For the youngest returnee, two-year-old Alermina Zametica, going home meant travelling to a place she has never seen and does not know. Perhaps like some of the children who returned to Bosnia in the first repatriation effort on March 20, when Alermina arrives in Bosnia she will ask her mother when she is going back home to Gabčíkovo. Her mother will need to explain to her that Bosnia, not Gabčíkovo, is really home.
While that may cause some unsureness for young Alermina, those that were left behind felt insecure, too.
Twenty-nine-year-old Gordana Brajic stood in the parking lot as the buses pulled away, waving to her companions of the past four years, tears streaming down her face. Like most of the other Bosnian refugees who boarded buses heading for Gabčíkovo in September 1992, Brajic said she is unsure what happens next. "I still don't know what the future holds," she said. "That is hard."
Brajic taught German at the Center's makeshift Bosnian school, which closed in June after many of the students went back to Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Some of those who taught at the Bosnian school, like Brajic, now have nothing to do. They do not know when they will return and until that time they must live with an uncertain future and little to occupy their time. Their future lies in the hands of the Slovak and Bosnian governments and the international community.
Going home. For two-year-old Alermina Zametica, leaving Slovakia means starting a new life in a home she has never seen: Bosnia-Herzegovina.
No easy return
Getting them back is no easy task. Under the voluntary repatriation program, coordinated by the United Nation's High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Slovak Interior Ministry's migration office, refugees must officially request to return, and show that they have aplace to return to, proven either by their own housing or a promise from a friend or relative. Lodging is scarce in Bosnia, however. The World Bank estimates that over 60 percent of the country's housing stock has been damaged or destroyed.
Slovakia was the first European country to repatriate Bosnian refugees, shuttling 77 nationals back to their homeland in March.
According to Mária Čierna, the public information officer at the UNHCR's Bratislava office, some non-profit organizations criticized the Slovak government for sending them back, arguing that the journey should have been delayed until winter ended.
But Čierna, who accompanied the refugees back to Bosnia, said that despite the harsh conditions, the returnees suddenly "came back to life" when they set foot on native soil. "After years of hopelessness, they returned and saw their homes, which though many of them were shattered, remindedthem of their previous, peaceful life," Čierna recalled. "They started to think again about visiting their friends, reconstructing their homes, and planting their gardens. Simply, they rediscovered real life."
While the second repatriation effort took more refugees home and a third is planned for later this year, the majority of the 150 Bosnian refugees remaining at the Gabčíkovo Center may never get back because their property is no longer in their own country. "People with homes in what are now Serb controlled areas are not able to return," said John Young, UNHCR's legal officer in Bratislava. "They have nowhere to go back to."
Young foresees a bleak future for them if they remain in Slovakia. A government directive extending them temporary refugee status expires in December, though Young believes they may be granted temporary asylum into next year.
But after that, their lives get tossed in a state of suspended animation, since permission to live and work in Slovakia "is, in practice, granted on more of an exceptional basis," Young said. Without a work permit, Young added, the refugees "have no future in Slovakia."
Ahmet Sabanovič, 19, left Slovakia with the recent group, believing that his time in Slovakia during the conflict was "better than being at home." For those 150 that still remain, however, their future home remains even more in doubt.
9. Oct 1996 at 0:00 | Rachel Hammonds