Bijeljina is a strategic city in the Republika Srpska (RS) in divided Bosnia and Hercegovina. The second-largest city in the RS, Bijeljina is at the juncture of the territory's two parts: the eastern part, which is considered to be politically more extreme, and the western part, which is considered to be politically more moderate. A large group of non-Serb Bijeljina residents were expelled during the war but would like to return to their homes. The return of displaced persons and refugees and the treatment of minorities in Bijeljina and similar cities such as Prijedor, Doboj, and Zvornik are crucial for the peace process. If the Dayton agreement cannot be implemented in these medium-sized cities, which traditionally had sizable Bosniak or Bosnian Croat communities, the chances are small that the agreement will be implemented in other areas in the RS.
Bijeljina was the first city in Bosnia and Hercegovina that came under attack by Serbian and Bosnian Serb forces and fell victim to the policy of "ethnic cleansing." On the night of April 1, 1992, paramilitaries belonging to Arkan's Serbian Volunteer Guard, a.k.a. the "Tigers," together with other paramilitary forces, attacked and occupied Bijeljina. In the four days that followed, many Bosniaks and other minorities lost their lives; their property was ransacked, looted, and burned and many Bosniaks decided to leave Bijeljina.
It was no coincidence that Bijeljina was the first city to be attacked. Located on one of the main roads leading to Serbia, it was crucial to the establishment of a "Greater Serbia," envisioned by its advocates as an ethnically homogenous, preferably contiguous, area inhabited by ethnic Serbs. Predominantly Serb areas in northwestern Bosnia and Hercegovina and Croatia could only be connected with Serbia if the Bijeljina area was under Serb control. Therefore, the Bosnian Serb authorities embarked on a brutal policy of "ethnic cleansing" to force citizens of other ethnicities, in particular Bosniaks, to leave the area.
During the first two years after the outbreak of the war, many Bosniaks in Bijeljina fell victim to ethnically motivated violence, and tens and maybe even hundreds of Bosniaks lost their lives. Moreover, many Bosniaks were physically abused by members of the police or special police, forced into the army or into forced labor at the front, dismissed from their work, and evicted from their houses. Many Bosniaks ended up in the Batkovi_ detention camp, one of the most notorious camps in Bosnian Serb territory.
Nevertheless, a relatively large group of Bosniaks remained in Bijeljina, and in particular in the village of Janja, until 1994. Janja was even used by the Bosnian Serb authorities as a "showcase" of peaceful coexistence between Bosnian Serbs and "loyal" Bosniaks, even though the Bosniaks were clearly second-class citizens and subject to harassment. In 1994, however, a renewed surge of "ethnic cleansing" took place. Many men were detained and forced to work at the front lines, where they had to work long hours under dangerous conditions. They were sometimes used as human shields, and permanently at the mercy of Bosnian Serb troops, who often vented their anger over military losses by physically mistreating them.
The harassment of minorities in Bijeljina ultimately served only one purpose: to compel them to leave for Bosnian government-controlled territory or Croatia. The authorities even set up a Commission for the Exchange of the Civilian Population, which facilitated the departure of minorities by "safe transport." Those who signed up to leave had to pay considerable fees for their transport, but were nevertheless stripped of all their belongings before being transported across the front line by Vojkan Ðurkovi_, the head of the commission, and his associates. Others who did not sign up to leave were also forced to leave by the commission, either by Ðurkovi_ himself or by paramilitaries under the command of Ljubi_a Savi_, a.k.a. "Major Mauser."
At the end of the war, fewer than 2,700 of the original population of more than 30,000 Bosniaks remained in Bijeljina. The vast majority of them had been evicted from their homes during the war, and many of those who had managed to hold on to their homes were evicted just before the peace agreement was signed.
The Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the war in Bosnia and Hercegovina aimed to restore the multi-ethnic society that Bosnia and Hercegovina once was. Bijeljina, which despite the ruthless policy of "ethnic cleansing" had one of the largest post-war Bosniak communities, seemed to have better prospects than other cities for realizing this aim. However, the authorities in Bijeljina continue to obstruct the implementation of the Dayton agreement, providing neither protection nor equal rights to the Bosniak community of Bijeljina, while actively deterring the return of Bosniaks who were driven from the city during the war. Almost without exception, those Bosniaks and members of other non-Serb minorities who remained in Bijeljina still do not live in their own homes. Having been expelled from their homes, this "floating" population remained in their municipality of origin, often living in small outbuildings or moving between the homes of relatives and friends. For a considerable time, government institutions, including the courts and the commission dealing with housing issues, refused to accept requests for the return of Bosniak homes or having received such requests took no action on them. In those few cases in which a court or the commission restored Bosniaks' rights to reside in their own homes, the decisions were not implemented. Although there are approximately 2,000 to 3,000 minorities in Bijeljina who are seeking "reinstatement" in their homes, Human Rights Watch is aware of only a few cases in which these Bosniaks recovered their homes in 1999. The reinstatement of this floating population is crucial in implementing the Dayton agreement: displaced persons will base their decision whether or not to return in large part on the information they receive from the Bosniaks who still live in Bijeljina. If even those who have remained and were touted as "loyal" citizens of the Republika Srpska cannot exercise their basic rights, what are the prospects of return for those who left?
As may be expected, to date there has been only limited return of minorities to Bijeljina. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that between the signing of the Dayton agreement in December 1995 and the end of 1998 only four members of minorities had returned to Bijeljina. While the real number is probably somewhat higher, return was largely obstructed until the end of 1998. The housing legislation itself created numerous legal hurdles that made it extremely difficult for Bosniaks and other minorities to return to their pre-war homes. However, in many instances the authorities in Bijeljina, including the courts and the Ministry for Refugees and Displaced Persons, simply refused to receive or review Bosniak' requests for the return of their property or took direct steps to obstruct their return. The police, many of whom are themselves occupying Bosniak houses, actively discouraged returnees by "warning" them that their safety could not be guaranteed, and "advising" them not to return. Moreover, leaders of the displaced Bosnian Serbs currently residing in Bijeljina have organized this community actively to oppose the return of Bosniaks and other minorities to Bijeljina.
In 1999, however, the atmosphere changed for the better. The RS National Assembly finally accepted the Law on Cessation of the Law on the Use of Abandoned Property, a long-overdue legal reform that facilitates the return of refugees and displaced persons. Moreover, the international community increased its presence in Bijeljina and improved the cooperation among the international agencies working there. The RS Ministry for Refugees and Displaced Persons also appointed a new head of its Bijeljina department who showed a genuine commitment to return. As a result of these improvements, the speed of return has picked up in Bijeljina. Compared to the number of Bosniaks waiting to return to Bijeljina, however, the number of returns is still marginal. To date, successful cases of return have tragically been ones in which forced evictions were not necessary, either because an agreement was reached between the temporary occupant-almost exclusively Bosnian Serbs displaced from areas now under Federation control-and the prewar occupant, or because alternative accommodation for the temporary occupant was available. It remains to be seen whether returns can also be achieved in more difficult cases such as multiple occupancy cases.
The municipality began several projects in 1998 to enable the return of displaced persons and refugees. The project was to provide Bosnian Serbs who had been displaced from elsewhere with free construction sites in Bijeljina, so they could vacate the Bosniak homes they currently occupy in Bijeljina. However, these sites were to be on land that is state-owned and in many cases are claimed by Bosniak residents. The plans were put on hold by a decision of the High Representative, the highest international civilian administrator in Bosnia and Hercegovina tasked with the implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement, blocking the reallocation and disposal of socially-owned land.
In cooperation with the municipality, the German development cooperation agency GTZ started a project to build housing for displaced Bosnian Serbs in Bijeljina, thereby freeing up housing for Bosniak refugees from Bijeljina now living in Germany. The project has met with severe criticism from the international community because it invested in relocation rather than return, in contravention of the Dayton agreement and the policies of the international community. GTZ never presented the accommodations as temporary buffer-accommodations to the Bosnian Serb displaced persons, most of whom do not want to return to the Federation, and consider the housing to be permanent. Despite the criticism of the international community, GTZ is now planning a second phase of the project, this time funded by the European Commission.
