Feature 04 Aug 16

Serb Refugee Villagers Dream of Lost Croatian Homes

In the refugee village of Busije, people still cherish the memories of the homes in Croatia that they fled because of the Zagreb military’s Operation Storm in August 1995.

Milivoje Pantovic BIRN Busije
The village of Busije. Photo: BIRN/Milivoje Pantovic

Zivko, now 60 years old, remembers the first time he came to Busije, a settlement near Belgrade established by and for refugees after the war ended.

“There was literally nothing, just endless fields, ploughed and ready for sowing. But we built the settlement which is now some seven or 8,000 strong, and most of the inhabitants are refugees from Croatia,” he said.

Serbia will hold a commemoration of its annual Day of Remembrance of the Suffering and Persecution of Serbs for the first time in the village of Busije on Thursday.

Every year, the country mourns all the Serb victims of the Balkan wars but the date marks the start of the Croatian military’s victorious Operation Storm which started on August 5, 1995.

Croatia’s forces successfully seized back territories held by rebel Serbs, but during and after the military offensive, hundreds of Serbs were killed and some 200,000 became refugees.

Busije is the biggest refugee village in Serbia and most people living here fled Croatia because of Operation Storm.

Zivko explained that plots in Busije could only be bought by people with a refugee ID card. The local government at that time was run by the Serbian Radical Party, which wanted to ensure that only refugees could buy the land since the price was below the market rate.

Zivko asked that his full name not be published as he is still thinking of returning to his village in the Kistanje municipality of Croatia one day and did not want to create any problems for himself.

“My father is still in Croatia and I am still thinking of going back. My children and grandchildren want to stay here,” he said.

Older people in Busije who are still thinking about returning to Croatia told BIRN that they did not want their names to be mentioned for fear of prosecution while the younger generation wanted to remain anonymous because they do not want to be identified as ‘refugees’.

Zivko said that he had brought a small bit of his homeland culture back from Croatia which he was proud to show off.

“Our house was not yet finished but I asked my father to send me seedlings of vine so I have planted it. It is variety that is indigenous to Dalmatia, but we cannot produce wine of the same quality since the land and sun is different here,” said Zivko.

Vines brought from the Dalmatia region of Croatia. Photo: BIRN/Milivoje Pantovic

He has also planted almonds and figs that are often grown in the Dalmatia region of Croatia.

“Older people are homesick so we have continued to have a lifestyle like in Croatia before ‘Storm’. We smoke ham and make wine like we did in Dalmatia and play balote for recreation,” he said, showing where the villagers play the game, which is similar to British bowls or French boules and is also known as bocanje.

The biggest problem in the village, according to Zivko, is the lack of infrastructure. But the impending arrival of senior officials for Friday’s commemoration will at least mean that some of the roads are improved.

“Some of the roads were finished before the elections that were held in April. Now they are paving other ones since [Serbian] Prime Minister [Aleksandar] Vucic and [Bosnian Serb] President [Milorad] Dodik are coming [on Thursday]. It is good, since those roads will stay with us,” Zivko said with a smile.

But he said that the fact that there is no kindergarten or any kind of school in the village is one of the most urgent problems.

“Now there is a younger generation in the village with the kids of their own, so they need schools so that kids don’t have to travel to get to one,” he explained.

‘Where would I go back to?’

Dragan, who is originally from Knin in Croatia and works at the local tavern, said that he has no intention of going back.

“Where would I go back to? I was just a little kid when we escaped from Croatia, so all of my life is in Serbia,” he explained.

Dragan said his parents still dream of returning some day, but he has doubts that it will ever happen.

“There is nothing to go back to. The houses were demolished and even if they are repaired, there are no jobs for us. Not to mention the new rise of nationalism in Croatia. We are not welcome,” he said.

He said that life in Busije was fairly good but there are still lots of issues that need to be addressed.

“Drainage needs to be sorted out because when the rain falls, a lot of places get flooded. Of course we need schools, that is the most important. Soon I will need a kindergarten for my children,” he said.

Roads in Busije were being repaired ahead of the official commemoration. Photo: BIRN/Milivoje Pantovic

Dragan explained that there is enough work for men in the village, and even those who are not qualified can get construction jobs.

“People here are generally good workers. The problem is with women, they usually work for a minimum wage since they cannot work at tough jobs like men. They work in supermarkets or things like that and the salaries there are really small,” he said.

Events are organised in the village so people can continue to remember their roots in Croatia, such as celebrations of saints’ days and the annual Krajiski Otkos traditional grass-scything festival in June.

“Of course, there is also the commemoration on August 5, on the day of Storm,” Dragan said.

This year the Operation Storm commemoration, which will be attended by Vucic and Dodik, will be held the day before the official Day of Remembrance of the Suffering and Persecution of Serbs.

A balote court in Busije. Photo: BIRN/Milivoje Pantovic

‘I wish I could go to the seaside’

Jasna, whose family comes from Sarajevo, refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina, also said that she is not thinking of going back.

“I was born in Serbia, the year after my parents came to Serbia as refugees. I do not have any memory of Sarajevo. I have only even been to Bosnia a couple of times,” she said.

Despite some cultural differences, the refugees from Croatia and Bosnia all celebrate or mourn together - and miss the things they have lost.

“I wish that I could go to the sea in Croatia. However, my parents have some doubts about it. I do hope that someday things will calm down so I could go,” Jasna said.

Some refugees are still homeless, however. According to Ivan Miskovic from Serbia’s Commissariat for Refugees and Migration, there are still several dozen of people who were displaced from Croatia living in temporary accommodation in so-called ‘collective centres’ across the country.

“The collective centres will be closed by the end of the year, so the refugees from Croatia will get places [to live in],” Miskovic told BIRN.

In the first years after Operation Storm, the majority of the 200,000 refugees from Croatia lived in collective centres and refugee camps.

According to Miskovic, the EU has given Serbia more than 12 million euros to provide homes for refugees who are still in the camps and collective centres so that after 21 years, they can finally be closed down.

But Savo Strbac from the Serbian NGO Veritas said that there is a little chance that Serb refugees from Croatia will get their original homes back again.

“The position of the Serb minority in Croatia is getting worse. We have complaints basically every day now about the treatment of Serbs in Croatia,” Strbac told BIRN.

He said that after Operation Storm, the remaining Serbs continued to leave Croatia.

“I have been following migration in Croatia since 2002. In the first years, there was a bigger return of Serbs to Croatia, but for a decade, there have been more departures from Croatia then returns,” he explained.

He also said that in Croatia’s 2011 census, the Serb population only amounted to 4.36 per cent, whereas in the 1991 census it had been 12.2 per cent.

Back in Busije, Zivko was still thinking about the place he calls his zavicaj - a word that means ‘homeland’ in English, but has deeper emotional connotations in his own language.

“I am still considering returning to the homeland, that is why I have kept my refugee ID card and do not have Serbian citizenship,” he said.

“My father is still there and I would go back, but I have security concerns because of the nationalism in Croatia. On the other hand, my children and grandchildren are here and they are integrated in Serbia. Basically, I have been torn between returning and staying for 20 years.”

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