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Undisciplined Reservists Threaten Yugoslav Truce

January 20, 1992

MOSTAR, Yugoslavia (AP) _ A Yugoslav artillery captain threw up his hands in frustration and laughed: ″My guys just love to shoot. They drink too much and ...BLAM, BLAM, BLAM. What can I do?″

Not much, grumble community leaders, who say undisciplined reservists from Serbia and Montenegro are turning their jewel of a medieval stone city into something out of the Wild West.

″We will stand it as long as demands on our patience remain within the possible,″ said Mayor Milivoje Gagro, whose sense of humor helps dampens flare-ups in the hottest spot of Bosnia-Hercegovina.

″But we are approaching the limit quickly,″ he added.

Last week, 700 reservists guarding the military airport and a jet-fighter plant opened fire on a mysterious shape that stopped in the night.

When they got around to asking questions, they found it was a freight train that had stopped at a red signal on the track. The only people aboard, an engineer and a brakeman, were wounded.

More often, groups of young recruits swagger through town, brandishing weapons at men, leering at women, and tossing empty bottles on Mostar’s historic cobblestones.

Recently, one of them tried to drive a jeep over a spectacular - and fragile - narrow stone and marble bridge, built by Turks 425 years ago, one of Yugoslavia’s prized remnants of its past. The bridge was not damaged.

″It’s my worst problem,″ said the artillery captain, a roly-poly Serb intellectual in his 40s who under army regulations had to speak on condition of anonymity.

″They love gunfire. Each has 30 to 60 rounds. When they can get anti- aircraft, they go crazy. All those colorful tracers.″

He said it was all but impossible to punish unruly troops.

″If I throw them in jail, they have central heating, three meals a day and they live two to a room,″ he said. ″Here they sleep in a freezing tent and eat garbage.″

More than 15,000 troops, perhaps up to 30,000, are clustered around Mostar, on the line between western Hercegovina, which is ethnically Croat, and the Serbs and Muslims of eastern Hercegovina.

Added to the military problem is a series of almost nightly explosions, still unexplained, which damage buildings in the city. They are set after midnight and have yet to cause any casualties.

Encouraged by European Community observers, Yugoslav officers attempt to lower the temperature. Checkpoints are discreet by day, and most people stay off the roads around Mostar by night.

The war has been fought in neighboring Croatia, but the landscape is rich with war’s machinery.

Recently, a cow wandered onto a land mine near the airport and blew itself to bits. Earlier, a herdsman came home with only one of his 23 goats. The rest were left in pieces across another mine field.

In Mostar itself, the sound of gunfire is routine.

″A lot of these reservists are a real menace, and many people are afraid to go out at night,″ said Mario Brankic, a radio talk-show host who took visitors on a tour of the old town.

Nonetheless, Brankic’s own pub, the Piccadilly, booms until after midnight. The ″Day and Night Club Nonstop 24 Hours″ doesn’t always keep its promise, but Mostar hardly huddles in terror.

For some, the new tension is just another trial for a tourist city with home grown punks who spray gang names like ″Napalm Death″ and ″Day-Glo Abortion″ on ancient walls.

″It is in the nature of our people not to be explosive, and they are not very excited by explosions,″ Mayor Gagro said with a smile.

The Wild West atmosphere reflects a curious phenomenon which pervades all of what is left of Yugoslavia and the freshly independent states of Croatia and Slovenia.

No one underestimates the potential for violence. At any time an uneasy cease-fire in Croatia could relapse into a vicious civil war, with the potential of spilling over borders into other Balkan states.

Meanwhile, potential enemies shake hands warmly and exchange jokes.

Bosnia remains tense because its ethnic Serbs have said they would secede by force of arms if foreign countries recognize the republic as independent.

To celebrate Serbian New Year, however, the local Serb party chairman, Anto Nikolic, invited his political opponents to a lavish cocktail party and buffet.

″It is in our nature, he told a visitor. ″We kiss one minute and clash the next. Who can explain it?″

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