Feature 16 Dec 16

Bosnia’s War-Displaced Families Still Waiting for Electricity

Despite a promise to bring power to nearly 2,000 post-war returnees’ homes within six months, the Guta family still has no electricity and their son does his homework by candlelight.

Eleanor Rose BIRN Bozanovici
Adila, Eldin and Zenid Guta are waiting for electricity. Photo: Eleanor Rose/BIRN

Zenid Guta can see a power line from the window of his new home, about 50 metres away across the yard outside.

But the bare lightbulbs hanging from wires in the ceiling won’t yield any light.

Although the electricity infrastructure is in sight, a connection charge of 1,000 Bosnian marks (about 510 euros) must be paid, and Guta – who has no job, but lives off the few euros he makes a day selling berries and mushrooms – cannot afford it.

Guta is what is known as a returnee; he was born here, in the tiny mountain village of Bozanovici, in the Drina Valley of eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina.

His family lived well off the land until 1993, when the chaos and brutality of war displaced some 2.2 million people, scattering some of them across the country and causing others to seek refuge abroad.

He was one of the first three to return to the settlement in 1996, after hostilities ended and an annex of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which ended the war, guaranteed the rights of displaced people to reclaim property or be compensated, and move back home.

Up here, over 1,100 metres above sea level, the grass is frozen; December fog shrouds hilltops that, in the summer, are wild and beautiful.

But winter is dark, and the family is now facing the two or three months of the year when snow renders the winding roads – some of which are not asphalted – virtually unpassable.

Still, this is an improvement on what came before he moved in here with his wife Adila and their seven-year-old son Eldin in November.

This new home was built with funding from the Regional Housing Programme – an EU, US and UNHCR project, while as Guta says: “You have to see where that little boy lived before here.”

He means a shack, 300 metres down the hill, which he built himself from wood and metal sheets.

He and his wife and child had been living there in poverty, sleeping on rotting wooden floorboards, for years.

This house has a stove, plastered walls, furniture. To connect it to running water, he dug a trench nearly two kilometres long for the necessary pipeline.

He isn’t afraid of hard work, he insists animatedly.

But despite the improvement, living without electricity – the last piece in his puzzle – is still very hard.

Little Eldin must do his homework in the daytime, since at night there are only candles to see by, and his eyesight is poor.

A washing machine seems like a far-off pipe dream.

A TV gathers dust in the corner – a gift from Guta’s wife Adila’s cousin – but he doesn’t know if it works, since they’ve never plugged it into a socket.

Every so often, Eldin asks his father: “When will I be able to watch cartoons?”

Thousands still without the basics of life

There are still some 98,000 people in Bosnia and Herzegovina who fall under the definition of ‘internally displaced’, unable yet to return to homes they left more than 20 years ago.

After a complex and decentralised government system was installed by the Dayton Agreement – complete with a state-level government, two entities, cantonal administrations, and municipalities – agencies and government bodies are fractured and incommunicative.

Work to rebuild lives has moved forward over the years, with the number of displaced falling as international donors poured millions of euros into housing schemes, but the work is still not complete because bureaucracy and inefficiency have sometimes hampered progress.

There is no unified database containing facts about those who are affected, according to public information officer Neven Crvenkovic at the UNHCR in Bosnia, therefore it is hard to know what their needs are.

More than 8,000 displaced people across the country still live in more than 150 ‘collective centres’ - rundown temporary accommodation provided by the authorities after the war - in conditions that are “not humane”, said Crvenkovic.

In October, local media reported that a plan to close these centres and relocate inhabitants by 2017 had been delayed and the final closure date put back to 2020, as work to provide new social housing for them has progressed more slowly than envisaged.

The UNHCR’s operations in the country will wind down in the next few years as its projects come to an end, and it has tried to impress on local authorities the need to continue to identify and help the most vulnerable, rather than relying on quotas mandating that aid be shared absolutely equally between Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs.

At least 1,765 returnees’ homes across the country have been officially identified as in need of connection to the electricity grid.

The Minister for Human Rights and Refugees, Semiha Borovac, told local media in October that the worst affected areas are Krajina and eastern Bosnia – where Guta lives.

In September, a memorandum was signed between Borovac and the entity ministers for Displaced Persons and Refugees, the entity ministers for Energy, Mining and Industry, and the directors of three electricity companies.

The aim of the agreement was to speed up the process of return for families still waiting for electricity.

Borovac told local media that returnees should enjoy free connection to the grid as well as technical support within six months.

Many, including Guta – who has filed a request, costing 60 Bosnian marks (about 30 euros), but was told his municipality is still resolving paperwork for his connection – are still anxiously waiting.

The effects of long-term displacement

It is not hard to imagine that two decades of displacement causes significant disruption and disadvantages for those affected.

In homes without electricity, children born to displaced families can’t access the internet, watch films, or even easily read at night at home.

According to NGO the Union for Sustainable Return and Integrations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, some families without electricity are forced to migrate – especially in winter – to live in rented accommodation or with families elsewhere.

In rural areas, some children from such homes have to move during school terms to get their education in urban areas.

“In most cases, parents are trying to provide at least for the children to attend primary school, and many children do not continue further education – that is, high school or university,” a spokesperson for the NGO told BIRN.

Returnees moving back to areas where they are now the ethnic minority often also face discrimination.

The biggest problem for displaced people, according to the NGO, is finding employment.

“In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the public sector employs between 0.8 and one per cent of returnees,” said the spokesperson.

“People living in rural areas are engaged in agriculture and seek to integrate themselves sustainably, but they need incentives such as mechanisation and livestock,” he added.

A brighter future for children

Guta and his wife have a nice life, they say, apart from the lack of electricity.

They get a little child allowance money from the state for Eldin, while the cantonal authorities have recently provided transport for the boy to get to his school, which is six kilometres away.

“It is hard,” he says, but adds: “This is the place where I was born and where I feel the best. In every other place, I’m a stranger. This is my decision, and my wife’s decision, to live here on our land.”

They have two cows, but in the future, they hope to buy another, and build a new cattle shed closer to their home so they can produce more milk and cheese to sell.

Teachers say Eldin is talented, according to Guta, who shows off the boy’s school exercise books with pride.

Although from their remote mountain outpost they are looking forward to being connected once more to the outside world through television and radio news, Guta is more concerned with giving Eldin a better life.

“We will manage somehow,” he says, “but first, let there be light for our son.”

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