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While most Serbs who fled the 1995 offensive in Croatia have built new lives, more than 300 others are still stuck in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Belgrade

 

written for us by

Katica Durovic

 

 

The road to the refugee Camp Krnjaca is covered with heaps of litter and rubbish, dunes of clothes and building materials. The camp itself is surrounded by wire - with a Roma settlement and factory buildings as its neighbours. At the first glance, the refugee camp looks like a prison. There is even a guard manning the entrance.
"We call this camp a prison because we're behind a wire fence," said one young girl at the entrance. "If we leave for more than three days, we have to inform the compound manager, and if we stay away for more than five days we have to report to the commissariat for refugees. We have no freedom here," she added.

The camp is made up of dozens of rows of unpainted shacks with nothing but laundry hung on the handmade hanging lines - a rope and a pole which swings on the cool autumn wind that comes from the nearby Danube River. Some clothes have fallen on the ground, while others are still flipping against the wind. Around it, there is no shade at all - not even a tree has been planted here.
There are barely people outside. Whenever they spot a stranger they hastily retreat to their shacks. I was told later that people here are wary of journalists. "We complain for nothing. Politicians and foreigners come here only to pose for media, they promise castles and lands and then leave without helping us at all. And journalists exploit us. Bad news for us is good news for them. Our suffering is good for newspapers stories", the old thin man lamented and went on to: "Don't take a photograph of me", pointing his finger at the camera.

Refugee Island

The Krnjaca camp is home to 315 refugees and internally displaced persons. There are some from Bosnia and Herzegovina, others from Kosovo, but the majority of them come from Croatia. They fled in 1995 during the Croatian offensive codenamed Operation Storm to capture the Serb-held Krajina region.

According to Mrs. Zorica Isailovic, Krnjaca camp's accommodation officer, this camp will be last to close in the region. She says that it has to stay opened primarily because of its vicinity to the city centre and hospitals. That is why, almost every week, new refugees arrive at Krnjaca as other camps in Serbia close down after the bulk of their residents have moved out to more conventional housing. This camp's residents are generally those whose circumstances are the most difficult - they may be too old or too ill to contemplate returning home or starting a new life in Serbia. Many suffer from psychiatric disorders, cancer, diabetes, kidney failure and other diseases, and are under constant medical supervision. No one knows when this camp will close its doors, but until that happens, this is the only home the refugees know.
The construction company "Ivan Milutinovic PIM", which owns the campsite, signed a contract with Serbia's Commissariat for refugees back in 1993, opening up the premises as a haven for refugees. The prefabricated wooden housing blocks contain 16 rooms each, ranging from eight to 15 square metres in size. Most rooms house up to three people, depending on the family situation, so each block accommodates 40 or 50 refugees sharing four toilets and three showers.
"There are communal bathrooms in the camp, with no screens or partitions. There is no privacy for all sexes and/or ages in the camp...not even children," said Mrs Isailovic.

Krnjaca love story

Since the opening of the camp, in 1993, more than 3000 people lived here. Some of them have migrated between several refugee camps, while others have been living in this camp since it opened its doors. One of those who never moved out of the Krnjaca camp is Mira Pozar, a 37 year old housewife, from Daruvar, Croatia. Mira not only has lived in this camp since she came in Serbia in 1995, but also she fell in love, got married and gave birth to her son in Krnjaca camp.

Mira came to Krnjaca refugee camp in May 1995, during the Operation Flash conducted by Croatian Army which removed Serb forces and Serb population from the Slavonija region of Croatia. The operation resulted in a large number of ethnic Serb civilian casualties, while over 15,000 were displaced from their homes. This operation was a precursor of the notorious Storm Operation that happened few months later in August and made 200,000 Croatian Serbs flee the country. Mira's father was killed by Croats in 1994, forcing her mother to send her away in order to save her life. "My mother stayed there because she didn't want to leave our family house and my father's grave", Mira says while tears well up her eyes. "It was a war, a lot of people lost their families, on both sides. I can't be angry at anyone".
In 1996 she met her future husband Zoran, who had just left the army in Croatia due to health problems and moved to Krnjaca camp. "I didn't expect to fall in love here. After losing members of my family, my home and friends, the last thing I was thinking about was love. But it happened. Without Zoran my life in Krnjaca camp wouldn't be the same." As she talks she constantly keeps fidgeting with one hand in her dress pocket. Later on, when she is relaxed, she pulls the hand out. It appears flexed and she explains that this was due to a car accident she had couple of years ago, which has now rendered her unable to work anywhere.

I met Mira on her way from the city centre. Every day she takes her eight year old son Zoran Jrn. to school and accompanies him back from school. He is the only kid at that age from the refugee camp that goes to school and he is still afraid to go alone. Especially, since he needs to cross a very busy motorway that connects Belgrade to the nearby Pancevo town. In the evening, she does the same route for his basketball classes. "Zoran came as a surprise to us. We didn't really plan to have children. But when I got pregnant I asked my husband Zoran what we should do. See, I couldn't use one hand, and you know, it is a baby, it needs a constant care. My husband replied: "If we survived the war, we can survive the child". That's how Zoran Jrn. was born. We won't have any more children though; we don't have conditions to sustain another child. He is the only precious thing in our life now. That's why we need to take care of him." She quipped.

