A man can be deprived of his house and land, he can lose money and health and homeland, but something will always remain to provide strength and will for a new start. But take away a man’s dignity and there will appear an emptiness that nothing can assuage, and it will fill him with disappointment and anxiety. Thus he will lose the last foothold from which he has drawn the strength needed to overcome all the trials and tribulations, to stay and survive.

In this issue of the Bulletin we are publishing stories from a journalist’s notepad about returnees to Banija and Kordun regions, about individuals and families who, fearing for their lives, had to leave their homes at the start of 1995 and set out into the unknown, far from their birthplace, far from the graves of their fathers. Wherever they arrived and settled down, however well they may have been received, the love for their homeland will never have disappeared from their hearts. As the years passed, pictures of scattered villages in Banija and Kordun remained in their thoughts. Pictures of their childhood, the fertile fields, meadows and pastures, prancing horses, singing and laughter, the traditional spinning and husking circles, flirting and socializing, good neighbours. For many of them the memories only became more vivid instead of fading and one after another, they made up their mind to go back, hoping that the return would restore peace in their hearts and take their lives back down the old paths.

The state has reconstructed many burnt houses, many returnees have managed to restore their social and other income and get back what had always been theirs. However, slowly and systematically, they were stripped of what was most important: safety, self-confidence and even dignity. This did not happen overnight. It slowly crept into their hearts in the form of many small things, apparently isolated and insignificant and seemingly disconnected from each other.

The promised reconstruction of houses has slowed and has yet to take place for many returnees. Some 300 Serb households are still waiting to be connected to the electric grid, the roads leading to returnee villages are not regularly levelled, bus connections are either severely reduced or cancelled altogether while detached clerks in the local administration handle any possible requests with deliberate slowness, dragging their feet and refusing to be helpful. Hordes of con artists of all possible kinds prowl through remote villages and hamlets. Some falsely identify themselves and take money from timid elderly women; others come at night to loot. Few end up behind bars.

In many cases the state apparatus has failed completely. In Klasnić, Banija, the few remaining villagers still remember Dragan Milokara, an elderly man and the only one who stayed in the village during Operation Storm. He lived in a small decrepit house just below the church of Holy Spirit. He lived there alone and forgotten, without income, without an identity card, without the citizenship papers or any other document. He lived in utter poverty on the brink of hunger. All he had was his name and even that he could not prove because he had no documents. As the returnees started trickling back, they began to look after him and in 2003 the story about him made it to newspapers. After that, representatives of certain state services arrived there, forced him into a car and drove him to a hospital in Popovača. Witnesses say he had cried and tried to resist. He fled from the hospital several times and each time they caught him and brought him back. A year or two later news came to Klasnić that Dragan had died and they said it was from sadness. The village organized for his remains to be transported to Klasnić and buried. Every villager in Klasnić will confirm the story of Dragan Milokara, an unfortunate loner who was literally kidnapped from his own threshold.

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