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Bosnia and Herzegovina : humanitarian perspectives 1997


 Humanitarian perspectives for Bosnia and Herzegovina 1997  

Throughout the pre-war period and the ensuing years of conflict, in Bosnia-Herzegovina worst-case scenarios had an uncanny way of coming true. Since the General Framework Agreement for Peace was signed in Dayton over a year ago, the vicious circle appears finally to have been broken: NATO-led IFOR troops have ensured that the parties to the recent hostilities keep their forces away from the former front lines. But at the political level, despite an impressive number of working groups and commissions, progress is slow. There is still a lack of willingness to implement on the ground what has been made perfect on paper; and although the war is now over, people's attitudes are still largely conditioned by the logic of conflict. The next few months will show whether the nationalist rhetoric that marked the September elections can be replaced by genuine dialogue. It remains to be seen who will have the last word: the forces favouring cohesion or those tending towards partition?

For the time being stability still eludes Bosnia and Herzegovina. A whole string of crucial questions, ranging from freedom of movement to the return of displaced persons, and from telecommunications to property rights, have yet to be settled. Shaken by years of war and faced with an uncertain future, people feel helpless and discouraged. International mechanisms were set up one year ago to facilitate the country's recovery, but much remains to be done if viable solutions for peaceful coexistence are to be negotiated and normal life is to resume within the two-year consolidation period envisaged (1997/98).

The ICRC has identified three dimensions of war-related needs requiring humanitarian action:


 1) Immediate effects of the war  

*so far, 16,000 people have been reported missing by their families;

*about 1 million people who remain displaced within Bosnia and Herzegovina and more than 1 million who have become refugees in third countries cannot go back home until living conditions in the country have improved and basic security requirements have been met;

*freedom of movement will continue to be wishful thinking for as long as minority groups are in a precarious situation and people are arrested for crossing the Inter-Entity Boundary Line between the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska established in Dayton;

*medical facilities and water treatment installations still rely on aid provided by humanitarian organizations, as the health authorities are not yet in a position to supply medicines and materials and the concept of public health care is being redefined in the post-war context.

 2) Longer-term effects of the war  

*Following the collapse of the social and economic structure, people are trying to survive by practising small-scale economic and agricultural activity. Many severely damaged buildings and the overall infrastructure are in urgent need of repair. The long-term goal is to rebuild the national economy, resume the production of industrial goods and services and generate employment. In the meantime, humanitarian aid will be necessary to bridge the gap by providing food and essential services such as social assistance and medical treatment for vulnerable groups (for example elderly people and families who have lost their breadwinner);

*most social institutions were badly neglected during the war. They urgently require repair, material support and properly trained and motivated staff if they are to ensure decent living conditions for the inmates;

*millions of unexploded landmines are still hidden in the earth ; it will take decades to remove them and people must learn how to live with this permanent hazard.

 3) Paralysed civil society  

*Where people have burnt down one another's houses, any memory of living together as good neighbours has been erased. In the spiral of violence, war and ethnic cleansing, acceptance of the other was reduced to non-existence. If things are ever to return to normal, it is essential to rekindle a dialogue and generate some degree of cooperation between the elements of this fragmented society.



 1. Immediate effects of the war: attending to open wounds  

 a) Search for the missing - families must know  

So far, 16,000 people have been reported missing, and the passage of time cannot relieve the despair of their families. Their distress remains intolerable and must be addressed. Each family requires a specific and individual answer regarding the fate of missing relatives; each family wants to know whether their loved ones are indeed dead. The ICRC's role is to support these families; understand their pain and empathize with them; continue to collect, on their behalf, all pertinent information relating to missing individuals; and help them start the process of mourning and come to terms with the past.

On behalf of these families, the ICRC has mobilized the authorities concerned and the international community to take part actively in the quest for answers. So far, information has been obtained concerning some 1,000 cases. One third was the result of the ICRC's own tracing efforts; the remainder was provided by the parties.

The objectives remain as they were defined in early 1996:


1. conclude the gathering of requests from families and transmit them to the authorities. To date, 16,000 individual requests have been collected direct from the families;

2. call on the authorities to provide answers. A Working Group chaired by the ICRC and sponsored by the international community as represented in Dayton has enabled the three former warring parties in the course of the past seven months to meet and gather information on people missing on all sides;

3. collect additional information and eyewitness accounts from the public. By launching a campaign which has involved publishing lists of names, the ICRC aims to make the public aware of who is missing and encourage people to come forward with any information they may have.

4. proceed with exhumations for identification purposes. At present, thousands of unidentified bodies are lying in mass graves and elsewhere. A few have been exhumed to provide evidence for the International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Next year's priority must be to identify mortal remains and give them a decent burial.

5. settle the legal consequences for the families of those who are presumed dead but have not been accounted for within the two-year co nsolidation period. The families will then require official certificates enabling them to solve administrative issues (inheritance, marriage, parental authority).

 Dayton - Annex 7 - Article 5:  

 The Parties shall provide information through the tracing mechanisms of the ICRC on all persons unaccounted for. The Parties shall also cooperate fully with the ICRC in its efforts to determine the identities, whereabouts and fate of the unaccounted for.  

 The tracing network in the former Yougoslavia  

* 85 Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies worldwide;

* 527 local Red Cross branches in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republic of Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia;

* 22 ICRC offices throughout the former Yugoslavia.

