Neither Croat, nor Serb

By Antonio Bronic
March 21, 2013

Knin, Croatia

By Antonio Bronic

Ethnic conflict shook Croatia to the core during the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Today, both Serbs and Croats in the country still bear the scars – something clearly visible if you visit the areas around the southern town of Knin. Before the war broke out, most of Knin’s citizens were Serbs. When Croatia declared independence in 1991, Serbs who wanted to remain part of Yugoslavia staged a bloody rebellion, and Knin became their stronghold. The town was recaptured by the Croatian army in 1995 and the Serb population fled in the thousands, leaving behind their homes, most of which were soon torched or blown up by the Croats.

After the war ended, some of the Serbs returned and Croatian authorities promised they would receive equal assistance in rebuilding their damaged properties. But 18 years after the conflict, many are still making do with basic or temporary living arrangements. Croatia, preparing to join the European Union on July 1, has told the EU that houses for returning refugees would be constructed. I thought I would go and investigate the situation, and after a bit of research and a few phone calls, I managed to find people to talk to both in Knin and the surrounding areas.

Among them, I found Croatian Serbs whose houses are still in ruins, who are struggling to make ends meet, and who have survived on welfare since their return. One of them is Sava Knezevic, who has been living in a barn next to his destroyed home for 17 years now, and ekes out a meagre living by collecting and selling discarded plastic bottles. Instead of a toilet he uses bushes around the back, he has one electric socket in the barn, a small bed and a wood burning stove – and these are all of his possessions.

Twenty kilometres northeast of Knin is the village of Strmica, on the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina. There, I found a small abandoned primary school that serves as a makeshift refugee camp, and houses about 16 or 17 people, most of them Serbs, but a few Bosnians too. Many of them are waiting for their apartments to be ready and I think some may have been there a long time. But perhaps there’s not that long to go now; some new homes are more or less finished and they just need the water or electricity to be switched on, I think.

However, it was hard to be sure of the situation, as the school’s inhabitants weren’t that keen to talk. They had been disappointed by the authorities, but also by journalists who visited them and promised to bring help, then didn’t deliver. Many of the former school’s tenants refused to discuss their personal stories, and when I arrived, they were quick to shut the doors of their rooms.

Discouraged, I made my way towards the exit, but at the door I met a young man in his thirties and decided to try my luck one more time. I introduced myself and asked him to tell me his life story.

He opened up. His name was Drazen Matovic, and he was a Serb who had been living in the school for eight years. He was originally from Mlini, some 300 km (190 miles) away on the southern Adriatic coast, but in 1992 he fled for Serbia in the midst of the fighting. His parents died in Serbia, and in 2005 Drazen came back to Croatia. He ended up in Strmica, where he was sent by the UN refugee agency.

Now he just wants to work, but he faces a major obstacle: he can’t get papers. This means that any work he does would be illegal, and he is not eligible for welfare payments either. The problem is a Catch 22: The Croatian government says that he is Serbian, so he can’t have Croatian papers, while the Serbian government says he is Croatian, so can’t have Serbian papers.

For now, like others in the school, he receives food that is brought in from Monday to Friday, and he finds few ways to support himself so that he can eat on the weekends.

He told me he cried for two days when he was brought here in 2005 and that he felt enraged by the situation. Afterwards, he started studying the Bible and became more positive and calm. Now, he would like to learn English and use a computer, but without the necessary documents he can’t get a job. The situation is frustrating.

All the time, I kept thinking how a person’s life can fall apart without it being their fault. Drazen was 15 when the war happened; I was 7. If things had been different, I could have been just like him.

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