ZAGREB, CROATIA February 2004
Croatia is pursuing membership on the European Union with vigor, but to achieve this it would mean handing over their war criminals to the Hague and re-settling the tens of thousands of Serbian refugees driven out by ethnic cleansing.
At the end of a brilliant winter’s afternoon, the sky darkened suddenly and seemed to take whatever hope there was left of the day. The wind started up. Solitary figures, distant and tiny against the violent white backdrop, slowed and hunched themselves up. Bitter gusts buffeted roofs making snow clumps fall and disintegrate.
In the dimming light, row after row of huts stood bleakly throwing off the appearance of a Gulag from another age. Except this wasn’t a prison, but a refugee camp just outside the Serbian capital Belgrade. These people came years ago as Yugoslavia was tearing itself apart. And now, they can’t bring themselves to leave.
The Balkans are meant to be at peace. The killing finished. The security umbrella of the international community in place. Yet no-one here trusts it.
‘I’ve been here eight years,’ said the head of the camp, Branislav Spacic, dropping a cigarette into the snow. ‘I’ve only known one family go back and stay. A lot of them try, but they’re back here again soon enough.’
We were standing in the cold outside the hut of Tintor Lubica, an elegant, educated, middle-aged woman who didn’t want us inside because she had two sick relatives in there and her mother.
Tintor, although a Serb, used to be a personal assistant to a former Croatian Prime Minister. Her husband had been the adviser to another politician. They had busy, middle-class schedules in the corridors of power, living in a government apartment close to the centre of the Croatian capital Zagreb, its walls lined with an art collection and a library of books.
Then in 1991, without notice, they were told to leave because they were Serbs – not pack and leave, but just get out, amid the mad panic and fear which then gripped the Balkans.
I wanted to meet Tintor before I went to Zagreb, the city that was once her home, where I planned to ask around if it would be safe for her to return.
I had an appointment with the new Croatian Prime Minister, the urbane and multi-lingual, Ivo Sanader, who is on a quest to end his country’s stigma or war and become a member of the European Union. The success of refugee return is one of the conditions for joining.
‘The war is behind us,’ he says optimistically. ‘The return of refugees was one of the first announcements of my administration. Croatia is facing a great future and everyone must help. Right down to every office in every village. They must make sure it works.’
The European Union is monitoring the resettlement program and hundreds of millions of Euros have been set aside to build whole new communities for those who want to come back.
‘I think we have passed the point of ethnic cleansing,’ said one EU official. ‘But there is still a big step to go between the absence of ethnic incidents and when neighbors are actually neighborly to each other.’
One place where it’s meant to be working is the village of Dvor on Croatia’s border with Bosnia, one of those places which fell backwards and forwards between opposing troops during the war. So many Serb refugees have returned there that the village is now run by a Serbian mayor who won local elections.
But very quickly, I got a glimpse of how mistrust lingers. The mayor is having to contend with complaints about victimization. People are receiving back-dated water bills, some from the early nineties when the conflict was at its height – and they weren’t even in their homes.
‘It’s not just the Croats who are getting the bills,’ he says to one of his Croat constituents, who runs the local bakery. ‘It’s the Serbs as well you know.’
‘There you are,’ she says. ‘You bring race into everything.’
Tintor Lubica had given me the address of her apartment in Zagreb. Children were playing down a snow slope on sleds.
‘Are they Serbs or Croats,’ I asked Marko, my interpreter, as we walked passed.
‘I can never tell,’ he said. ‘They could be Bosnians. I shouldn’t think the Serbs have come back.’
During the Balkan war, it wasn’t what you looked like, but your name which got you into trouble. Marko ran his finger down the names on the doorbells, trying to decipher where each family came from.
We walked up a flight and pressed the bell of Tintor’s apartment. A petite, friendly blonde woman opened the door, her face full of curiosity and welcoming.
‘Hi,’ I said. ‘We just wanted to know how long you’ve been here.’
Before she could say anything, a man appeared, tall with long dark shoulder length hair. His hand was on the door closing it before we could get any further.
We went back to see Tintor. She invited us into her hut and I showed her the film of her neighborhood. She peered at the screen wanting to look further inside the apartment. ‘Did you see my pictures,’ she said. ‘Were there any pictures from my collection on the wall.’
Her mother, next to her, squeezed her hand. In beds hard against the walls, two sick relatives slept.
‘Do you know who they were?’ asked Tintor when she saw the couple.
‘No,’ I said. ‘No body wanted to tell us.’
She shook her head sadly. ‘There is no life for me back there. I will stay here in the camp.’
‘Why?’ I said. ‘They’re building new houses and everything.’
Tintor shrugged, pressed a tissue to the edge of her eyes and said nothing.