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Glimpsing Bosnia’s Future: Can Allies Live Together in Peace?

January 25, 1996

USORA VALLEY, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ In this isolated Bosnian valley, Serbs aren’t the issue that will decide whether peace is won or lost. Rather, it is the breakdown of the alliance between Bosnian Croats and Muslims, whose mutual enemy drove them to ally in peace.

While vicious fighting flared among Croats and Muslims elsewhere in Bosnia, people here fended off Serb attacks for 3 1/2 years, bound together by death, deprivation and a fervent wish for an end to it all.

But when the Serbs finally backed off, the Muslim-Croat alliance began crumbling, revealing the tenuousness of such war-time bonds. If the alliance doesn’t hold, Serbs might be emboldened to flout a peace plan they don’t much like, bringing Bosnia back to square one.

Lately, whispers have circulated about Croat nationalists determined to drive Muslims from their homes, or Muslim extremists forcing everyone to use the Islamic greeting ``Essela’mu Alejkum″ (peace be upon you).

It is all too eerily familiar: similarly pernicious and panicky rumors preceded war in both Croatia and Bosnia.

Each side has accused the other’s police of harassment ranging from baseless arrests to threats, robberies and beatings. Few accounts can be reliably verified.

Two weeks ago, months of low-level friction erupted on the front lines. Until NATO officials stepped in, it seemed inevitable that shots would be fired.

``We were never closer to war,″ said Anto Bajic (pronounced Ahn-toh Buy-itch), the local Croat brigade commander, leaning forward over his desk.

``About as close as you can come,″ agreed Ibrahim Hozic (Hoh-zitch), his Mulsim counterpart, whose headquarters are in an elementary school barely a mile down the road.

Both men are gracious and reasonable. And yet, however weary of war, they seem unable to find a comfortable peace.

Why? Both wish they could answer this question.

Was it so long ago that they played soccer together to blow off steam? Didn’t it work out fine when their children went to school side-by-side instead of in separate shifts?

``It’s very confusing,″ said Bajic, running a hand through his blond hair. ``If they ask us Croats, we are always for cooperation. The problem is on the other side.″

But for Hozic, ``the problem is that wherever the Croats are, even in small numbers, they want to take control″

``What the Serbs tried to do during the war, the Croats are trying to do today,″ he said, his clear amber eyes wide.

The two men are about the same age. Both were teachers before the war, big sports enthusiasts and full of mischievous charm. It’s hard to understand why this wedge must come between them.

The problem is, the conflict isn’t personal. From the beginning, it was keen politicians _ particularly Serb and Croat leaders _ who fanned the flames of nationalism with rhetoric and scare tactics.

Now that a peace has been defined and a multinational mission has moved in, boundaries seem set. But the wreckage remains: memories of war crimes and neighbors suddenly turning on neighbors.

In this atmosphere, and with no small push from the politicians, brigade commanders here have no choice but to stake out zones of security.

``Even the commanders agree that sometimes the problems come from higher up,″ said Capt. Kim Schmidt, a Danish NATO representative. ``It’s very hard to put a finger on the spot.″

To understand you must go back to 1992, when Serbs began their push south into central Bosnia. It was all Croats and Muslims could do to join forces. As the commander of one brigade put it, without each other there would have been nothing left.

For nearly four years, Croat and Muslim soldiers fought under a central Bosnian army command. They toasted their cooperation in local cafes.

But when the Serbs finally agreed to a peace, the struggle for authority began, tearing at the delicate fabric of the Croat-Muslim federation.

As Serb and federation troops prepared to pull back 1.25 miles from the front lines to meet the agreement’s Jan. 19 deadline, Croatian forces decided to claim what they envision as an autonomous enclave.

NATO officials quickly intervened. Forces were withdrawn, but the future remains in question. Croat authorities still seek an autonomous municipality, with its own civilian police. For all kinds of reasons _ real or imagined _ they do not want to live under Muslim authority.

For the Bosnian army, this is acceptable if proper constitutional steps are taken.

``I will be the first to sign an application (for municipality), but it has to be legal,″ said Hozic, the Bosnian brigade commander. ``Not by force.″

It is a small tussle in a small pocket of a small country. But it bodes ill for Bosnia’s future if these men, who worked so long and hard together, cannot find peace.

``Civilians here have had enough of war. It is very important for everyone to live a normal life again,″ said Drago Pranjic, vice commander of the Croat brigade. ``We are all happy about the end of the war. Now there is left only the question: `What next?″

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