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If - Or When - War Ends, Multiethnic Bosnia Will Be Different

September 20, 1994

HAN BILA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ Weary groups of Muslims still trickling into refugee centers from Serb-held land testify to a sad fact of 2 1/2 years of war in Bosnia: This multiethnic land will never be the same.

Almost half of Bosnia’s people have fled or been expelled from their homes. Many cannot return. Others don’t care to.

Regardless of how the war ends, officials and aid workers acknowledge that Muslims, Serbs and Croats will live more separately than they once did. A war begun by Serb nationalists determined to separate the groups will have been at least partly successful.

″That’s the tough reality,″ said Sretko Radisic, a leader of Serbs in the central city of Zenica who have remained loyal to the Muslim-led government. ″But we have to expect it.″

About 9,000 Muslims have been expelled from Serb-held land since July, including 1,300 from northeast Bosnia on Sunday and 700 Saturday from the northwest.

Only a few thousand Muslims probably remain in the Serb-held north and northwest area known as Bosanska Krajina, and the area of Bijeljina in Bosnia’s northeastern corner. The continuing expulsions appear to be an effort by Serb nationalists to clear the last non-Serbs.

The ethnic purges, known as ″ethnic cleansing,″ further complicate an immense web of war-forced population shifts, making the restoration of the original settlement patterns unlikely, and increasing pressure from desperate refugees on Serbs who remained in government-held territory.

Estimates by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees outline a vast shift in settlement patterns of Bosnia’s prewar population of 4.3 million.

As many as 1 million Bosnians are now in Croatia, Serb-led Yugoslavia, or elsewhere outside the republic. Perhaps another million who still are in Bosnia cannot live in their own homes, said agency spokesman Peter Kessler.

Only about one-fourth of Serbs remain in government-held cities like Zenica and Tuzla, but roughly 400,000 more Muslims are there. The number of Muslims thought to be in Serb-held northern Bosnia has dropped by more than 300,000.

Muslims made up just over 40 percent of Bosnia’s prewar population, Serbs accounted for about one-third, and Croats about 17 percent. While each group predominated in some areas, the population in all areas was to some extent mixed.

When they rebelled in 1992, nationalist Serbs declared that differing histories and cultures made it impossible for these people to live together. They demanded their own territory with the right to join Serbia.

Hundreds of thousands of people were killed, detained or simply expelled from their homes by Serb rebels in 1992. Serbs also were expelled, but on a lesser scale. Croats and Muslims, allied against the Serbs, turned on each other in 1993, creating thousands more refugees.

Figures released today in Geneva by the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees put the number of non-Serbs fleeing Serb-held regions at more than 750,000. About 180,000 Serbs have moved out of Muslim and Croat areas.

Resulting population shifts appear long-term.

Senija Kahrimanovic, a 40-year-old Muslim expelled from Bijeljina last month, planned to go to Sweden and never return. ″It’s a real Chetnik nest,″ she said, referring to Serb extremists who control Bijeljina.

Although U.N. aid officials insist there is no systematic harassment of Serbs in government-held cities, Radisic said they sometimes feel unsafe and pressured to leave.

Expulsions of Muslims from northern Bosnia are the engine that drives the process. ″When another campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing’ starts from Karadzic territory, you can notice more pressure here,″ he said, referring to Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.

When Serbs leave government-held territory, Serb authorities try to resettle them on territory they control. That increases pressure to expel Muslims to free up housing.

Salih Mujic, a truck driver from the town of Janja near Bijeljina, said he was forced to house a Serb from Tuzla for 10 months before Serb authorities finally expelled him and the Serb family took over the house.

There still is a desire among many refugees to return home, Kessler said, ″but it may take decades for the wounds to heal.″

Muslim refugees from northern Bosnia also complicate efforts to improve relations between Croats and Muslims.

Ivan Saric, a Croat and former mayor of the central town of Travnik, went to the nearby Croat-held village of Vitez when Croat-Muslim fighting broke out.

He lives in the apartment of a Muslim. A Muslim family from Vitez lives in his house in refugee-choked Travnik.

If it were only a local problem, Travnik’s Croats might be able to return, Saric said. ″But to make it possible for them to go back home, it will be necessary to settle an equal number of Muslims, and most of them are from Bosanska Krajina,″ he said.

Those Muslims’ homes have been destroyed or taken over by Serbs. They have nowhere else to go.

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