AIM: start

SUN, 07 OCT 2001 22:55:55 GMT

Montenegrin Refugees: Back Home - By Force

Although Montenegro has given shelter to a great number of refugees and misplaced persons from all over former Yugoslavia, the state has failed to attend to its own citizens forced to leave their homes

AIM Podgorica, September 25, 2001

Conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia and in Kosovo have resulted in a number of exodus, creating a new social class - the refugees. Still, in ex-Yugoslavia and Montenegro alike, little is known about those who, for fear of war and violence, left their homes fleeing Montenegro itself.

According to the estimates of the local municipal authorities, in the course of the conflict in Kosovo and NATO strikes on Yugoslavia, 3 500 Montenegrin citizens, for the most part Moslem villagers from the region of Bihor in the north of the country, found shelter in Luxembourg. Whether due to numerous problems springing from the sudden influx of other refugees at the time or, because Moslems from the north of the country were not considered to be a concern of the Montenegrin state - the plight of these people went by unnoticed.

Having provided for them for two years, the Luxembourg authorities which have temporarily sheltered the bulk of these refugees have recently decided to send them back to Montenegro. By force, if need be. A few months ago, as agreed with the Montenegrin state officials, the Luxembourg government promised financial help to all Montenegrin citizens of age who have fled Montenegro in 1999, if they decide to go back. They were offered 10 thousand DM, 2 500 DM being handed out in the form of a grant. Unlike the toilsome repatriation process involving refugees from countries set up following the disintegration of former Yugoslavia, this one was expected to go along smoothly. Luxembourg authorities were willing to help, the Montenegrin state agreed to cooperate, the returnees were not threatened by any form of conflict or violence. Nevertheless, merely a hundred or so Montenegrin refugees chose to return. Others, although lacking valid documents allowing them to stay on in Luxembourg, refrained from rushing back home. Realizing that things would not go as planned, Luxembourg authorities resorted to tougher measures: seven individuals were deported to Podgorica on a special flight to the Montenegrin capital.

In response to this, the Berane based office of the international relief organization Karitas sounded alarm: "Our organization is firmly opposed to all forms of forced repatriation", says Pascal Arnold, the CEO of the Berane Karitas office. Instead, in an attempt to ward off the forced expulsion carried out by the Luxembourg authorities, Arnold’s staff is encouraging those willing to return of their own free will. A number of NGO based in Montenegro, such as SOS and the Helsinki Human Rights Committee, were stirred to action... Not the Montenegrin government, seemingly set on keeping aloof.

But, perhaps, that is precisely where the problem lies: does the Montenegrin government care about those among its citizens who have fled the country in fear of war and affliction? For, if the whole truth is to be said, the said exodus is certainly not unique. Eight years ago, the villagers of Bukovica near Pljevlja were forced to leave their homes following a massacre committed by Republika Srpska forces. Up to now, none of the refugees have returned, nor would they have had where to come back to if they did. After the attacks of the RS special units, their homes were robbed and reduced to rubble.

While thousands of such "unorthodox" Montenegrin citizens were deprived of their homes and lifelong possessions, the government of Montenegro continued to welcome refugees and the displaced from all over the region, gaining further sympathies with the international community. The refugee crisis reached its peak at the time of the NATO strikes on Kosovo and Yugoslavia when around 120 000 people found shelter in Montenegro. Presently, the overall count of refugees still residing in Montenegro has dropped to an estimated 45 000 persons originating from Croatia, B&H and Kosovo. To be sure, the bearing of official Podgorica set a bright example in the region.

But, all refugees alike need to be attended to and the state of Montenegro should provide for those of its citizens who have fled the country as well. The former residents of Bukovica whose homes were burnt down and demolished in 1993, have still not been granted any humanitarian aid at all ! One of the reasons that they are not to be found on the lists of relief organizations lies in the fact that, even after all these years, they have not managed to obtain the refugee status. Jakup Durgut, one of them, says that the bulk of his Bukovica fellow-citizens have fled to Turkey and B&H. Some, like himself, now live in hired rooms in Plevlje, some 70 kilometers from Bukovica. They are now planing to sue the Montenegrin state for damages. With good reason.

The eviction of Moslems from Bukovica began on July 1, 1992. On that day, uniformed men from RS raided the village of Bunguri, beating up six villagers for no reason what so ever. At the beginning of September, they were followed by reservists of the Yugoslav Army, then came the soldiers of Republika Srpska. Houses were ransacked, villagers physically abused, foreign currency and jewelry robbed... " Ransacking, beatings, physical abuse and murders were commonplace. The perpetrators of these crimes are known to us. For the most part, we are talking about extremists from the ranks of the Yugoslav Army and the Montenegrin police, still in active service, some of who we encounter on the streets of Pljevlja daily", says Durgut.

Bukovica has been thoroughly ethnically cleansed. Around 800 Moslems from 32 villages in that mountainous region bordering the Bosnian municipalities of Foca, Cajnice and Gorazde were evicted. For some, killed on the doorsteps of their homes, there was no one around to bury them for months. To this very day, no one has returned.

"The government is avoiding the issue of our return for one reason only - because we are Moslems", says Durgut bitterly.

This "shameful" detail of the recent Montenegrin history cannot be amended. It is much easier to make up for the material losses suffered. But, the government has failed to attend to that, too. In the meantime, many of those unfortunate enough to have had to seek salvation a long way from their homes - in Luxembourg - are now facing repatriation. Will the state of Montenegro start thinking of them at last, if only after years of indifference?