Bosnia and Herzegovina

Balkans: Ten years on, refugees remain on the outside

Serbs from Croatia and Bosnia who arrived in the 1990s say they are still victims of local hostility.
By Robert Vizi in Novi Sad and Veternik (BCR No 567, 31-Jul-05)

"We say 'hello' to the locals and that's about the sum of relationship. They've never accepted us and never will."

So says Zora Cvijic, a Serb refugee from Croatia, as she wipes her hands on her apron, cutting fat from fresh pork in her backyard in the town of Veternik.

Once a small settlement of only a few thousand people, Veternik has mushroomed in size to around 20,000 in recent years, party because of an influx of refugees like Zora Cvijic, who came from Tenj, eastern Croatia.

Though many are relieved to be living in the relative security of Serbia, relations between the incomers and the host community are far from rosy.

There is distrust on both sides and many of the refugees resent the attitude of both the state and of the locals towards them.

"A refugee has no right to anything," Zora added, bitterly. "No one has helped us. No one asks if you need something."

Vojvodina was the destination of the greatest number of Serb refugees from the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Hercegovina in the 1990s.

According to local officials, some 350,000 refugees were registered as living in Vojvodina in 1996, of whom 200,000 remained in 2001.

By 2004, only 140,000 refugees were left in the whole of Serbia. But that does not mean the others all went home. Many lost their refugee status by becoming citizens of Serbia and Montenegro. Others left for third countries.

The 140,000 who remain can only in the countries that they came from.

Zora Cvijic says no one would even offer them a basic shelter when they arrived in the mid-Nineties.

"My husband and I dug a hole in the ground as our future cellar, laid the bricks and covered them with nylon," she recalled. "This was our first home in Serbia." They then earned the money to build a proper house by working illegally in Austria.

Radenko Popic, president of the regional committee for assistance to refugees in Vojvodina, says complaints about local hostility are well founded.

He says there is still a good deal of animosity towards the newcomers, though the authorities conceal this fact, "It is a consequence of a lack of proper media coverage of the refugee problem."

There is no factual reporting, he continued, about "how living standards are not falling because of the influx of refugees".

Popic says the media neglect to mention that refugees are net financial contributors to Vojvodina, paying about a million euro in total every month in rent alone, for example.

In reality, Vojvodina has always been a destination for migrants, its proverbially rich soil attracting wave upon wave of merchants and farmers.

In the 18th century, the Habsburg Empire settled a colourful mixture of Hungarians, Germans, Serbs, Croats, Slovaks and many others on the territory.

Many of their descendants are there today, still maintaining the customs, languages and religion of their forefathers.

After the Second World War, the government of Yugoslavia, which had obtained Vojvodina in 1918, settled landless peasants from Bosnia. The older natives called them "colonists" and "newcomers" and these terms are still used for the migrants who arrived in Vojvodina in the late 1940s.

Ranko Koncar, a historian, told the Balkan Crisis Report, BCR, that around 350,000 people moved to Vojvodina after the Second World War, mostly from Bosnia and Montenegro.

"There was a so-called 'colonisation plan' in post-war Yugoslavia," he said. "People from war-torn, devastated areas were moved to Vojvodina and the first to go were families that had been Partisans between 1941 and 1943."

Their arrival was preceded by the forced exodus of several hundred thousand ethnic Germans and some Hungarians.

In the course of the Balkan wars in the Nineties, Vojvodina received a new wave of incomers, this time comprising refugees from Croatia and Bosnia.

As before in Vojvodina's history, their arrival was accompanied by forced expulsions, though this time it was not Germans but ethnic Croats who were sent packing.

About 30,000 Croats were expelled from the southwestern area known as Srem, according to the Democratic Union of Vojvodina Croats.

Of the peak total of 350,000 refugees in Vojvodina during the Nineties, less then 100,000 remain today.

Katica Bengin, a local official dealing with refugees, says numbers are dwindling.

Some, she said, had gone on to third countries, while the others had either returned home or taken out citizenship of Serbia and Montenegro.

"The local residents still perceive the refugees as newcomers and intruders," she added.

Bengin says bad feelings are not a question of personal animosity but stem from poorly managed integration and from the fact that some abused the system.

To illustrate this point, she refers to cases of refugees who have remained in collective centres though they clearly do not meet the criteria for free food and shelter, having obtained jobs.

"In the first wave of refugees in 1991, some got employment through their old work connections, getting exactly the same positions in Vojvodina that they had held elsewhere," recalled Bengin.

"Managers got new jobs as managers, officials as officials, public servants as public servants and so on."

Bengin believes this trend stirred feelings of resentment among the locals who felt they were losing out in the jobs market.

After the Croatian military offensive of 1995, codenamed Oluja (Storm), fresh columns of refugees streamed into Vojvodina, many of whom illegally constructed houses, some of sumptuous proportions, further irritating locals.

Dragan, a local man from Veternik, says the old Vojvodina people still look on the settlers of the 1940s as colonists and newcomers, so it is natural that refugees from the Nineties should also be viewed in the same way.

"Many refugees still speak 'ijekavica', (the western variant of Serbo-Croatian, common in Bosnia and Croatia) and they also keep to themselves," he added, explaining the mood of local hostility towards them. "They help one another to get jobs and build houses."

Vladimir Todorovic, who belongs to a fourth-generation family in Vojvodina, openly criticises the mentality of many of the refugees.

According to him, they have failed to make a real effort to adapt to their new environment and try to recreate the atmosphere of their native regions.

"This sort of nostalgic psychology is what annoys me," he said. "The fact that we are good-natured doesn't mean we're fools."

Milenko Perovic, a philosophy professor from Novi Sad, the capital of Vojvodina, says old settlers often forget that everyone in Vojvodina is descended from a newcomer.

Reaching far back into the history of the Habsburg Empire, he recalls that each wave of settlers tended to lose its privileges and advantages once the subsequent wave arrived. As a result, Perovic believes a fear of newcomers has become a typical trait of Vojvodina inhabitants.

But Perovic said he was also confident that Vojvodina was strong and resilient enough to absorb each new wave.

"Vojvodina has always successfully transformed and calmed down unruly and violent newcomers," he said.

"It has always managed in the end to make them feel at home and behave like true Vojvodina people. This is what will happen with the most recent generation, though, of course, it will take time."

Robert Vizi is an editor with Gradjanski list, a Novi Sad daily.

This is one of series of articles on Vojvodina produced as part of the BIRN Media Training and Reporting Project, generously supported by the British Embassy in Belgrade.