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Sinking on Salt Mines, Tuzla Hopes for Lift from Americans

November 30, 1995

TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ This smoggy Communist-era town, where 20,000 U.S. soldiers will base their mission in Bosnia, is sinking into old salt mines and flooded with refugees who resent the peace plan that will bring the GIs here.

U.S. soldiers will be greeted by residents with open arms and high expectations that American know-how and dollars will solve many of the problems caused by nearly four years of war.

Atop the list is an end to the fighting, in which an estimated 200,000 people have died or disappeared.

``If the NATO troops can bring peace, I’ll be happy,″ said Eldin Tabucic, 38, the director of Tuzla’s only theater.

Mayor Selim Beslagic has higher hopes _ and expectations.

He wants the Americans to repair the roads over which their armored vehicles will pass. He wants them to rebuild power lines, destroyed in the fighting, and reopen the railroad that once carried the coal and chemicals that formed the city’s prewar industrial base.

Tuzla’s coal-fired power plant is turning out only 8 percent of the electricity it did before the war. The area’s coal mines yield just a quarter of what they used to. Factory production is down 70 percent.

The mayor dreams that peace and foreign aid will get the factories running again and restore the rail line that runs to the Adriatic port of Ploce. The line passes through mountains that until September were held by Serbs, and bridges all along it have been destroyed.

When will it be fixed?

``Ask the American generals,″ said Beslagic, smiling.

Roads and structures throughout the Tuzla region have been battered not only by war, but by another man-made disaster: The collapse of the salt mines on which Tuzla’s wealth was once based.

Houses and shops throughout the 19th-century town, near the block-like concrete city hall, are badly cracked from the settling of the mines below, which were never shored up after they were abandoned.

During the day, the air is clouded with smog from the electrical plant and from the factories that use the salt to make chemicals.

The old town, picturesque if crumbling, boasts several dozen cafes, virtually the only form of entertainment in a city where the three movie theaters are closed because of the war.

Young people still find some amusement at the House of Youth, a forbidding concrete-and-glass behemoth designed by the same generation of Socialist architects that fashioned Tuzla’s stark apartment blocks, office buildings and factories.

The drab backdrop pales before the human tragedy on stage at Tuzla.

Bosnians and Serbs alike gather near the town hall every day to sell off personal possessions and second-hand goods. Some are Serbs, peddling the contents of their houses to raise money for the move to Serb-held areas across the front-line, 7 miles away.

But the most serious problem facing Tuzla, and the Americans who will land here, are the city’s 50,000 Bosnian refugees who have swollen the city’s population to 160,000.

``The refugees must go back. America must help them,″ said Jamal Velagic, 63, a former driver who ekes out a subsistence selling used clothes at the open-air market.

Most of the refugees are terrified of returning to the Serb-held lands they fled. Many are angry that the peace deal reached in Dayton, Ohio, legitimizes the rebel Serb hold on 49 percent of Bosnia.

``We can’t go back to Srebrenica, because most of us lost our husbands, brothers and fathers there,″ said Vahida Muic, 22. ``We can’t live with Serbs.″

Muic’s father, her six uncles and her six male cousins died last July when Serbs brushed aside peacekeepers and overran the U.N.-designated ``safe area″ of Srebrenica, 40 miles to the southeast. The United Nations estimates that 5,500 Muslim men and boys are missing from the town.

Muslims in Tuzla remember well, and pray that such slaughter will not be repeated.

``The American soldiers are coming here because we need some protection,″ said Muic. ``But what happens after a year″ when the GIs are gone?

``I hope there will be peace.″

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