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Bosnia Refugee Returns Are Way Up

May 2, 2000

ZEPA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ It took Sabrija Colic five years to return to his prewar yard _ only to find that he was unable to cross the threshold into what remained of his house.

Since returning to his village 35 miles east of Sarajevo last month, the 74-year-old man has spent much of his time sitting on a stump a few feet from his home’s wrecked shell, staring at the doorstep where two land mines were found. He fears more are inside.

``I’m just sitting here looking at my house, figuring how am I going to get in. God only knows how many booby-traps are inside,″ Colic said. He sleeps with three neighbors in a tent in his courtyard in the eastern Bosnian town of Zepa.

Colic is one of an increasing number of refugees who decided to return to the homes from which they were driven or fled during the war. In towns and villages across Bosnia, many people, tired of life as refugees, feel coming home is a matter of now or never.

Colic and about 20 other Bosnian Muslims returned to Zepa in late April, the first returnees since the entire population _ all Muslim _ fled when the town fell to the Serbs in 1995 despite being declared a U.N. ``safe zone.″ One hundred more are to return Wednesday under NATO escort. Hundreds of people remain missing; many are believed to have been executed by the Serbs.

It is a pattern being repeated across Bosnia. More than 5,500 people have returned this year, nearly three times the number of spontaneous returns at this time last year, according to Wendy Rappeport of the U. N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Sarajevo.

By the time the war ended in 1995, over a quarter of Bosnia’s prewar population of 4.5 million was displaced. Only 300,000 have gone home, according to U.N. refugee agency. The others are either dead, have settled permanently elsewhere, or fear returning to regions controlled by former enemies.

The Serb half of Bosnia, where Zepa lies, is now governed by moderates who generally cooperate with international officials enforcing peace terms calling for ethnic tolerance and diversity, unlike in the first postwar years, when radical nationalists loyal to wartime Serb leader Radovan Karadzic _ sought by the U.N. war crimes tribunal _ held sway.

The other half of Bosnia is governed by Croats and Muslims. Tensions remain, but there is hope that the change of governments in neighboring Croatia earlier this year from radical nationalist to moderate will weaken nationalist Bosnian Croats opposed to cooperation with Muslims.

From his stump, Colic can see through the holes that were once doors and windows all the way to the bathroom in the back with the broken sink and bathtub filled with cracked and broken tiles. He has no money for repairs, and nothing to eat except the fish he catches in Zepa creek.

All of Zepa’s 700 houses are in ruins, blown up by the Serbs.

The U.N. agency has provided blankets and tents for returnees, but the resources are already strapped.

There is no money for rebuilding the hundreds of thousands of homes destroyed in Bosnia during the war _ or even for removing mines from booby-trapped dwellings so that rebuilding can begin.

Nobody is able to calculate how much the entire process will cost. ``I couldn’t even begin to answer that because it’s not only rebuilding houses, it’s the entire infrastructure that has been destroyed,″ Rappeport said.

In Zepa’s center, next to the destroyed post office, a bunker built by the Ukrainian troops who guarded the ``safe zone″ is still standing, a monument to one of the biggest embarrassments for the United Nations in Bosnia _ empty guarantees that Zepa’s inhabitants would be safe.

``They came to help us, but they betrayed us,″ Hasib Omanovic, 60, said of the United Nations, ``They failed then. They must help us now.″

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