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Peace, Balkan Style


Letter From Bosnia

PEACE, BALKAN STYLE

In Gornji Vakuf's Federation Bar, two young men are finishing a game of chess. "Checkmate, you're dead!" the Muslim grins, raking his Croat pal with make-believe submachine-gun fire. "Just as well we're only playing, eh?"

The pub's name is an ironic nod to the Muslim-Croat Federation, the U.N.-brokered "statelet" that occupies almost half of newly partitioned Bosnia-Herzegovina. Virtually the sole habitable building along the no-man's-land that bisects this bombed-out Bosnian hill town, the seedy watering hole is the only meeting place where both sides can be at ease with each other.

BLOOD TIDE. For the two pals at the chessboard, the Federation Bar offers the best chance to pick up a relationship that began on the first day of kindergarten nearly 15 years ago. "He lives only 100 meters away," says the Croat, glancing at a pockmarked minaret that towers over the moonscape like a shot-up spacecraft that has put down for repairs. "But it might as well be Mars for me. I just wouldn't be welcome there right now."

Of course, things weren't always this way. Well into the Yugoslav conflict, folks here lived together peacefully in low-rise, communist-era apartment blocks and worked side by side in factories. Ideally placed midway along the supply route between Sarajevo's heavy industry and Adriatic ports, Gornji Vakuf's factories enjoyed a reputation for precision engineering and high-quality furniture and apparel. The last thing the 24,000 inhabitants wanted was to start killing one another. With the rival armies circling the town, burning and raping their way through the surrounding villages, Vakufians even staged a peace rally in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the tide of hatred from seeping into their prosperous town.

Yet when embittered refugees began spilling down from the mountains with news of unspeakable atrocities, it grew harder to stay neutral. Once the shooting reached Gornji Vakuf in January, 1993, the locals joined in. Neighbors whose families had intermingled for centuries scattered to areas around the mosque and the Catholic church, taking over the homes of those fleeing the other way.

For a year and a half, they blasted away with whatever came to hand--rolling beer barrels packed with explosives into the sides of middle-class suburban villas, or unearthing rusty hunting irons to snipe at lifelong friends across the main street, which served as the front line. "They were so near, I could hear them cursing us," recalls Miriam Matijanic, a young Croat mother who spent most of the war cowering in her cellar. One day, when she sneaked out to relieve herself during a lull in the fighting, a bullet smacked into a tree overhead. Diving back through the doorway, she recognized the mocking laugh of an old boyfriend she'd almost married. It's a noise that still invades her dreams.

Many others share the sense of betrayal that comes from viewing a loved one from the wrong end of a gun barrel. "If you were in Sarajevo, which was shelled for a long period of time by the Serbs, you didn't actually see the guy on the hill that was aiming at you," says British social worker Malcolm Turner. "In Gornji Vakuf, it was eyeball-to-eyeball...much more intimate."

HORNS OF DILEMMA. It was too intimate to forget overnight--and there's the rub. Western powers, which stood by and watched for so long, are making reconciliation a condition for rebuilding aid. The U.S. government has approved $2 million to help repair the 84% of Gornji Vakuf's buildings that suffered extensive war damage, but there are strings attached. To help cement the new federation, funds will be released only for "joint-use structures." In other words, if the ex-foes don't kiss and make up--right now--they won't get any money.

Faced with this devil's dilemma, Vakufians prefer to do without help rather than fake a friendship they aren't ready to rekindle. "Right now, people are burning wood in their living rooms to stay warm," says Julia Demichaelis, project manager of the Washington-sponsored United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). "We are forbidden to install proper heating systems and effect other repairs because, at the moment, neither community feels emotionally prepared to share public housing. And quite frankly, I don't blame them."

This "tough love" rehabilitation model was pioneered in Mostar, where the European Union successfully bullied and cajoled Muslims and Croats into working together. But no such central authority exists in Gornji Vakuf, where volunteer aid workers assert that coercion can be only a short-term solution.

"If you've got a gun in your hand and the other guy hasn't, then of course he'll do as you say," snaps Gonzalo Vargas Llosa, regional coordinator of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. "Most people here want to be reunited, but it's far better to allow time for the wounds to heal before we encourage them to start taking up where they left off. If that process takes a few years, fine. In the interim, we can't sit here and just continue to talk to people about eventual reintegration and not help them physically."

For now, residential reconstruction has largely halted, although work continues on infrastructure projects such as sewage works and power lines. But even here, outside help brings problems. Aid agency staffers say they are bound by an agenda that can only thwart efforts to resurrect the native economy. "An openly stated objective of most Western governmental assistance is to create long-term markets for their own industries," says UMCOR's Demichaelis. "Over 80% of the money that we receive has been officially earmarked for the purchase of U.S. goods and vehicles and expertise." She complains that raw materials and an endless succession of advisers are flown in from abroad at great expense. Meantime, Gornji Vakuf's factories, which survived the fighting in good shape, remain idle.

OBSOLETE PHRASES. While on-site aid workers implore their governments to compromise on funding conditions, ordinary Vakufians improvise the basics of a normal life while maintaining their self-imposed apartheid. Muslim children, for example, learn their lessons in gutted shop fronts, perched on rows of upturned packing cases, rather than cross the cease-fire line to their old classrooms. During recess, they play soldier on the street, peering out of the trash-filled shell craters and manholes whose covers were long ago melted down for munitions.

Even the sound of their chatter reflects the bunker mentality that, more than anything else, threatens the chances of a lasting peace. Under the terms of last year's Dayton Agreement, the federation has two official languages, Croatian and Bosnian. Since there is little difference between the two, fanatics in both communities are reviving obsolete dialect words to reinforce ethnic identities.

"When the kids meet me in the morning, they say `marhaba,"' chuckles headmaster Alija Mahmutovic, shaking his head at the incongruity of the Old World Islamic greeting. "It sounds ridiculous, like something my great-great-grandmother would have said." His smile turns to an exasperated frown, as he ponders linguistic cleansing: "We're supposed to be looking ahead, not back, aren't we?"

Still, in the Federation Bar, there are signs that people are groping their way forward. At the table next to where the teenagers play chess, a group of women from both sides is holding its weekly knit-in. The women started it as an excuse to rebuild a few bridges, and by and large, the talk is open, if a little stilted. "We want to be friends again," insists one white-haired grandmother. "And we can be. But in our own time, and not just because Mr. Clinton says so."By JAMES DRAKEReturn to top


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