Refugees returning home

The Bosnian ‘Düren’

Some 20 years ago a settlement was founded for refugees returning home. What has happened to these people since then?

Krsto Lazarevic
Chris Grodotzki

The German town sign in the middle of the Bosnian countryside is almost surreal. ‘Düren’ read the black letters on a yellow background, just like the signs that stand at the entrance to every German town. Rows of small houses, each with two doors, make up the settlement. ‘Bosnian Düren’ was founded in 1998 – as part of an agreement between the German town of Düren, the German federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the EU and Bosnian refugees who had fled the fighting in their homeland and found shelter in Düren. 

The village of 'Düren' in Bosnia
The village of 'Düren' in Bosnia

From 1992 to 1995 Bosnians, Serbs and Croats fought over land and for influence in what is today Bosnia and Herzegovina. Entire villages and towns were destroyed, people were massacred and women raped, and about 100,000 people were killed. 1.2 million Bosnians fled – about one third of the total population. 350,000 people sought refuge in Germany. Most of them returned at the end of the 1990s. After the Dayton Peace Agreement came into effect, work started on rebuilding the country. The German federal government, and also the governments of the individual federal states and local authorities launched aid programmes, in order to encourage those who were willing to return home. 

Their former homes were now on Serbian territory

The German town of Düren, which took in about 800 Bosnian refugees, commissioned GIZ, or as it was then the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit, to put up a temporary village. The costs of planning and building the houses, of providing the necessary infrastructure for the village, and establishing a joiner’s workshop in which two Bosnian returnees from Düren and two inhabitants of the adjacent town of Gradačac found work, totalled almost 2.5 million D-Mark. The EU footed 60 per cent of the bill, and the Ministry of the Interior of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia also supported the project. 

The people who returned voluntarily were each given almost 2,000 D-Mark, which was intended to cover their living costs for the first six months. 230 returnees from Düren accepted the offer, and moved into the newly built village in 1998.

The settlement is still there today. It is part of the town of Gradačac. Most returnees were Muslims. After the war, their home towns were part of Serbian territory. Their houses had been destroyed. That is why the decision was made to establish the village of ‘Düren’ on the territory of the Bosniak-Croat Federation. 

The last returnees

The settlement was originally intended to offer provisional accommodation – the returnees were to be allowed to live there rent-free for five years. Many of the original inhabitants of the settlement have now returned to their home towns and villages. Today, new people are living in the little houses in ‘Düren’ – Roma people who cannot find any other accommodation. Mountains of plastic bottles and parts from broken down vehicles they have salvaged tower beside the houses. The new residents earn a little by recycling waste.

Nijaz Mehić and his wife are the only returnees from Germany who still live in the settlement today. The others were able to repair their former homes in what is today Serbia, or build a new house on Bosnian territory, or buy a flat in the town. The Mehićs haven’t managed to do so yet. Nijaz Mehić wears a black down jacket and a black hat. He looks like a docker. What does he actually do? ‘I’m a driver. But it was difficult to find a job after the war.’ 

Nijaz Mehić
Nijaz Mehić

The couple originally come from Modriča, about 15 kilometres away. ‘We still have our old house there, but I don’t have the money to renovate it,’ says Nijaz. He is grateful that Germany granted them asylum and for the support they were given on their return, but he points to his difficult living conditions in Bosnia and says, ‘It would have been better to stay in Germany.’

The start of a town twinning project

The town of Gradačac has around 40,000 inhabitants and lies in the north east of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The returnee project developed into a close town twinning project between Gradačac and Düren. School pupils visit one another; the two towns celebrate a joint town festival, and a cookery book has been produced with a compilation of recipes from both countries.

Hajrudin Hasanbašić
Hajrudin Hasanbašić

Hajrudin Hasanbašić works in Gradačac Town Hall, where he is responsible for town planning. Soon the last houses in the Bosnian Düren are to be pulled down. By 2020 social housing is to be built there. Hasanbašić believes that the returnee project was a success. ‘Most of the inhabitants were able to resolve their problems and return to where they had lived before the war.’  

A new beginning

Some families did not return to the Republika Srpska, but were nevertheless able to leave the provisional settlement. One of them was the Hatunić family, who have bought a house in Gradačac. Abaz Hatunić is sitting in the living room with his daughter and his father. In excellent German, the 29-year-old describes the time after the war. 

Abaz Hatunić with his father and daughter
Abaz Hatunić with his father and daughter

Initially it was difficult for the children to fit in again in Bosnia. Their erstwhile home was now alien to them. When Abaz Hatunić came back from Germany, he was ten years old. ‘The houses lay in ruins and I just thought “Where am I here?” In 1998 you couldn’t even walk across the fields. There were landmines everywhere.’ Nevertheless he looks back fondly on the time he spent in ‘little Düren’. ‘That was the best time for me. A lot of my Bosnian friends from Germany moved there at the same time. The German Düren also built a playground for us. We children had everything we needed.’

The family is doing fairly well today. Abaz and his sister Almina’s German skills are helping them earn a good income. Abaz has a job at a Bosnian company that operates in Germany. He works in different German towns for a period of a few weeks at a time, and has a work visa. He’s employed on building sites and interprets. His sister Almina works in a call centre. 

Back in Modriča

One of the Bosnian families who have returned to their old home in the Republika Srpska are Mr and Mrs Mesić. Most of their neighbours are Serbian, but today that is no longer a problem. 65-year old Azem was quick to find his feet on his return. He found work again as a joiner, and will soon be retiring. Before the war his wife Sevleta worked in the retail trade as a saleswoman, but she could not find a job when they returned. ‘Thank goodness my husband is a joiner. They were really in demand here.’

 Picture gallery

Finding a job wasn’t so easy for everybody. ‘It was specially difficult for women,’ says Sevleta Mesić. ‘And then there was the generation of returnees who were too young to retire, but too old to find work.’ Today Sevleta Mesić is most concerned for her children. ‘We older people who worked before the war get a bit of a pension. But the young people can’t find proper jobs and mostly work on the black market. They don’t pay into any pension scheme. Young people have no future here.’

The figures back her up. Unemployment in Bosnia and Herzegovina, at about 45 per cent, is the highest in Europe. Youth unemployment is almost 60 per cent. Many people are seeking their fortunes far away from home. Before the war, 4.5 million people lived here. Today the figure is down to 3.5 million. Azem and Sevleta Mesić’s children are also considering leaving. Their German skills could help them. And that mirrors what is happening in many returnee families. The gratitude of the older generation is mixed with concern for their children, who face an uncertain future.

June 2017