by Slobodan DURMANOVIC
"We should only talk about self-sustaining return, but I do not even dare ask those who are coming back what they are living on," says Ajaz for Reporter, stressing that the "situation in the Republic in Srpska is the same". To the remark that in Srpska returnees at least do not have to spend two years in an apartment before buying it, he shrugs his shoulders. "That's the policy, what can we do," he responds, admitting that the time requirement is excessively long.
Dragan Mitrovic, who has recently returned to Tuzla to spend two years, says that he was forced to do so after being evicted from an apartment in Bijeljina. "I have some supplies for the beginning. Later, I'll see. Hopefully, I'll find something. Once I buy the apartment, I will probably sell it," he says. Besides Dragan, several other Reporter's interlocutors prefer to remain anonymous. The reason is simple. "Who can live in an apartment for two years, if it's almost impossible to make ends meet even in Bijeljina, let alone in Tuzla... I come from time to time, once or twice a month, check out the apartment and the neighbor who takes care of the apartment. He keeps the light in the apartment on and turns it off late at night," explains one of our interlocutors.
The story of others differs only in the number of weekly visits to the apartment. And in one more detail - in the price they pay to neighbors for "work" on the light switch. Between $25 and $50. "It is impossible to sublet the apartments. Some people were tempted like that and later reported. They almost lost the right to an apartment," says our source.
However, there is a "system" for the sale of apartments, a way to avoid the requirement to spend two years in the apartment before earning the right to buy it. If the sale price is taken into account, this "system" is more akin to simple grabbing. People agree out of necessity, evicted, without work that would allow them to pay the rent, and without hope that, even if they wanted to return to Tuzla, they would be able to find full-time work.
Several of Reporter's interlocutors, again anonymous, testify that they sold their apartments in Tuzla for about $400 per meter square [about 9 square feet], although the market price is higher by $150-$200 per meter square.
"You give a power of attorney to someone, usually a lawyer, who brings you clean papers, empties the apartment, i.e. speeds up the eviction, finds a buyer, and finally brings the money," says one of Reporter's anonymous interlocutors. It is a public secret in Bijeljina that many refugees from Tuzla use this method. One of them, while refusing to reveal the name of the intermediary, "lest the deal fall through", states that if the goal is to sell an apartment, it is possible to urgently evict even the senior officers of the Federation BH Army.
People in Tuzla only speculate about the provisions skimmed by the intermediaries in these deals, after selling the apartment on their own or for a wealthy buyer for a sale price based provision. The municipal government states that they are not "aware of such cases" and evictions "have been anyway speeded up based on requests of international organizations".
Evictions from privately owned houses take much more time, partly because of "problems with alternative accommodation" and partly because of uncontrolled illegal occupation of Serb houses at the beginning of the war, as Mustafa Begic, the deputy municipal commissioner for legal-property issues, says for Reporter. He says that out of 1,580 requests for the return of property, 712, plus 42 based on decisions of the CPRC, have been resolved, and property has been returned to 253 families. But even in this case figures are highly unreliable. Most of these houses have been exchanged between Serbs and Bosniaks, says Begic's expert collaborator Sabina Jusic. She counts Serb families who have returned to live in Tuzla on fingers of one hand. "In Pozarnica about five families, in Kusici two families of Misics and that's it...," she concludes the "list". Besides, mostly the elderly are coming back. Young very seldom. Finally, the object that is returned to the owner is very seldom livable. Jusic claims that "it would not be like that if a majority wanted to return," but she refuses to tell us why "it would not be like that". The true answer arrives a bit later, indirectly. "There is no humanitarian assistance, social assistance; factories are not working; here a majority lives from the work on the market, selling and smuggling, just like in the Republic of Srpska. People are on their own, and there are children, school, and so... And especially in the city, one cannot live from bare walls," concludes the expert collaborator. She claims that the situation is somewhat better in the villages as "it is possible to get a cow or two, a bit of seed to sow something, and so..."
However, the Serb refugees returning to the village of Pozarnica, a majority Serb village before the war, are very concerned. During the last few months several tenths of them have been working on clearing up the ruins in the village. In a visit to this devastated villages in the foothills of Majevica Mountain it is easy to notice that only a few of the destroyed houses have a wall standing. On others, skeletons of houses, only a brick or two clings to the lonely concrete pillars, left over after the demolition of the houses with explosives. "The stuff that's left is too loose, so that it is impossible to build on top of it," says Krsto Dragic, pointing at his former two floor house, of which only the support columns, a staircase and concrete floor remain. He is one of the group of six refugees who have recently been visiting their ruins from Bijeljina. They have reported for return, so that one (they do not know which one) Swedish organization promised to deliver them material for the construction of houses. Krsto Dragic mentions that one Bosniak had offered to buy his plot for a very low price. "This is a good spot, by the road, so that I would try to start some sort of a business, if possible. If not, it'll be easy to sell later," says Krsto. Nemanja Mitrovic has already built a house for himself in Bijeljina, and he intends to set up a vacation home of some sort, but he does not know how he will build it, as the Swedes only provide construction material, while the returnees have to pay for the clearing of the ruins and construction on their own. "I will need at least $5,000 to clear the ruins and build a house half the size of the one I had before the war," Nemanja calculates. Other returnees are in a similar position. Elderly Mijat Lekic hopes to "cooperate with someone". If he ever builds a house he will return with his wife, and their son will remain in Lopare in a rented apartment. "I do not know how I'm going to survive here. Hopefully I will be able to get a pension in Tuzla. I cannot live from the current one [from the Republic of Srpska]. It will be equally impossible to live on the one from Tuzla, but there's nothing else left to do," says Mijat. He and middle-aged Milan Jovanovic are afraid that Bosniaks from the nearby villages will steal their construction material once it arrives. "They have already cut my forest. If the lot from the city hall do not do anything to help us protect the material, the only thing left to do is to put bricks in our pockets and go sleep in Bijeljina," says Milan.
Thirty-years-old Predrag Ceketic, married, with two children, is totally at loss. "I have been threatened with an eviction in Bijeljina, and I haven't applied for assistance in construction material. No one can guarantee anything in the city hall. I have a bit of land behind the house, but I do not dare go there without an official of some sort [fearing landmines]," says Predrag. He survives this way and that. Trade on the market, "other temporary jobs". What does he see in his future? "What future?" he says as if no one had asked him that question before.