Christmas was also celebrated by approximately 25 Serb returnees in the suburb of Krkojevci. They have been accommodated in the lime factory "Splonum" in a refugee center which we visited several days after this great Christian holiday.
At the very entrance to center we were welcomed by grandmother [affectionate term for elderly woman] Milka Camber, at whose feet bounced a small puppy.
"Come in, children, and warm yourselves," said grandmother Milka and led us into a large room that served as the kitchen.
"We are bare-footed and sorrowful, but it must be endured," muttered the grandmother as she made us some coffee...
In this refugee center, for months already, a few Serb returnees have been waiting to move into their houses, which are being refurbished by the humanitarian organization Lutheran Alliance "Ring". In one of the six rooms (with army-issue blankets instead of doors), each of which houses up to five people, we encountered Dusko Cosic, the youngest returnee to Krkojevac. He was in the process of installing an old door in his room to protect him a bit from the cold and draft.
"I came here seven months ago from the refugee center in Kozarac. There we were told that we would get sites to build houses and land for free, then we were suddenly advised that we must give four-five thousand marks for a building license. How am I supposed to have that kind of money when I gave everything I had for a Serb state. The refugee center in Kozarac was visited by at least 30 delegations and they promised us before the elections that they would make prefabricated housing; after the elections they forgot us. People there are dying and no one cares." With these acerbic words Dusko explained his return to his hometown.
He said that all that remained of the house built by his parents, in which he had lived with his mother, were the walls and traces of livestock that had been kept here by Bosniak refugees from Dubrava near Gradiska, Banja Luka and Prnjavor. As the Lutheran Alliance is refurbishing only the houses of returnees who are living in the paint factory while their houses are being worked on, Dusko's house is now being refurbished.
"The house is very damp. It will take at least three-four months for the walls to dry. I hope that in the spring I will be able to move into my house. Then I will go to Kozarac to get my mother. My mother recently suffered a stroke and is in critical condition. If I can make some kind of life here I will stay; if not, I will sell or exchange the house. I have no other alternative," said Dusko. "Our biggest problem is the lack of the most basic necessities in the house. When we move into the refurbished houses we will be given only a stove and a few pots; we have to buy beds and a table and chairs ourselves."
We returned to the improvised kitchen where grandmother Milka was already waiting with coffee. Her husband and her son, she told us, had gone early in the morning to the construction site to help the workers.
"We have had enough of roving around in refugee camps. We returned here because there is no place like one's own home," said grandmother Milka, adding that primarily elderly people have returned to the 12 houses refurbished in Krkojevci to date.
"In all honesty, I must tell you that it is far more risky for us younger people to return. Because if some problems should come up, they won't mess with old people. But the younger returnees, whether they are Serbs, Bosniaks or Croats, all of them, 99 percent of them, were in the army and of course they are afraid that they will have problems. But when someone decides to return then nothing can stop them. Whatever will be, will be. So far no one has said anything to me because of the fact that I served in the Serb army; I was even visited by my friends from school and colleagues with whom I worked for 12 years in the "Sip" furniture factory," interjected Dusko, adding that the refugee center is inspected three to four times every day by local and international police patrols, and by SFOR.
The residents of the refugee center in Krkojevci have good relations with their Bosniak neighbors because, according to Dusko, they are happy that Serbs are returning to Sanski Most; then they, too, can return to their homes in Gradiska, Banja Luka, Prnjavor, Prijedor...
Thanks to the Lutheran Alliance which donated a tractor and planting seed, the returnees to this suburb have already planted wheat and barley, and are impatiently waiting for spring to plant vegetables, as well.
In the improvised bathroom of the refugee center, we encountered 77 year-old Pajo Sobota shaving with cold water. However, poor living conditions did not deter him from returning.
"My wife and I lived in a small house in Vrbanja but we decided to return to our own property. No place is as nice as your own home, no matter how hard it is to live. When they finish the house, I will bring my wife here as well. I have already planted a crop of wheat; when we get some livestock I think that we will live well. The only problem is that our barn was destroyed," said Pajo, with whom we set out a little later to see his house and encountered several workers in camouflage uniforms installing a deck.
"From now on I will have to take off my shoes when I enter the house," said Pajo with a pleased smile as we inspected the construction site.
Returnees to Krkojevci are not the only Serbs who have returned to the region of the municipality of Sanski Most during the past year. Namely, on October 10, 1995, 27,670 Serbs left the city on the Sana River; since then, requests for the return of private property have been submitted by 5,000 people, and 976 local residents of Serbian ethnicity have submitted requests for the return of residency rights [in community-owned housing]. Of that number, we were informed by Bozidar Starijasa, the head of the municipal Information Center for the Return of Serbs to Sanski Most, 120 families with 256 members have returned, while 49 apartments and 27 houses were returned to their previous owners. The greatest number of Serbs returned to the villages of Lusci Palanka, Slatina, Krkojevci and Prastala where refurbishing of hundreds of returnee homes is in progress.
"At the moment in Sanski Most there are 29 empty apartments into which their highnesses the Serbs do not wish to return and which have been rented out. With regard to this issue we have asked for the intervention of OHR and a decision was made that citizens who do not return to their apartments within a period of three months will lose residency rights. Unfortunately, we have many such cases but this will soon be resolved. Really, if somebody wants to lose an apartment worth 40 or 50 thousand marks which is how much they can sell for once they purchase it from the state, let them go ahead and do it. To date 164 Serb houses in Sanski Most have been sold. Their previous owners are still living in houses owned by others in Banja Luka, Gradiska and Prijedor. We have reached an agreement with OHR that they will be the first people on the eviction lists," said Starijas categorically. He claimed that every day approximately 250 Serbs visit the Information Center office primarily to submit requests for the return of property.
Among Serbs from Sanski Most, the current fashion is renting out apartments and houses to Bosniaks coming from Germany in the hope that they will soon reclaim their houses in the Republic of Srpska because they are the only ones with the means to pay rent of 300 convertible marks [KM, Bosnian currency] per month. A great number of Serbs really do decide to sell their property regardless of the very low real estate prices. For example, Starijas cites the example of a Serb man from the village of Kruhari who sold 3 hectares of land [approximately 7.5 acres] and a house with a yard for only 13,000 marks.
"Here two-story houses are being sold for 30 to 40 thousand marks. This does not qualify as selling! It is making fools of the people who want to return. On the other hand, Krkojevci, Podlug and Kruhari are one hundred percent Serb villages, so you can imagine what it will look like when three or four houses in those places are sold. I must also add that in Sanski Most, 72 percent of the privately owned land belongs to Serbs and no one has the right to give that land to someone else. In addition to this, 250 Bosniaks from Krkojevci are due to return soon to the Japra Valley. Podlug, as well, will be empty, and to date we have only thirty or so persons wanting to return there. That is the tragedy of the Serb people, to which the government in the Republic of Srpska is adding by promising the people everything and anything before the elections. People are not thinking that the elections will pass, that they still be only refugees and that they still will not have anything," Starijas expressed his bitterness regarding the behavior of a great number of Serbs from the Sana region.
He also cited the example of Prastale where a great number of Serb houses were renovated but where no one has returned to date. In Starijas' opinion, it is necessary for someone in the RS government to publicly state that no one can remain in someone else's property, and thus support the return of Serbs to the western Krajina municipalities.
"In the municipality of Sanski Most, no more houses will be built for weekend visitors and tourists from Banja Luka, Gradiska and Prijedor, and especially for those from Yugoslavia. Houses will be renovated only for those who truly desire to return and who live in the refugee center while the reconstruction is taking place," warned Starijas.
Serb returnees with whom we spoke while in Sanski Most also expressed their bitterness toward the Srpska authorities from whom they have gotten nothing.
"Bosniaks returning to Prijedor or some other place are accompanied by truckloads of construction material and food while we have not even been visited by anyone from the ministry for refugees during this entire time. The only assistance we have gotten is from the humanitarian organization "Bread of Life" ["Hljeb zivota"] from Prijedor, which has helped us a great deal," said Starijas.
A great obstacle to the return of Serbs to the city on the Sana River, we were informed, was the barracks of the BH Federation Army in the suburb of Tomina; it was recently moved. In addition to this, the problem of employment was brought up. In Sanski Most, factories are working at only ten percent of capacity. Another problem is the education of younger generations of returnees who are soon due to arrive in the city.
Returns are also made more difficult by the fact that many Bosniaks, immediately following the entrance of the BH Army into Sanski Most, built houses in the yards of Serbs who left this city. However, this problem, too, will soon be resolved according to municipal officials; Serbs whose property was confiscated in this manner will be paid a certain compensation for their land.
That common life between Serbs and Bosniaks is possible despite everything is also evident from the example of Nurija Jakupovic, the head of the Police in Sanski Most, who in 1995, while walking through Sanski Most as an ordinary citizen, discovered religious books of exceptional historical value in the Eastern Orthodox Church and hid them in his family home to save them. Recently Jakupovic, with the mediation of Bahrudin Dzamdzic, the commander of the police station in Sanski Most, turned these books over to a priest from Ostra Luka, the seat of the Serb municipality of Sanski Most [i.e. the part of the pre-war Sanski Most municipality that is now in the Republic of Srpska].
Since more and more Serbs are returning to Sanski Most, it is the opinion of everyone with whom we contacted during our visit that the city is still missing an Orthodox priest who will perform holy liturgy on all days, not just on the major holidays, as was the case on Christmas. To this we might add that the Orthodox Church in Sanski Most is completely undamaged, except for windows which need to be reinstalled, and that Bishop Chrysostom has already announced his return visit on Easter [April 30, 2000] and St. George's Day [Djurdjevdan - May 6, 2000]. Also, the leaders of the municipal administration are prepared to assist with the preparation of the priest's house, and the numerous Orthodox Christian returnees hope that they will soon get their spiritual shepherd.
In conversation with the returnees, the team from Nezavisne Novine also heard that the majority of Serbs, unfortunately, did not register for the forthcoming local elections in Sanski Most. It is a shame that it is so, because two political parties from RS, the [Radisic's] Socialist Party of RS and [Dodik's] Independent Social Democratic Party, have candidates for municipal elections in this city. Had more Serbs registered, their votes would almost certainly ensure that these parties, in coalition with the Social Democratic Party of Bosnia-Hercegovina, would take over the government of Sanski Most.
During our stay in the city on the Sana River, we also met with returnees to the village of Slatina, which lies on the inter-entity border. The border has divided this Serbian village into two parts: one part of Slatina is in the Republic of Srpska, while the other is a part of the Federation Bosnia-Hercegovina.
"The inter-entity border line passes exactly through my property and I have land in both entities. But this did not prevent me from returning with the four members of my family to Slatina. It is interesting that a greater number of people have returned to the Federation than to the Republic of Srpska. To date ten families have returned; six more are due to move soon from Prijedor; while 42 families have submitted requests for their houses to be refurbished. Our houses were renewed by the Dutch humanitarian organization 'Dorkas Aid' and for now we are satisfied. However, we still do not have electricity and some families do not even have water, so they have to walk up to two kilometers to the spring in order to wash and cook something," said Zdravko Glusac, a returnee to Slatina.
From him we also learned that unlike other places in the Sana municipality, a large number of younger people have returned to this village and consequently, there are small children in Slatina. The only thing that Glusac complained about is that demining was not yet completed, even though Slatina, as a former battle zone, was full of anti-personnel mines and other explosive devices.
We met Mirko Crnomarkovic Brko, a returnee to the city of Sanski Most itself, while he and his neighbor, Cedo Radic, also a returnee, were sectioning off a part of the living room in his house where he returned on December 15 of last year.
"It's a big area and hard to keep warm," says Brko and after serving us with brandy which he had brought from Banja Luka, continues: "As a refugee, there are few places were I haven't been. I spent some time in Belgrade and ended up in Banja Luka. I lived in the seismological station on Banj Hill for two and a half years, in the middle of a forest; my only neighbors were bears. In the last year I rented a house in Pavlovci and from there I came back to my own house. I removed a great psychological burden when I returned to my own property. I like it here even though I don't know any of my current neighbors. The saddest and hardest thing for me is when I walk through Sanski Most and only meet a couple people whom I know. I don't mean just Serbs, but Bosniaks and Croats as well. Now only people who have come from somewhere else live here; I don't know anyone."
One part of Brko's house is a store which was appropriated during the war by Djiko Redzic [a Muslim] from Prijedor but Mirko succeeded in getting it back and plans to lease it out for a time, and later to open something for himself.
"I don't want to sell the house; I can only give it away for free so that it is not an option. I don't want to swap it [for a Bosniak owned house in the Republic of Srpska], either. I want to stay in this city," said Brko.
According to information which we received from Kemal Gunic, the president of the Association of Refugees from Banja Luka, to date 97 families have returned from Sanski Most to Banja Luka.
"I was pleasantly surprised when four Bosniak families recently returned to Banja Luka in a single day, which goes to show that as far as returns are concerned in the Republic of Srpska many things are changing. Our wish and desire is to have everyone return to his own property. However, the fact is that we can return to our home town only as long as Mr. Petritsch and the OHR are in power," emphasized Gunic. He mentioned that he personally had received a decision regarding the return of his private property and that in March, together with numerous neighbors temporarily residing in Sanski Most, he would finally return to Banja Luka.
From Gunic we also learned that to date Bosniaks from Banja Luka were evicted from 25 Serbian houses in Sanski Most, and the team from Nezavisne Novine had the opportunity during its stay in this city to witness the moving of two more Bosniak families from apartments which need to be returned to Serbs.