With tactical advice and training from the US, the first of two massive country wide military operations were launched in an attempt to rout the Serbian paramilitary units that controlled vast parts of Croatia. Operation Storm only lasted a few days and although hailed as a military masterstroke on the part of the Croats, the majority of those displaced were innocent civilians.
Thirteen years later people are still trickling back despite the odds, in order to reclaim houses and rebuild lives in their homeland. This body of work follows the journeys of several Croatian Serbs who have returned from living in exile, and some of those who still remain as refugees in Serbia.
Of the 300,000 ethnic Serbs who fled Croatia during and after the War of Independence, only 120,000 have since returned, half of them through humanitarian organisations that facilitate the returns process. However, the actual number of full time returnees is about half that figure as many merely come back to secure their home and then remain in their country of exile, usually Bosnia or Serbia, only visiting Croatia sporadically to check on their property. Many say they are waiting until things improve before they will return, while others are fully resettled, registered citizens in neighbouring countries. It is estimated that 80,000 are still in limbo as refugees. However, with Croatia's bid to join the EU at the top of the government's wish list the number of returnees needs to increase drastically over the coming years before they can claim there is unanimous respect for the Serb minorities' rights, a specific EU requirement.
The process of reclaiming a home is arduous, often taking years to fully complete. In many cases people's homes have either been destroyed, become dilapidated or have been inhabited by someone else. The living conditions that the Serbs return to are often dire and many communities lack basic amenities such as running water and electricity. The excuse from the Croatian authorities is that not enough people have returned to such areas to warrant connecting them to the main supplies. But such neglect undoubtedly deters many from returning, especially younger generations.
The average age of Serb returnees is 51 and the general consensus is that old Serbs merely want to return to die in their homeland. When I put this notion to returnee Branko Banic he replied by saying "No, no, I don't want to return to die. I want to return to live".