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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower