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Last Bastion of Sanity Poised to Sink into Bosnian Madness

March 5, 1993

TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ This city at the eye of the Bosnian storm is inching closer to the furious violence that has engulfed much of the rest of the republic.

For the first time in the war, Tuzla’s Muslims, Croats and Serbs all fear the future.

Sarajevo reels under 11 months of relentless Serbian siege. Most non-Serbs have been forced out of Banja Luka to the northeast. Croats and Muslims in Mostar to the south size each other up even while battling the common Serb foe. Bihac, a Muslim bastion in northwest Bosnia, is battered daily by encircling Serb artillery.

But the northeastern city of Tuzla, while at the doorstep of the most desperate fighting anywhere in the former Yugoslav republic, has so far escaped violence.

Anders Levinsen, local representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, calls it ″the last civilized place in Bosnia.″

Serb, Croat and Muslim have co-existed for centuries in the city. Croats and Muslims here defied an order from Croat fascist overlords to slaughter Serb residents during World War II.

Ethnic origins remained unimportant in Tuzla, Bosnia’s premier industrial city, even as nationalism mushroomed into warfare that shattered the old Yugoslav federation nearly two years ago.

Fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina broke out last year after Muslims and Croats voted for independence from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia.

The residents of other major Bosnian cities voted along nationalist lines in fall 1990 elections, causing tensions that boiled over into the war.

But Tuzla’s 100,000 people chose a coalition headed by the Reform party of ex-Yugoslav Premier Ante Markovic, which preached economic reform and a multi- national society.

As Serb began battling Croat and Muslim elsewhere, Tuzla folk - 60 percent Muslim, the rest Serb and Croat - joined forces May 15, 1991 to counterattack marauding units of the retreating Yugoslav People’s Army.

The city’s multiethnic militia subsequently pushed paramilitary Serb units back from nearby hills and into the hinterland.

But the worsening economic hardship caused by the war, along with an influx of 60,000 mostly Muslim refugees - many preaching hatred - has begun to fray the city’s bonds.

″We have begun feeling the negative effects of the hardships around us,″ said Deputy Mayor Rafo Jozic. Though no major ethnic violence has occured, ethnically inspired vandalism, such as tire slashing, is on the increase.

″There were no nationalists here,″ said Jozic, a Croat. ″But now we are exhausting our tolerance.″

The loss of Cerska, some 25 miles southeast, to Serb rebels and the expected arrival of 20,000 new refugees from the region left residents of the snow-dusted city gloomy this week.

″I grew up in a family with no particular nationalist orientation,″ mused Borislav Nikolic over a cup of strong Turkish coffee and a snifter of rakija, powerful local brandy. ″I considered myself Yugoslav before the war, now Yugoslavia doesn’t exist, so I’m forced to be a Serb.″

More than 20 percent of Tuzla’s residents listed themselves as Yugoslavs in the last pre-war census, and more than 30 percent married across ethnic boundaries.

Friendships across ethnic lines persist. Nikolic’s two best buddies are a Croat and a Muslim. But the three agreed that the days of Tuzla as Bosnia’s last haven of tolerance are numbered.

″We are a dying breed,″ declared Nikolic, 30. Marijo Dogas, his 28-year- old Croat friend responded: ″We are like beached fish - out of our element in a sea of ethnic hatred.″

Thirty-year-old Mirsad Krajinovic, the Muslim, avoided the gaze of his Serb friend. Then he said: ″I think some groups will be forced to leave here because ethnic hatreds are growing.″

U.N. and other foreign officials in Tuzla for the international relief effort perceive pressure on the liberal city council from a regional government infused with strong Muslim and Croat nationalist elements. That too is undermining city efforts to keep the lid on ethnic tensions, they say.

Some see a mild form of ″ethnic cleansing″ with the recent removal of Jelko Knez, a Croat, from the top regional army command and his replacement with a Muslim.

And they say Mayor Selim Degladic, a Muslim who rejects nationalism, is probably next to go.

Levinsen of the UNHCR fears a demoralizing influx of Bosnian army troops fleeing the eastern front after their defeat in Cerska and the closure of the Croat-controlled supply routes from the southwest.

He also noted that Tuzla cannot get the explosives necessary to mine needed coal, and supplies of coal are down to 20 days.

″Once there is no coal, there is no heat, no electricity, no hot water,″ he said. ″Without those, people lose their minds, and the city falls apart.″

P-DS-03-05-93 0046EST

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