Issue 14 - Article 15

Bosnia-Herzegovina (June 1999)

June 1, 1999
Nick Scott-Flynn, ICVA, Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina

When NATO action against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) began on 24 March 1999, many people in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) watched on their television sets. There was a poignancy in watching the conflict from Sarajevo: a city so recently besieged; a situation many blamed on Belgrade.


On a personal level the conflict has given rise to a number of emotions. Many people in BiH, particularly within Republica Srpska (RS), have an ethnic connection with Serbia. Although they may not support Milosovic they certainly feel angry about NATO action. Some of this anger has spilled over into acts against the international community. For example, offices of UNHCR, USAID and other international organisations have been attacked in Banja Luka. This has led to the withdrawal of international staff.

Others in BiH support NATO. The defeat of Milosovic may mark the end of the idea of a greater Serbia thus focussing the energies of the Bosnian Serbs on making BiH work as a country. Some feel that the Dayton Peace Agreement can never be fully implemented in BiH without regional stability, and the conflict presents the opportunity for such long-term stability once it is resolved. The economic effects of the conflict are also encouraging some in this direction. Such factors may lead the more pragmatic in RS to look to the West for support, and to comply more with the Dayton Agreement.

The conflict has given rise to a large number of refugees entering BiH. However, the picture is somewhat more complicated than in neighbouring countries. Officially there have been approximately 103,600 refugees from FRY: 43,000 in the months before NATO action; the remainder arriving after 24 March. The group is quite mixed, with less than a quarter being Kosovo Albanians. The others are Muslims from Sanjak, Serb refugees, Bosnian Serb returnees, and Croatian Serb refugees. Of these, only 8,000 are in camps; the rest are staying with family or friends.

Perhaps because of this more diffuse picture, international attention has not been focussed on assistance to BiH. However, lack of such assistance is short-sighted. The Bosnian authorities have only recently begun to take responsibility for dealing with refugees and asylum-seekers. While on the one hand this development is encouraging as BiH continues on the path to normality, with the state taking over appropriate functions and responsibilities, on the other it will remain fragile if there are not sufficient resources to enable the authorities to undertake this important role.

It was with some trepidation that the Bosnian authorities took up this role: within BiH over 800,000 people are still displaced from their pre-war (1992) homes, and hundreds of thousands outside the country are still unable to return. There is also some reluctance from those refugees coming from the FRY. Many want to be resettled to a third country, such as the US. This attitude has presented a challenge to those working with the refugees. It is a mark of the maturity and development of the authorities’ approach that they have been able to meet this challenge. However, within the context of the reconstruction of BiH it is clear that extra resources will be needed to cope with the consequences of the conflict, so as not to jeopardise the progress already made.

The conflict also throws up some key dilemmas for those working in the international community, both in the governmental and non-governmental sectors. International personnel have been withdrawn from RS, in many cases leaving behind local staff. This has caused great anxiety to those in the international community. It has also disrupted much of the work on return of refugees that had been planned for this year. There has effectively been a cessation of return from outside the country, although internal returns of the displaced do continue.

For many international organisations the conflict has also highlighted the challenges in responding to the exodus of refugees from Kosovo. It is churlish to blame agencies like UNHCR for not being ready to respond to the hundreds of thousands who have left Kosovo. Without doubt, scape-goating was the reason for such criticism. International agencies and NGOs alike can only respond effectively to emergencies if they have the resources to do so, no matter how many contingency plans they may have. For many agencies in BiH their response has been commendable althought it has led to a drain of experienced staff to other countries in the region. This trend is worrying as it may jeopardise the still important work to be done in BiH. The problems of this region are linked and it would be short-sighted to move from one crisis to the next simply following donor money while failing to build on the enormous progress already made in the three years since Dayton was signed.

There is also a worrying trend of ‘conflict addiction’ among personnel within the international community. For some there is a sense of familiarity with the logistics of crisis – work that is sometimes less subtle and less frustrating than the development issues many have been engaged with in BiH. It is also work that is easier to raise money for. Again, the international donor community should not be short-sighted in this. New crises need new money; it should not be drained from existing programmes. In this context it is a welcome sign that the donor community increased its pledges to BiH at the World Bank/European Commission Conference in Brussels at the end of May.

The experience of BiH shows that reconstruction, reconciliation and return of refugees is a slow and difficult process, harder to achieve the longer a conflict continues. There must be a commitment to learn from the lessons of BiH and apply these to the FRY and Kosovo when the conflict ends. For there to be a successful return of refugees there must be good coordination between the international community, donors, governments, NGOs and the military. The NGO community has a key role in this process and as such should be involved from the beginning. There are many valuable lessons to learn from the NGO experience in BiH. It would be a shame to waste that knowledge and above all it would do a dis-service to those very refugees and others affected by this conflict.


  • Statistics provided by UNHCR
  • ICVA supports the work of the NGO community in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia through the following methods: coordination and networking, capacity-building, information sharing and advocacy.

Obala Kulina Bana 4
71000 Sarajevo
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Tel: (+387) 71 668 298
Fax: (+387) 71 668 297

ICVA, along with the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, organised a conference in Vienna at the end of June on the effects on surrounding countries of the NATO action in Yugoslavia. Conference findings are available from ICVA.


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