 Criteria for family tracing requests  

 * The ICRC will initiate a tracing request if:  

- the family has tried to re-establish contact through the Red Cross message network, with no sucess;

- the request is made by the next-of-kin (parents, spouse, children, brother/sister);

- the person disappeared in Bosnia and Herzgovina;

- loss of contact occured after February 1992;

- there is precise information on date and place of disappearance and authorities in charge at the time.

 b)  Security for all: still a long way to go  

Constitutional bodies are being set up step by step. The tripartite presidency has met several times since the September elections, which is an encouraging sign. However, not everything is going smoothly. Freedom of movement remains restricted and people are still arrested for crossing the Inter-Entity Boundary Line. Attempts by groups to visit their place of origin have provoked clashes. Expelled minority members trying to return to their former homes have seen those homes burnt. Such incidents strongly signal the refusal to go back to what the situation used to be before the war. At the end of 1996, Bosnia and Herzegovina remains divided into three ethnically segregated areas.

Given this hostile environment, one big question mark is the return of people who sought refuge in third countries. The criteria for their safe return in acceptable conditions remain unchanged since spring 1996: freedom of movement secured by a guaranteed and accepted system of rule of law and economic conditions ensuring an acceptable standard of living for the returnees. The question is: will they really be able to go back home, or will " return " mean relocation somewhere in Bosnia and Herzegovina, far from their places of origin that remain inaccessible to them?

The ICRC calls on the local authorities and the international community to do everything possible to build the necessary institutions - such as a properly trained and well-run police force and an equitable and independent judiciary - so that the rule of law may be guaranteed. The ICRC intends to make its own contribution to this process by continuing to visit detainees in need of protection and endeavouring to ensure the safety and dignity of minority groups.

 c) Direct support to medical and water-supply facilities  

The ICRC's objective for 1996 had been progressively to reduce its support to medical facilities. However, in view of the many pressing requests it received from hospitals and health authorities, the ICRC decided to extend its medical assistance beyond the time planned into 1997.

WHO and the Ministries of Health of both entities are working to rebuild and modernize the health system in the long term. This will include the setting up of a network of local primary health-care facilities. For its part, the ICRC is planning to support the introduction of such facilities, as part of its strategy to help strengthen the social fabric.

The purpose of the ICRC's water and sanitation work in 1996, carried out in cooperation with participating National Red Cross Societies from other countries, has been to prevent the total breakdown of existing water-supply systems by providing basic maintenance. As large-scale rehabilitation projects launched at the intergovernmental level are showing first results, the ICRC plans to end its activities in this field by mid-1997.

 2. Longer-term effects of the war: filling the gaps  

The second type of humanitarian activity is intended to bridge gaps in the social system until medium- and long-term rehabilitation projects take effect.

 a) Improve people's lives - NOW  

Unemployment is soaring, and has worsened with the demobilization of all the men who were under arms during the war. Many displaced people have no income. In the absence of income-generating economic activity, it is hard to improve living conditions enough for the population to cope without outside help. However, the efforts ma de by the international community, World Bank, European Union and others to put the country back on its feet are slow to take effect. That is why there is still a need for humanitarian organizations such as the ICRC and National Red Cross Societies to fill the gap throughout the consolidation period, by means of:

* another winter relief programme in 1996/97 for 125,000 people;

* a further round of seed distributions in spring 1997 for 75,000 families;

* soup kitchens run by several National Red Cross Societies and regular distribution of food parcels for 200,000 of the most vulnerable people.

 b) To survive peace, "think mines"  

Several million landmines and unexploded ordnance are scattered throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, mainly concentrated in areas along the former confrontation lines. Children, who are naturally curious, farmers tending their land, and displaced people returning to their former homes in deserted villages are particularly at risk. The process of removing these hidden killing devices from the ground is both slow and costly; a generation from now, there will still be people injured by mine explosions in the region. To reduce the number of victims, the ICRC has launched a mine awareness campaign designed to make everybody " think mines " wherever they go and show them how to avoid accidents. The strong involvement of the local Red Cross branches and their extended networks is essential, as they will need to take over once the ICRC leaves.

 3. Towards lasting peace: building civil society  

The war has plunged the country into a state of collective depression. People need new motivation enabling them to look to the future with more hope. An organization such as the ICRC might play a positive role in preparing for peace the people it assisted throughout the war.

 a) Boosting the local Red Cross  

In the reconstruction phase the ICRC intends to join forces with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to help set up a dynamic Red Cross structure throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina. The dissemination projects it is carrying out are aimed at promoting dialogue and reconciliation. The ICRC also has plans for cooperation programmes .that will help local Red Cross branches increase their operational capacity and develop activities aimed at strengthening the social fabric.

 b) Changing people's minds: promotion of humanitarian values  

 Training the military  

It's an encouraging sign: the armed forces in the former Yugoslavia are showing themselves increasingly open to the idea of integrating International Humanitarian Law into their training programmes. The moment is propitious, as all of them are in the process of restructuring. The ICRC has seized the moment to approach the respective Ministries of Defence for medium- and long-term cooperation in this field.

 Addressing youngsters: an investment in the future  

Five years of war have undoubtedly left deep scars on the collective consciousness of the people for many years to come and threaten to undermine the basic humanitarian values necessary for social stability. The impressionable minds of young people are especially affected. Growing up in the midst of war, they have experienced the intense hatred it has engendered. Community-based activities for youngsters have v irtually disappeared. The absence of meaningful occupation may lead them to explore damaging alternatives, such as mindless violence, alcoholism and drug abuse. By conducting educational programmes for community schools, the ICRC aims to help revive traditional humanitarian values among young people.

Geneva, december 1996 (MDP, REX/OPS)