Growing up in a refugee camp

Zoran Jrn. likes when someone talks about him. He laughs and listens carefully while his mother says that he is not different from other children, but his life certainly is.
Zoran Jrn. was the only baby among 50 people in the barrack where the Pozar's family lived for 11 years. People were nervous, even agitated because of the life they had in the barracks. Often, there were fights, arguments and noise. "It's a pity because, so far, Zoran didn't have a normal childhood. The camp is not a perfect children environment," continues Mira.
There is a particular anecdote the Pozar family always remembers and likes talking about. Until the age of six Zoran Jnr. neither knew what a toilet seat looked like nor had he ever used a modern toilet. "When he went to school, his teacher told me that he would go every 5 minutes to the toilet - not because he needed to relieve himslef, but because he wanted to flush the water. It was totally new experience for him". This statement sparks a round of laughter from the whole family.
Zoran Jrn. is at this moment one of the nine children in the refugee camp. However, the rest of them have siblings and cannot play with him all the time. That's why Zoran has a cat called Maza, whom he keeps posing with in front of the camera.

Another of his hobbies is stone collection. While talking about it, he opens a big suitcase full of rocks and stones from his father's homeland. "I want to be a researcher. There is an old settlement near my grandfather's house and there are plenty of rocks. One lady from Zagreb took one of my rocks. She said she wants to examine it but she never returned it".

Leaving behind the suitcase full of rocks, he turned his attention on me, calmly inquired what things interested me. Mira whispered it is for the drawing. Interestingly, the young boy always likes to ask visitors that question, so that he can draw their preferences, yet all he can really draw with his eight year old hands are little love hearts. Well, I told him that I liked wild animals and mountains. Zoran Jrn. immediately disappeared into a quiet corner, focusing intently on his drawing. Fifteen minutes later he reappeared, and gave me a hand-made postcard. It was written: "I am so happy to meet you". Then there was a picture of lion and a mountain on it. And plenty of hearts of course!

Pozar family is one of the few families in the camp who had the privilege of moving out from their common barracks to one of the few more private houses. So, they only share their current barrack with one more family. This 16 square meters room with a toilet inside is their only living space. The whole room is overcrowded, there is a king size bed in the middle and a small one bought recently for Zoran Jrn. On one corner of the house is garden like arrangement full of different kind of plants. "It is a good contrast to the rest of the room," Mira explains. The rest of the room are closets and improvised shelves that Zoran Senior made in order to create more space in the room.

The family also explains that they buy new furniture from time to time because they hope one day they will have a place of their own. "Life is hard. But I hope one day my son will have it easier and we can buy him a flat before passing away," said Mira, who lives on Zoran's monthly disability pension. "We don't want to live only on charity. We want to be able to take a housing loan from the bank. We have enough money to pay our monthly rent. But as refugees we have not been accorded that right." She added.
According to the Refugee Law, whoever obtains Serbian citizenship is automatically deleted from the refugee database and is obliged to leave the camp immediately and/or pay for their accommodation. The Pozar family are willing to take this option, because it means they would finally have an identity as well as a place they can call their home.


Stuck in the middle - Imprisoned Rambo

Most of the refugees from Croatia face problems with their housing rights back home. Normally it is really difficult for them to get their homes back but Pozar doesn't have that problem. Moreover, their family house has been rebuilt and Zoran's father lives there. Pozar's family though has a problem of a different kind.

While serving his home-made grape juice, Zoran starts to talk about what he calls his "war adventure" and reason why he cannot go back to Croatia. Zoran Jrn. pulls a chair next to his father, and beginning to listen keenly. He has probably heard this story thousand times, but he still listens to it with full attention. "I was 18 when I went to the military service of the Yugoslavian National Army", narrates Zoran. "Few months later the war between Croatia and Yugoslavia broke. I didn't realise what was going on until I got arrested by the Croatian army. I was in captivity for 126 days. It was like in the Rambo movies, but with less extreme forms of torture and drama - there were no cages in the water. I had enough time to think about my situation. From time to time I'd come up with some scenes from the Rambo movies, but I knew I was no super hero, nor was I like the fictional Rambo who could kill 100 people, and save whole world. So, I just waited patiently for my release".

After four agonising months, Zoran was finally exchanged in a military operation. Yugoslavian army had to release 16 Croatian soldiers in exchange of Zoran's freedom. "It was still the beginning of the war so there were more Croats arrested than Serbs", explains Zoran. Soon after being released, he had to go back to the army. However, after some time he got cancer and they released and sent him back to Serbia. In the mean time, he was told that the state of Croatia had started a trial against him for staying in Yugoslavian Army and was sentenced in absentia for 6 years imprisonment.
Since then, Zoran is afraid to go back to Croatia. He claims he is innocent. He was young and in the military service. His father, who still lives in Croatia, has tried to persuade the judge to overrule the harsh punishment, but it was declared that Zoran had to appear before the court in person in order to discuss his case. But he says this is a trap and he is not will to take the risk and end up in prison, leaving his family behind to suffer.

