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Muslims and Serbs Race to Rebuild Along ‘Biological Front-line’

September 6, 1996

OMERBEGOVACA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ The battle for the hotly contested and hugely strategic Brcko corridor rages again as Muslims and Serbs raise roofs on war-destroyed homes. The score: Muslims, 186 red roofs; Serbs, 54.

Muslims are building on the Serb side of a boundary with the Muslim-Croat federation, but still within a demilitarized zone patrolled by U.S. soldiers. Serbs are building just ouside the zone on land they securely control.

Though the Muslims lead, the score is tightening; explosions have collapsed new roofs on nine Muslim houses since July.

With each new roof, the two sides are trying to strengthen their claim on the northern Brcko corridor, a question so contentious that the Dayton accord left it to an arbitration panel facing a Dec. 14 deadline.

The corridor would give the landlocked Muslim-Croat federation a border with Croatia, and access to the rest of Europe. For Bosnian Serbs who now control it, losing the 2-mile-wide strip would dissect their territory and isolate their population center, Banja Luka, to the west.

Whether the construction race will have any influence on the area’s ultimate status is questionable. But with the stakes so high, neither Serbs nor Muslims are willing to concede anything. Construction crews on both sides are erecting new roofs at a pace of one or two a day.

Rifet Toskic watched with envy as his old neighbor put a new roof on his shelled-out house in a mere four days.

``He was so happy, he got drunk and couldn’t find his way home,″ said Toskic, too poor to start work on his own home, overgrown by scrubby weeds.

Overnight, boom, the roof was gone, blown off by an explosion that splintered new wooden beams and shattered the old concrete block walls that withstood vicious shelling when Serbs overran the mostly Muslim area in 1992.

Explosions have come in threes, and Toskic’s neighbor was among those targeted Sunday night along with a construction materials warehouse.

``I don’t expect them (explosions) to stop,″ said U.S. Army Col. Tony Cucolo, whose bomb experts are investigating alongside Serb police.

Although the Dayton accord guarantees that all Bosnians may return to their original homes, the fast-paced roofing highlights how tension increases when Muslims exercise that right within Serb territory.

Muslim owners began returning in the spring to their homes in three former front-line villages, two of which were completely Muslim before the war, one 50 percent Muslim and 25 percent each Croat and Serb.

The red, chimney-capped roofs give color to a landscape that shows no other sign of healing.

Despite their new roofs, most houses remain uninhabitable shells of crumbling, bullet-pocked concrete walls. There are no doors, no windows, no fixtures of any kind. And for every house that has a roof, another three or four lie in neglect.

The building boom took off in May after the Bosnian government in Sarajevo shipped up shingles, fork lifts and a 17-man work crew.

``Within a couple of weeks, there were 25 houses with roofs on them,″ said Cucolo.

To ease Serb objections, the U.N. refugee agency verifies previous ownership and limits rebuilding to 20 roofs a week.

Serbs responded by erecting what they termed a ``biological front-line,″ raising roofs on abandoned homes in Dizdarusa, where they plan to relocate Sarajevo Serbs.

The Serb response was ``to basically block Bosnians from moving in,″ said Randolph Ryan, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency in Tuzla. So far, Muslims have only reclaimed homes within the demilitarized zone.

Outside of that zone, in Dizdarusa, four Serbs cleaned debris Wednesday from a house they had just finished roofing.

Who owned the houses before the war wasn’t their concern, they said. One man, who refused to give his name, said he planned to move because his home now lies within the Muslim-Croat federation.

Just down the road, Husu Bahor led the return of the Muslim families to Brcko. As long as the Americans remain, he said he feels safe. A wealthy store owner before the war, all he has left is his three-story home within sight of a U.S. checkpoint.

The nearby explosions have left him uneasy. The best solution, he said, is to make Brcko an international city. If it stays in Serb hands, he said, ``I will pack up my family and we will go to Australia.″

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