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Last Updated: Friday, 30 March 2007, 10:27 GMT 11:27 UK
Return to earth for Serb tree man
By Nick Hawton
BBC News, Zadar, Croatia

Stevan Graovac
Stevan Graovac has lived in his makeshift home for three years
In a cherry orchard blooming with white blossom, Stevan Graovac, 60, climbs down from the tree he has been living in.

Around the tree trunk, and under a tented roof, is his daily living quarters, complete with table and chair and food shelf.

A special platform is perched high in the branches, with a mattress and sleeping bag. A ladder connects the two "rooms".

The two-storey tree house has been his main home for the past three years.

"I was forced here by circumstance. My own house was occupied and I had no choice. It's not been nice and it's not been comfortable. But at least it's mine," Mr Graovac tells me.

He left his home in the nearby village in 1995 when, in Operation Storm, Croat forces took back territory that had been under Serb control during the war.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR estimates about 300,000 Serbs fled Croatia during the conflict and only about one-third have returned.

While the Croatian government has done much to facilitate refugee returns, there is one key issue that remains, that of socially-owned accommodation.

In the former Yugoslavia many people lived in property that was technically the state's and residents paid a small rent to live there.

Social housing

Veslejko Medic, a Serb, has been trying to get back his socially-owned flat for the past four years. He currently lives in temporary accommodation in the city of Zadar.

Veslejko Medic
Veslejko Medic is living in temporary housing

"I'm worried because the government is so slow and doesn't solve the problems. If it were only my case, it would be easier. But there are so many," he says.

He spent 10 years in refugee centres in Serbia before finally coming back to Croatia.

"I was born here, I love my country and my people. And I like the climate here. My wife died and my children are scattered around the world. I have no choice: either I go to an old people's home or I'm given some accommodation or my flat back."

Backlog

The Croatian government has plans to build alternative accommodation for those wanting their flats back. International aid organisations estimate there are more than 20,000 cases of people who could claim tenancy rights.

"The Croatian government has certainly done a lot to facilitate the return of refugees but there is still a gap with the actual implementation of different programmes," says Christian Loda of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Zagreb.

"This gap is particularly visible in certain areas which are lagging behind in some case by several years compared to other areas of the country," he says.

Croatia wants to leave the bad old days of war and conflict behind. It is well on the road to joining the European Union and its tourism industry is booming again.

But the shadows of war remain and the refugee issue remains a problem to be solved before Croatia can fully embrace European ideals.

In the meantime, Stevan Graovac has literally come down from his tree. The keys for his old house have finally been given to him.


SEE ALSO
Country profile: Croatia
12 Dec 06 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Serbia
02 Feb 07 |  Country profiles
Croat suspect to be film 'hero'
28 Mar 06 |  Europe
Croat suspect denies war crimes
12 Dec 05 |  Europe
Evicted Serbs remember Storm
05 Aug 05 |  Europe

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