After the war, a local government commission for temporary takeover and administration of abandoned properties in Benkovac municipality authorized ethnic Croats to use the land of ethnic Serbs who had fled the area. In dozens of additional cases, Croats took over use of the land of local Serbs in the wider Benkovac area without having ever received authorization from the authorities. The land in the area contains exceptionally fertile soil, which partly explains why land occupation occurred in Benkovac, and Serbs were hesitant for a long time after the war to return there because of the precarious security situation, which made it easy for the Croat occupants to use the land. However, dozens of Serb owners of the occupied land have now returned to the Benkovac area, but they are unable to use their land. According to the Serb Democratic Forum, at least 127 plots of land in the area continue to be used by persons other than the owners.111
The land used on the basis of commission authorizations is mainly located in the area of Buković, a village between Benkovac and the Adriatic coast. Land owners and the OSCE do not know the precise number and identity of the persons using the land.112 The OSCE has copies of four 1996 allocation authorizations, each concerning a number of properties. However, local authorities have told the OSCE that eight such authorizations actually exist.113
The authorizations to use the land were issued to Croat settlers or refugees from the province of Vojvodina (in Serbia), for a period of eight years.114 A clause in the authorizations prohibited changing the crop grown in the particular land plot.115 The eight-year periods expired in 2003 and 2004. The individuals nevertheless continue to use the plots. Some occupants have transformed the plots into major agricultural enterprises where they grow fruits or vegetables other than those cultivated previously by the owners.116
Additional plots in villages in the wider Benkovac area are also used by persons other than the Serb returnees, although the authorities never allocated the land for temporary use. In one of the villages, Jagodnja Gornja, most landowners do not know who is using the land. Many are afraid to make inquiries by themselves, because of threatening responses on the part of the illegal users in the few instances in which the owners tried to establish contact with them, and because of the generally unfavorable security environment for the returnees in the area.117
In those instances in which returnees know who is using the land, they are unable to put an end to the practice. Most are elderly and impoverished and unable to engage in complicated legal proceedings, which would require the assistance of an attorney.
One couple, J.Z. and S.Z., both in their late seventies, returned to Jagodnja Gornja in 2001 and have since been unable to use their land (one plot of 2.5 hectares and two smaller plots of 0.6 hectares and 0.4 hectares). The couple told Human Rights Watch that the land is being used by several members of an ethnic Croat family:
In 2005, ten landowners in the village sent a written request to the police in Benkovac to look into the issue of the use of their properties by other persons. The police interviewed the owners at the end of 2005, but the owners have heard nothing since then.119
The government of Croatia should tackle these serious property rights issues. Government authorities must make the resolution of these cases a priority, speak out publicly on the issue, and ensure that local police are enforcing the law.
In those cases in which the local government issued the allocation authorizations, the national government should take responsibility for resolving the issue. The local government allocated the land on the basis of the national Law on Takeover of Specified Property (1995) in the same way in which abandoned Serb houses were allocated to temporary occupants. The national government eventually took responsibility for returning the houses to the owners, and it should do the same with the allocated land. If the temporary users of the land made investments enhancing the value of the land, any compensation requests should also be directed to the government.
111 Dok drava proklamira toleranciju prema manjinama, Srbima povratnicima se kre elementarna ljudska prava (While The State Proclaims Tolerance toward Minorities, Basic Human Rights of Serb Returnees Are Being Violated), Serb Democratic Forum press release, June 4, 2006, www.sdf.hr/news/zadar.html (accessed June 14, 2006).
112 Human Rights Watch interview with an officer in the OSCE Field Office Zadar, May 15, 2006.
113 Human Rights Watch email communication with OSCE Field Office Zadar, June 6, 2006.
114 Human Rights Watch interview with an officer in the OSCE Field Office Zadar, May 15, 2006.
115 Human Rights Watch interview with the staff of the Dalmatian Committee of Solidarity, Zadar, May 15, 2006.
116 Human Rights Watch interview with an official in the OSCE Mission to Croatia headquarters, Zagreb, May 8, 2006.
117 Human Rights Watch interview with S.G., Benkovac, May 11, 2006; Human Rights Watch interview with Glio Kolundić, head of the office of the Serb Democratic Forum in Benkovac, May 11, 2006.
118 Human Rights Watch interview with S.Z., Jagodnja Gornja, May 11, 2006.
119 Human Rights Watch interview with S.G., Benkovac, May 11, 2006.