Bosnia looking to close refugee housing centers
TUZLA, Bosnia and Herzegovina — Begajeta Ademovic has been uprooted time and again since the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia.
And she will soon pack up and move yet another time.
Since she fled Srebrenica in 1995, Ademovic has lived in a tent and a room packed with refugees, shared a rented house with several families for a while, and has spent the last two years in a collective center — a building owned by a coal mining company.
But local authorities and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees are spearheading efforts to close down what are known as collective centers and help the people living in them return to a normal life.
The center Ademovic lives in is earmarked to be the next one.
“It is unusual that after eight years we still have collective centers,” said Yukiko Ishii, an official with UNHCR in northeastern Bosnia. “Displaced persons will become social cases in the future if they are without a place to go [or without] income. Our ultimate goal is to find a solution for each displaced person.”
When the flood of refugees started during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia, authorities put them any place they could find — in schools, hotels, student dorms, empty factories, tents.
Over the years, most of these schools and factories were returned to their original purposes, but about 4,000 people in northeastern Bosnia still live in refugee centers, many with poor living conditions. The UNHCR has been prioritizing, and shutting down those with the worst living conditions first.
Hamdija Numanovic, the deputy minister for returns and reconstruction in Tuzla Canton, spoke of the need to close down the refugee centers with a sense of urgency.
Each month that displaced persons continue living in collective centers, Numanovic said, keeps them one step further from returning to a normal life. And the rent the government pays to use the private buildings for their accommodation eats up funds that could be used to rebuild homes and allow people to return to decent conditions, he said.
Still, Numanovic believes there has been great success. Four centers recognized by the Bosnian government and another four on UNHCR’s lists have closed in the past year.
All collective centers should be closed this year or maybe 2005, he said.
The process is slow and difficult.
Few of the refugees have much income. Their prewar homes have been destroyed, electrical and water lines in their former communities stripped, and schoolhouses for their children wiped out.
The local government tries to help by providing construction material for families to rebuild homes. It also offers free transportation and coal for heating and cooking stoves. UNHCR steps in with blankets and basic supplies and also provides transportation.
Of 2 million people who fled Bosnia during the war, 1 million have returned, but more than 400,000 are still displaced within the country, according to the UNHCR.
“Of course, everyone wishes to return to their own land, but there are no conditions to do it,” Ademovic said. “There’s always something missing — electricity, water, school.”
Ademovic and two other families live in a rundown building with no running water, scraps of carpeting covering the hallways and one room heated by a wood stove. The bathroom is no more than a hole in the ground, and an outdoor faucet that water drips out of is the only water source for the small community.
While those conditions are less than ideal, the three families have been trying to buy time until the weather gets warmer before they have to move out.
For Galiba Muhic, returning to the village near Srebrenica where she lived before the war would mean living without basic amenities. The closest school for her children is 25 miles away, and she would have to wait until more people return to the village to get electricity and water installed.
“Before they bring the electricity, water and build a school, there will be nothing there,” Muhic said.
“We’ve packed up and moved so many times, but what can we do? We have to,” Ademovic said. “When you don’t have your own [home], you have to go where [authorities] find you accommodations.”
While relief organizations offering funding to help solve some of these issues were around several years ago, there are fewer each day. Over the years, Bosnia has been losing international attention and funding to other crisis areas — Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
“It’s getting difficult to solve these problems,” said Ishii, the official with UNHCR in northeastern Bosnia. “We still need the attention and international support, so it’s a bit unfortunate.
“If they want to return, they should hurry up,” she added.