by the Croats, followed by the Muslims," said Marwan Elkhoury, a spokesman for the UNHCR in Belgrade.

The refugee commission has organised "assessment visits" for refugees contemplating a return home, and opened bus routes crossing ethnic boundaries. But many of these are blocked as convoys are jeered at and attacked with stones.

The UNHCR estimates that 100,000 people have returned home since the end of the war, but that a further 90,000 have become displaced - leaving a net return of just 10,000 out of a total 3 million refugees.

"How am I ever going to go back? Croatian refugees have been living in my flat for the past five years," said Andja Glavas, an elderly woman. "I have been here for one year now, and I don't see any way I will be leaving soon."