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SAIS Review 21.2 (2001) 177-199

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Return and Reconstruction in Bosnia-Herzegovina: Missing Link, or Mistaken Priority?

Richard Black


The return of refugees and "reconstruction" of countries devastated by conflict are important policy goals for an increasingly large number of donor governments, international organizations, and NGOs working across the development and humanitarian fields. Recent events in Kosovo provide a dramatic illustration of both the speed with which concern for reconstruction can develop and the extent to which this is linked in public policy to the return of refugees. Yet Kosovo is not the first, nor is it the only situation in which emphasis has been placed on the links between refugee return and post-conflict reconstruction. From Cambodia and Namibia in the early 1990s to Mozambique, Rwanda, and Guatemala in the middle part of the decade, policymakers have grappled with these twin concerns as fundamental components of international humanitarian policy.

Nowhere has international commitment to refugee return and reconstruction been more evident than in the Balkans. In Bosnia in particular, the armed conflict of 1992-95 shocked the world. As the war ended, Western nations hoped to make Bosnia a showcase of their ability to lead a country out of war and into sustainable economic and social development. The task was considerable. Over half of the country's estimated population of 3.5 million was either living outside the country as refugees or was internally displaced within its borders. The economy of the country lay shattered, while its political system had been dramatically altered, not only by the conflict, but also by the need to establish new forms of governance after the collapse of [End Page 177] the old federal socialist system.

This paper provides a critical analysis of attempts to link refugee return to post-war reconstruction in the specific context of Bosnia and Herzegovina. An analysis of this link is essential to understanding not only the events that have unfolded in Bosnia since the Dayton Peace Accord of 1995, but also emerging trends in international policy toward war-torn societies more generally. The first section of the paper provides a brief background to the issues of reconstruction and return in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as a critical analysis of their conceptualization. Next, reasons why the two have been linked are explored, highlighting the aspirations of a range of different stakeholders. Building on a discussion of five specific return initiatives launched in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the paper then examines the forces that have obstructed return, both of refugees from abroad and of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Recognition of these obstacles to return has led to a number of calls for renewed international efforts to remove them--especially in the case of internal return of "minorities." 1 However, it is argued here that the preoccupation with return and reconstruction is itself highly problematic in the context of a society undergoing profound change.

Dayton and the Concept of "Reconstruction"

For many commentators, the peace accord signed at Dayton, Ohio in November 1995 represents the starting point for analysis of post-conflict Bosnia. Capping a conflict that had seen forced migration (or "ethnic cleansing") as a goal of war, Dayton was supposed to reverse the bitter ethnic hatred that had plagued the Balkans since the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and usher in a new era of post-war reconstruction. The war had taken a devastating toll on Bosnia's economy, as evidenced by a fall in annual per capita income to around a quarter of pre-war levels, 2 and the damage or destruction during the war of 60 percent of Bosnia's housing stock. 3 In response to this devastation, implementation of the Dayton Accord envisaged massive aid transfers to Bosnia, as had been done with the Marshall Plan after the Second World War--the last major war fought on European soil. In spite of initial concerns whether these aid flows would be forthcoming, in the first year of peace alone nearly US$2 billion was pledged by multilateral and bilateral donors, half of this...