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Last Updated: Friday, 20 June, 2003, 07:21 GMT 08:21 UK
Uncertain future for Croatian Serbs
By Alix Kroeger
in Belgrade

Rastko and Stojan Colovic are two and five years old, and this is the only home they've ever known: a former barracks near Belgrade, converted into a centre to house refugees from the wars which tore apart the former Yugoslavia.

Colovic family
The Colovic family have lived in the centre for eight years
Their grandparents, Croatian Serbs, came here with their mother eight years ago, fleeing the advance of the Croatian army as it re-took the breakaway Krajina Serb Republic in August 1995.

The boys' mother met and married their father in the Rakovica centre.

The family have no intention of returning to Croatia: instead, they've bought a plot of land in Serbia.

Now they're saving the money to build their own house, hoping it will be ready in time for when the centre closes later this year.

But it hasn't been easy.

"The children keep us alive," says their grandmother, Dragica Colovic, as Rastko squirms on her lap.

Without the children, we wouldn't know how to keep going. They give us our strength, and because of them, we have the will to live
Dragica Colovic
"Without them, we wouldn't know how to keep going. They give us our strength, and because of them, we have the will to live."

Inside the centre, women wash clothes at the shared sinks, situated by the doors to take advantage of natural light.

The corridors are unlit, to save electricity. A strong smell of institutional cooking wafts from the communal kitchen.

But there's no great community spirit here.

"Don't feel sorry for them," snorts a neighbour, pointing at the Colovic family.

"They have a good pension."

How do aid agencies provide food, water and shelter for thousands?

The refugee homes are known as "collective centres". They are one step up from refugee camps, set up in anything from disused barracks to converted railway carriages.

After so many years, the collective centres - originally designed as medium-term accommodation - have acquired an air of semi-permanence.

Children take the tram to local schools; some of their parents have found jobs in the area.

Since the wars in the former Yugoslavia began in 1991, Serbia has found itself coping with nearly a million refugees and internally displaced persons - from Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.

Almost all of them were accommodated by family and friends.

Dependency culture

Only 22,000 people remain in Serbia's collective centres, but they consume more than 80% of Serbia's refugee budget.

Closing the centres will mean even higher one-off costs.

But the government knows it has little choice.

Rakovica refugee centre
The centres were never meant to be permanent
He points to the 55,000 housing units with tenancy rights, claimed on behalf of refugees in Serbia. If those claims were resolved, those refugees could go home - or at least sell their property and make a fresh start. But progress is painfully slow.

"I am fed up with resolutions, I am fed up with gestures of goodwill. I would like to see certain dates, and certain benchmarks, and that we agree about those benchmarks," says Ozren Tosic, the Serbian Government's refugee commissioner.

"We have to move on from humanitarian aid to development."

"This is necessary, not just for the people in the collective centres, but for the economic development of the entire region.

We have a situation in a prolonged refugee crisis where, because of the length of time people spend in the collective centres, they do tend to develop a dependency syndrome
Andrej Mahecic
The government's preferred option is for the refugees to return home.

Some don't want to, because of what they suffered during the war.

Others can't because their pre-war homes have been destroyed or are being illegally occupied - often by other refugees.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, which runs the collective centres in co-operation with the Serbian Government, says they should now be phased out - not just for cost reasons, but because they create a dependency culture among the long-term residents.

"We have a situation in a prolonged refugee crisis where, because of the length of time people spend in the collective centres, they do tend to develop a dependency syndrome, depending on humanitarian assistance," says Andrej Mahecic of the UNHCR.

"It's not simple, but it is achievable, to make a shift from that situation, to an active personality, able to grasp their life again and become again a productive member of society."

For some, though, the closures mean more upheaval.

Dragan and Marija Andjelic are in their 70s. They, too, are Croatian Serbs who left in 1995.

Dragan Andjelic
Dragan Andjelic weeps as he remembers his dead son
Their only son was killed in the war, and their house destroyed.

A painting of John the Baptist hangs on the wall, next to a photo of a Serb nationalist hero.

Mrs Andjelic watches blankly as her husband cuts a slice from a loaf of bread.

She suffered a heart attack, and her health is poor.

Mr Andjelic's hat and stick hang at the end of the bed which takes up half the space in their single room.

They don't know where they'll go when the centre closes: most likely an old people's home.

It's a prospect they dread.

"I don't want to go into a home," Mr Andjelic says.

"We would have to pay them the war pension we get for our son. I wouldn't even be able to keep enough money to buy myself a bit of fruit."

Tears well up in his eyes when he speaks of his dead son.

These refugees who've lost everything once already know that little in their future is secure.

Balkan ministers heal war wounds
23 Apr 02  |  Europe
Return plan for Balkan refugees
09 Mar 00  |  Europe

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