On a number of occasions in 1998, the police physically abused Bosniaks, and police officials often shielded their colleagues when these cases were investigated by the International Police Task Force (IPTF), the largest component of the United Nations Mission in Bosnia and Hercegovina (UNMIBH). The IPTF is empowered to issue "noncompliance reports" against police officers who fail to follow its orders or obstruct the implementation of the Dayton agreement: these reports can lead to an officer's dismissal. However, the IPTF has frequently failed to issue noncompliance reports against officers who failed to cooperate with the IPTF. In other cases, the police failed to intervene when Bosniaks were abused by Bosnian Serbs. Fortunately, such cases apparently ceased in 1999. However, Bosniaks continue to have problems when they try to obtain an identity (I.D.) card, which is issued by the police. Despite a decision by the High Representative that they should receive I.D. cards within fifteen days, Bosniaks often have to wait much longer. Bosnian Serbs are issued a card within one or two weeks.
The case of the Zvornik Seven, a group of Bosniaks who were severely mistreated after their detention by Bosnian Serb police in 1996, has not been resolved. A Bijeljina court convicted four of them of murder on the basis of coerced self-incriminating statements, despite the absence of physical evidence. Moreover, one of the judges participated in improper discussions regarding the case with interested outsiders, thereby creating the impression of bias. The RS Supreme Court ultimately quashed the decision, and the case has been sent back to the first instance court for the third time.
Minorities continue to face other types of harassment and discrimination as well. For example, Bosniaks who have recovered their homes often have difficulty restoring their phone connections: all subscribers with Muslim names were disconnected during the war for "security reasons." Despite an order of the High Representative, the phone company still has not restored phone service to most of those who were disconnected during the war, claiming technical problems. The municipality has also refused Bosniaks permission to rebuild even one of Bijeljina's seven mosques, all of which were destroyed during the war, and for a long time refused to return one of the Islamic Community's buildings.
Since the municipal elections in September 1997, the councillors for the Coalition for a Unified and Democratic Bosnia (KCDBiH), the main Bosniak party, have played only a marginal role in municipal politics. The municipal authorities have prevented them from playing a more meaningful role by refusing to reinstate the councillors in their houses and obstructing the work of the Bosniak deputy mayor of Bijeljina. However, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Office of the High Representative (OHR) have been unwilling to force the Bijeljina authorities to create the conditions for the effective participation of the Bosniak councillors, eventhough the election rules clearly stipulate that the municipality should fulfil some basic criteria for meaningful participation of minority representatives. One can only hope that the OSCE and OHR will press for a more speedy and effective implementation of the results of the April 2000 municipal elections.
Although the situation of minorities in Bijeljina has improved since early 1999, there continue to be significant human rights problems, and progress in the implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement is slow. As already mentioned, the return of displaced persons remains limited and is often obstructed by the authorities; the police force still does not meet the minimum international policing standards; discrimination against minorities manifests itself in several fields; and political representatives of minorities are still not allowed to play their role in democratic government. These problems are not specific to Bijeljina: they are representative of the problems the international community encounters in many other places in Bosnia and Hercegovina. To date, local and RS authorities remain unwilling to address the concerns documented in this report. Sustained pressure by the international community is required to ensure implementation of the Dayton agreement. Under such circumstances-where human rights and the rule of law are not ensured by the authorities of Bosnia and Hercegovina-the country cannot be considered to have fulfilled its obligations to, nor lived up to the minimum standards of, international organizations such as the Council of Europe.
Strong pressure and decisive action by the international community is needed to ensure that the authorities respect and implement the Dayton Peace Agreement. Admitting Bosnia and Hercegovina to the Council of Europe prematurely would be counterproductive to this end and reward those who obstruct real progress toward peace in Bosnia.