This 38 years old man, with an almost permanent smile on his face, has now resigned his fate to spending his time in the camp, playing a rusty accordion and raising his son. For the last 15 years, Zoran hasn't been outside of Serbia. He has been cured from the cancer, but in the mean time new heart problems occurred. "You know, I was a war prisoner, I know how it looks like. Now they say I have to serve six years for not joining the opposite army, but I am serving my punishment here. It may look like I am free, but I am a prisoner in this place. I am serving what can be called house arrest." Zoran says, with a nervous smile. "We met with the President of Croatia, Mr Josipovic on several occasions and asked him to help us, but he said the justice system always takes time."


"We want our house back"

Some families in the camp, however, are struggling for years to return back to their lost homes in Croatia. Pjevalica family who also resides in the Krnjaca camp is one such family.

Residing opposite the Pozar family, this family is also trying to assimilate in Serbia. Pjevalicas are highly home-bound. Walls in their tiny barrack are covered with photographs and posters of Krajina, region in Croatia from where they fled during the Storm operation. There is even an old calendar with a panoramic photo of Knin, their home town.

Dusanka Pjevalica fled Croatia with her two teenage sons in August 1995. Since 1995 they changed several refugee camps. "We lost our homes not only in the war, but in the fire, earthquake, among other catastrophes. Before Krnjaca, we lived in Refugee camp Cortanovci in Vojvodina for seven years until the fire destroyed the place along with everything we owned".

She says she'll never forget the night her life changed forever. "It was the night the bombing begun. I ran from my house in my slippers and nightgown. My two sons were with me. It was on the 4th of August, on one of my sons 16th birthday. While we were running I was thinking that this is the worst way to celebrate your child's birthday. We travelled for three days and three nights to Serbia - by foot, by tractor, by bus. There were lots of old and sick people with us. I didn't know what would happen to us. I had no money, no food, I didn't know if I would see my husband again," Dusanka Pjevalica said.
By the end of Operation Storm, which lasted four days, almost the entire Serb population had fled Croatia to Bosnia and Serbia. In the days that followed, nearly 2,000 Serbs were killed and some 20,000 houses burnt and looted.

Like the Pozar family, Dusanka's husband, Milan was also captured in the war, although he was a civilian. He was a biology and chemistry teacher, but now living in forced retirement. While Dusanka likes talking to the media so that everyone can see what is going on with the refugees, Milan refuses to appear in front of the camera. He sits in the corner and only from time to time adds a commentary before retreating back to his silent space. Dusanka explains that Milan still faces trauma, having spent 45 days in prison, witnessed rapes and other horrendous tortures. She also explains that he has become almost totally deaf since then, and does not like to talk about this period of his life.

While drinking coffee, Dusanka shows old albums from the period before the war - the flat, the neighbours, and their family. Then, she takes out a huge pile of papers and documents including their case against Croatia. She shows ownership papers, decisions and correspondence with Zagreb but even after 14 years, there is still no improvement in their case.

Since 1998, Pjevalica family is on the trail against Croatia for lost property rights. They did not have their own apartment then but state-owned apartment one. However, it was common practice during the communism era because people got houses from state-owned companies, and would invest money in the form of public-sector housing known as "socially owned property".
Workers granted occupancy rights were entitled to keep the property for life, and transmit the right to property to their heirs. They could even sublet part of the property to generate income. Such rights could be cancelled only by a judicial procedure in cases where, for example, a worker did not use his or her apartment for more than six months. However, such cancellations were very rare. There were hundreds of thousands people before the war who lived in the apartments like these. People were forced to leave their homes because of the war so the six months period of not using apartment expired quickly, and Croatian people without housing solution were allocated in these apartments. Consequently, more than 30,000 Croats became displaced, and most of them have found refugee in Serbia.

The Pjevalicas have now resigned to live the rest of their lives as refugees. They don't expect to ever return to their home in Croatia. They want their flat back only so that they can sell it, but also because of the stubborness. "It was ours. If we don't want to live there, then it should be our own decision, not the decisions of someone who has two houses and has never experienced how it feels like to live on the streets," says Dusanka.


High Hopes

In spite of their living conditions and situation, residents of Krnjaca camp are not giving up. They keep fighting for a future outside of the camp. They know this place won't last forever and that sooner or later they will have to move again. Hopefully, this time to a place they can call their own.

According to Mrs Isailovic, houses or apartments are being built for one third of the camp's residents. In addition, there are between 50 and 60 elderly people without families who would probably be allocated to some of the senior citizens homes in Serbia. But for the rest of them there is still no solution planned. In this group are Pozar and Pjevalica families. That is why they are desperate to provide themselves a place to live in the future.

"I want to have something I can call ours. I want to live and die in peace, and with dignity", says Dusanka while folding up the last photo. Until this happens, for many in the Krnjaca camp, rocks and stones in the suitcase, like that of Zoran Jnr, will be the only trace of connection they will be the only trace of connection they have to the land they left years ago - a land now filled with distant memories and future they can only dream of.