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Four Years Later, Government Declares Siege of Sarajevo Over

February 29, 1996

ILIJAS, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ After driving across a former front line, until recently guarded by Serb guns and armor, Bosnian Interior Minister Avdo Hebib glanced at his watch. It was 10:03 a.m.

``The siege of Sarajevo is now officially over,″ he declared.

Nearly four years of death and privation in the Bosnian capital ended quietly Thursday as the Serb-held suburb of Ilijas was transferred to government control.

For the first time since the war began in 1992, the government had total control of a road into and out of Sarajevo.

Four years earlier on Feb. 29, Bosnian Muslims and Croats had begun voting in a two-day referendum for independence from Yugoslavia, the starting point of their descent into hell. The siege itself began April 6, 1992.

``We have been waiting a long time for this moment. Too much blood has been spilled in Bosnia, but we have survived to see this moment,″ Habib said.

Although the handover of Ilijas _ the second of five Serb-held districts to be transferred to government authority _ was a historic day for the Bosnian government, it was another day of tragedy for the few remaining Serbs packing up to leave.

By March 19, three months after NATO took over from the United Nations in Bosnia, Serbs are obliged to give up all five Sarajevo suburbs they held throughout the war.

International officials said only 2,000 of the 17,000 people who had lived in Ilijas remained as police of the Muslim-Croat federation arrived Thursday morning. Most Serbs fled rather than agreeing to live under the authority of their wartime enemies _ only 127 Serbs told the U.N. police they would stay.

Bosnian authorities arrived in Ilijas in a cavalcade of official bullet-proof Mercedes, police cars, fire trucks and electric and telephone vehicles. Engineers were to begin immediate repairs of electrical and telephone lines damaged during the war and by angry Serbs who had left.

About two dozen residents _ Muslims, Croats, and Serbs _ gathered in front of the police station to watch the arrival. Ninety police _ 50 Muslims, 25 Serbs and 15 Croats _ were in the team.

Although the takeover appeared to go smoothly, the Bosnian Serbs claimed that Muslim civilians had beaten up some fleeing Serbs.

Several hundred Muslims ``penetrated the Ilijas area, some women and children have been beaten, some have been robbed, some buses and loads have been intercepted,″ Dragan Bozanic, the Serbs’ self-designated information minister, told The Associated Press.

The Bosnian Serb leadership demanded action from NATO-led forces and international police to stop the alleged beatings.

International officials admitted that some returning Muslim and Croat refugees were harassing departing Serbs, but accused the Bosnian Serb leaders of manipulating their own people into leaving.

Signs of the Serbs’ bitter flight were evident. A medical clinic, an apartment building and a cluster of stores were burned out. Many houses were without doors and windows. Wrecked cars had been overturned and robbed of tires. Personal belongings were strewn about in some areas.

One Serb woman standing outside an apartment block Thursday said she was a refugee who had been living in someone else’s apartment.

On Thursday, the Croat owner returned and told her she had to leave.

``I was taking care of his stuff, his furniture, and now he throws me out,″ Milica Subotic, 48, said, crying. ``He was very kind. We drank coffee. But he said, `I want to come to my apartment tonight and you have to go.‴

The past and present collided for others as well.

Jovanka Beravic recognized a Muslim policeman named Vehib when he pulled into Ilijas. He had been expelled by Serbs in 1992.

She smiled. He smiled and rolled down the car window. ``Will you allow me to talk to you?″ she asked quietly.

``Always, Joka, always,″ he said, using her nickname.

``My heart was this big when he said that,″ she recalled later, spreading her hands wide.

Still, Beravic and her younger sister Ljiljana are planning to join family members in the northeastern city of Zvornik.

``I wish I could go and find a place to live where I won’t hear the words Serb, Muslim, Croat ever again,″ Ljiljana said.

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