Skip to main content

Features

All dressed up

Urban refugees from Bosnia's war have no place to go either

The Hotel Dubrovnik makes an unlikely refugee camp.

The seven-story hotel fills half a city block on Zagreb's main square in a style that recalls the worst in '60s and '70s modern architecture. A dozen hotel residents are refugees from the Croatian city of Vucovar who fled Serb advances in 1992 and have not found a place to call home. The European Union pays their bill as part of its lead role in refugee resettlement under the Dayton peace accords.

Four years of fighting did not take a particularly heavy toll on this northern part of Croatia, but four months of peace are beginning to. As ethnic tensions remain high in Bosnia, they are felt in the Croatian capital 200 miles away. The presence of refugees in Zagreb has created a housing shortage and strained a job market already choking from state controls. Refugees are also being blamed for overloading local services to the point that officials have had to raise taxes.

Wages average $250 per month, but prices meet or exceed American levels. Shops carrying Doc Martens, English cigarettes, or German toys-trappings of prosperity-actually are meant for Western outsiders administering the peace.

Western nations are meeting in Brussels at the behest of Carl Bildt, the United Nations High Commissioner for Bosnia, in a month-long effort to raise $1.2 billion in donations from European Union members to rebuild Bosnia. Their meetings take place against a backdrop of worry that the political side of the Dayton peace accords is failing to match the success of the military operations.

Member nations have also failed to come up with funds to match money already pledged for civilian projects. The reconstruction-an anticipated $5 billion-plus provision of new infrastructure, jobs, and housing-is critical to upholding a mandate to return nearly one million refugees this year.

The United Nations says there are 2.2 million refugees from the four-year war. Half that number still live in Bosnia-and are technically referred to as "displaced"-and the other half have fled their own borders, some eventually winding up as far away as Germany and the United States.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' Gaylon Carey explains, "Dayton made people more hopeful about the possibility of going back. They may need to stay in Zagreb even for a year or more until it's safe. But what's uncertain at this point is whether there's a peace that's growing and blooming or whether somebody just pulled the rug over everything for a while."

Mr. Carey took up his post five days after the Dayton accords were signed. He is on loan to UNHCR from the National Association of Evangelicals' World Relief and will work in Zagreb for six months before returning to the private relief group's home office in Wheaton, Ill.

Mr. Carey has met with refugees in the larger cities as well as those in traditional camps along the Bosnia-Croatia border and down to the Adriatic coast. In every case, he says, "Ethnic cleansing which is at the heart of this war continues. Refugees continue to flee persecution, slave labor camps, beatings, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, and killings in the 'new' Bosnia."

Refugee camps along the Bosnia-Croatia border fit the evening news stereotype: They are thick in spring mud, still overcrowded, and poorly sanitized. But resettling the refugees who live in city hotels or apartments is no easier task. Here the displaced may appear more dressed up, but they still have no place to go.

In Zagreb one in six residents is a refugee. "It's the equivalent of 50 million refugees showing up in the United States," says Peter Mackenzie, a Scotsman who has pastored Zagreb's downtown Baptist church for 17 years. "This is a very small country with a huge war on its plate."

The Bosnian university students who gather for a regular Tuesday evening meeting all carry ID papers attesting to their refugee status. All attended universities in Bosnia-mostly in or near Sarajevo-that moved their programs to Zagreb at the start of the war. A few attend classes together, but most have found each other through assigned housing like a room at the Dubrovnik or the networking powers of Ivo Markovic, a middle-aged Catholic priest who acts as the group's unofficial chaperone and ends each meeting by leading praise singing and folk dances.

For this unconventional country club, they have commandeered a sparse social hall in Zagreb long enough to know to bring their own lightbulbs. Like students anywhere, most of these 50 young men and women slouch in with their denim jackets and their cross-trainer footwear.

Meeting each week, even in a late-winter snowfall, is no problem, says biology major Katarina Sucic. "We want to see each other. We have the same problems, so it is important to be together."

The problems include separation from family, discrimination in their temporary homes, nonexistent finances, and living with uniquely uncertain futures.

Like many of her friends, Katarina has been cut off from her family since the war began. In four years she has not seen her mother, who stayed on in Sarajevo to protect the family's apartment and possessions. Her father, to escape conscription into the army, took a government engineering job that sent him to Africa. He took Katarina's younger brother with him.

The Croatian government helps Katarina with rent because she is a refugee but she had a hard time locating an apartment because "no one here wants to rent to a Bosnian. People don't like refugees." Most refugees are prohibited from taking jobs, but Katarina can work (with government approval and a once-a-month check-up) in Zagreb because her father is Croatian.

"I grew up in a community where no one thought about nationality. Now everyone wants to be separate," she says. When she finishes her studies in biology next year, she'd like to return to Sarajevo but does not think her family can live together again in her predominantly Muslim neighborhood.

On this night the students will listen to a postmodern painter from Sarajevo named Ljubomir Percinlic and see an abbreviated exhibit of his work, which has been traveling the countryside ever since the gallery he used in Sarajevo was bombed.

He expects to lead a discussion of his minimalist techniques, but the students turn out to be quicker to identify with the plight of these itinerant paintings than their content. What is the place for art, they want to know, if it has no place to reside? They see how difficult ethnic cleansing has made knowing even where to hang a painting, and they look past the art to wonder how they will find a place after their own communities have rejected them. Mr. Percinlic acknowledges, "The war will start new influences in Bosnian art and civilization," but questions persist until a student named Marko complains, "Won't someone talk about the paintings instead of politics?"

"It's important to know our history and customs," says Katarina, "because eventually most of us must go back to Bosnia and make a new home." Like every other student here, she is tentative about the future. Katarina is a child of a mixed marriage-her mother is Bosnian, her father, Croatian. She is finding that brings its own kind of problems: She can be rejected by both sides as easily as accepted. "It's hard to live in Bosnia; it's hard to live in Croatia. Sometimes I think it's better to go somewhere else, but I talk to people who've gone to other countries like the United States, and that is no solution."

In the United States three agencies with distinct worldviews are handling most resettlement cases from Bosnia: the U.S. Catholic Conference, the Hebrew-American Aid Society, and World Relief.

World Relief has handled more than 2,000 cases-permanently resettling the refugees in the United States-since the war began. But Mr. Carey acknowledges that "most people want to go home."

Where that's not possible, he says Christians can respond on a local level by assisting a Bosnian refugee family arriving in their own community. "Whatever one thinks of U.S. policies in Bosnia, we are surely correct in providing refuge to those who have fled the carnage and have nowhere to go. Helping a refugee family rebuild their lives is a practical, hands-on ministry which is as appropriate for American churches as it is for churches here."

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.