Feature 13 Jan 15

Belgrade’s Last Refugee Camp Endures Another Winter

The New Year has not brought changes for the Serbs who fled the conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo and still live in a rundown refugee centre on the capital’s outskirts.

Ivana Nikolic



Krnjaca Collective Centre is home to around 200 people.

Photo by BIRN.

“When I came here 15 years ago, this place was packed. There were more than 700 people living at the camp,” says Budimir Maslar, who fled Kosovo with his wife and son when the war broke out.

The Krnjaca Collective Centre has been his home ever since.

A collection of barracks-like huts some half an hour’s drive from central Belgrade, Krnjaca is also home to almost other 200 people, refugees from Kosovo, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina who escaped their homes during the bloody conflicts of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia.

Collective centres, rundown temporary accommodation with poor facilities, started to be established during the first months of the war. During the 1990s conflict, more than half the population of Bosnia - around 2.2 million people - was displaced or become refugees. In Croatia, the number of displaced people was 550,000, and in Serbia, 540,000.

According to the Serbian commission for refugees, 250,000 people fled from Kosovo following the war in 1999. Two decades after the war, the issue of refuges still remains unsolved. Some 1,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees still live in collective centres in Serbia, where there are around 43,700 refugees and 200,000 IDPs in total.

Back in 1996, when the refugee crises was at its peak, there were 700 collective centres in Serbia, but Krnjaca is now the only one in Belgrade and one of 14 in the country as a whole. Opened in 1993, the camp is located in a shabby neighbourhood close to a Roma settlement and a local landfill site.

Even though the authorities have promised to shut down the centre by the end of 2016 and place all the residents in state-owned apartments across Belgrade, Krnjaca residents doubt they will finally leave a place they were first told was a temporary solution so many years ago.

A dog’s life

Budimir Maslar has no intention of going back to his hometown in Kosovo. Photo by BIRN.

“We’ve spent 15 years in a nine-square-metre [room] - 15 years. That is a shame,” Budumir says bitterly. He lives here with his 25-year-old son, who is an engineering student. Budumir’s wife died a couple of years ago, and now he and his son live off the elderly man’s pension – a bit more than 150 euro a month.

“I think someone should start paying attention to us,” Budumir says, with anger in his voice.

Regimes and state officials have changed over the years, but each of them has treated refugees in the same way, promising to give the displaced proper homes, Budumir claims.

“Like I fight for a roof over my head, they fight for a chair [official position]. I don’t ask for more than [a proper home], but it is incredible that they always turn a blind eye,” the 67-year-old says as he looks through the window at the one-story huts that make up the collective centre.

Budumir left his family house in the village of Trebovica, close to the town of Pec/Peja in Kosovo in 1999. His property is still there, but the chances of selling it are small. Nor does he plan to return there, as he believes that he and his son wouldn’t be welcome. He tried to go back several times, but could never adjust to the new situation in Kosovo.

“I would be the only Serb in 27 surrounding villages,” Budumir complains.

When the war in 1999 ended, the majority of Serbs left Kosovo, fearing violence from the Kosovo Liberation Army. Most of them never returned.

“We live in a ghetto. This is a dog’s life,” Budumir concludes as he leaves the room to prepare lunch in an improvised kitchen along a dark, narrow hall, which he shares with other 12 residents.

Living from hand to mouth

Shared toilets inside the huts at Krnjaca. Photo by BIRN.

In yet another small room, 68-year-old Miroslava Dragojlovic is lying on her bed. She is ill and due to undergo an operation soon. Nevertheless, she says she is grateful for what she has at Krnjaca.

“It is very important that we have heating here, and that we have food. We are fine,” she says.

Miroslava fled the Croatian town of Daruvar back in 1991 in the midst of the war and came to Serbia with her sister and her family. First she attempted to build a new life – in Croatia she was a dental technician – but in Serbia she did all sorts of jobs in order to survive, working as a housekeeper and in a grill bar.

But eight years ago, due to her dire financial situation, she was forced to come to live in the refugee camp.

Life was better before the war, she recalls with melancholy.

“Back in Daruvar, I had a 40-square-metre flat, I got it from the hospital where I worked,” she says.

Miroslava thinks her flat has probably been sold by now - she didn’t have the chance to redeem it from the state because she had already fled Croatia.

“I had neither money nor documents so I couldn’t go there [and redeem the flat], and here [in Serbia], I have lived from hand to mouth,” she explains.

It wasn’t until 2003 that she finally managed to go to Croatia and visit the graves of her late mother and brother, she says. But she never found her son who died fighting during the war in Croatia.

“I gave my son for this country,” she says, with tears in her eyes.

Miroslava is alone at the camp and trapped in her memories, she admits, but has dreams of getting a flat from the state. She says she would be able to live there on a bit less than the 140 euro monthly pension that she receives.

“I will probably get a one-room flat and for me that is enough,” she says with a grin.

She will now prepare some lunch and then go back to bed. The days here are all the same, but she has become used to it, she says – and there is no other place to go.

Zora Djukic hopes her family will finally get a proper home after years spent in the refugee camp. Photo by BIRN.

Outside hut number eight is another woman, a refugee from Zagreb in Croatia.

“I am Zora Djukic and I’ve been living here for 12 years,” she says with a smile on her face.

Zora fled the Croatian capital in 1991 together with her husband and children, like many other Serbs. Since then, they haven’t even tried to go back.

“We don’t have a place to go [in Zagreb],” she says with a deep sigh.

But she insists that her family is satisfied with the camp – they have food and they are not cold.

In November last year, Belgrade mayor Sinisa Mali promised that 45 apartments would be built for the refugees by the end of 2015. “Then it will be possible to close down the collective centre in Krnjaca. In this way, we will provide the displaced with the accommodation they deserve,” he said.

Like the rest of the refugees here, Zora is hoping to get one of those apartments.

“We are still waiting, I don’t know. What happens to the others will happen to us as well,” she concludes optimistically as she enters her hut.

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