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Site of Muslim-Serb Fight Is Quiet as Villagers Return Home

September 2, 1996

MAHALA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ Ahmet Alic came home after four years to find little left of his old life: the concrete shell of his house, a rusted heater, and one precious photo of a smiling baby.

From the rubble where a grenade landed on his steps May 8, 1992, the 37-year-old Muslim picked up the worn picture of his son, who is now 12, and regarded it with fond amazement. ``That was 1983,″ he said, ``and he was probably just a year old.″

On Sunday, several women and children joined 40 men such as Alic who have returned to Mahala to try to reconstruct their homes and former lives. Their presence was a sign that fears raised by a confrontation with Serb police three days before is easing.

Mahala is on the Serb side of the final front line, but still within a demilitarized zone patrolled by U.S. troops. It has become a test case to see if former enemies can now live together.

Last Thursday, dozens of Serb police beat up Muslims who returned to Mahala.

Since the clash, U.S. soldiers have been operating checkpoints at both ends of the village and are maintaining round-the-clock watches to ensure that Mahala does not become see more ethnic violence before Sept. 14 elections, which are supposed to put the country back together.

The area was clear of arms, and no strange faces were among those sweeping debris from destroyed homes or brewing coffee on open fires outside, a U.S. commander said Sunday.

``I’m happy to see these people are far less menacing than the first day,″ Maj. Greg Tubbs told a group of villagers.

``We had some trouble-makers here yesterday,″ Tubbs said. ``It would be better if they stayed out of Mahala.″

Tubbs said he had identified about 20 men Saturday who were ``too clean and healthy″ to be among the Mahala men who began returning eight days ago.

NATO officials said 10 Bosnian soldiers were identified within the village, and two groups of armed Serbs were turned back on a nearby road.

The clash Thursday was among the most serious since NATO troops arrived in Bosnia in December to enforce the Dayton peace deal. Troops detained more than 60 of the Serbs for several hours before letting them go.

In an angry response, Serbs besieged U.N. police in nearby Zvornik. The tensions put a temporary halt to work at one of the grisly reminders of the Bosnian war _ a mass grave site at Lazete, about six miles southeast of here.

Work resumed, and officials said Sunday that bodies had been found and nine had been removed.

Many of the dozens of villagers working on their homes Sunday said they wanted to vote Sept. 14 as Mahala residents, not as refugees.

Despite being chased out in 1992, they said they could live under Serbs if they were secure from attack.

``We believe in elections as long as they are proper elections,″ said Began Fejzic, 45. ``We will live here under Serb authority, as long as they don’t do anything like attack us.″

Alic said he has no chance of getting his factory job back in Serb-controlled Zvornik, eight miles away, but that he wants to move his wife, 14-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son back, anyway.

First, the house needs a roof. Rubble covers the floors, its fittings have been stripped, and someone, presumably a Serb, daubed a skull and crossbones on one of the walls.

Amid all of destruction and neglect, the photo _ virtually the only remembrance of the family’s old life _ somehow survived.

``We want to come back to our homes,″ Alic said, then holding out two rather smooth hands, added: ``I’m not afraid to work with my hands, but I need material, and I don’t have money to buy it.′

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