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.