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Hatred, Hope mix in Bosnia

June 18, 1998

With tensions rising in Kosovo, the latest flash point in the Balkans, the aftermath of the war in Bosnia is getting less public attention. An Associated Press reporter who toured the region found that while life is slowly returning to normal, it is a shaky peace in this shattered land.

BALJVINE, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ Rising from a jumble of village ruins, the lone minaret left in the Serb-controlled half of Bosnia presides over a ghostly scene of hatred and destruction.

The shell of a bombed-out mosque stands beside it, rain splattering off smashed beams and broken glass that litter the floor where men once kneeled to pray.

Scrawled in blue letters on the front facade, an obscenity aimed at Serbs confronts the rare visitors venturing to the top of a steep, dead-end road. ``You’ll pay for all this,″ the graffiti adds.

Yet against this grim backdrop, new life is slowly taking root among the rubble in Baljvine, just as it is elsewhere across a divided postwar Bosnia.

Refugees are trickling back to risk an uncertain future, even if obstacles or limited prospects keep most away. A shaky peace has held since the end of 1995, strained sporadically by ethnic riots.

Serbs, Croats and Muslims travel freely across each other’s lands, ``shielded″ by Bosnia’s new, generic license plates that don’t reveal an owner’s ethnicity, and other small steps toward pluralism have been taken.

There are no illusions after a war that killed an estimated 200,000 people _ a return to a united, multiethnic society won’t happen in this generation, if ever. Without the muscle of 34,000 NATO soldiers who patrol the country, most believe the stability would quickly collapse.

Still, this is progress.

``I don’t expect we will have a real mixed population, or a high level of human rights, in Bosnia in the next 15 years,″ said Mladen Ivanic, a leading independent politician who could be the Bosnian Serbs’ next leader. ``And it will never, never, never be like before the war.

``But it’s much better than two years ago,″ he said in Banja Luka, the administrative center of Bosnia’s Serb Republic. ``Things are going much better than a lot of us expected.″

Trying to ensure that a carved-up Bosnia gets a peaceful and democratic new start, foreign powers have focused much of their pressure on the Serb Republic, which comprises 49 percent of Bosnia’s land. It was here that many of the war’s worst atrocities were committed in the fanatical push for an ethnically pure state.

A drive across the Serb territory’s gently rolling hills and spectacular canyons makes graphically clear the enormous, perhaps impossible, task of rebuilding a successful civil society.

Mile after mile of destroyed houses, blown up so their inhabitants would never return, keep ethnic hatreds boiling. Factories stand ruined or idle _ unemployment is 40 percent nationwide.

Serb towns and hamlets are squeezed even worse than those in the Muslim-Croat half of the country because of international condemnation that many Serbs feel singles them out unfairly.

But Western officials point to several positive changes in the Serb Republic since the hard-line leadership was replaced by a more moderate government last fall. However subtle, they add up to a step forward:

_Attacks on the small percentage of remaining or returning Muslims and Croats have dwindled.

_Under the new leadership, Bosnian Serb media have softened their aggressive, ultranationalist tone.

_The new license plates free of ethnic labels have been adopted unexpectedly swiftly by the Serbs, indicating their support for freedom of movement.

_Muslim-run companies from Sarajevo were represented at a recent business fair in Banja Luka.

The next big test comes in September with general elections for all three of Bosnia’s ethnic groups. Results may determine the success or failure of the resettlement process, now stalled by wrangling over the fate of tens of thousands of people occupying refugees’ homes.

``This election is crucial,″ said Simon Haselock, aide to Carlos Westendorp, Bosnia’s international administrator under the peace accord. ``It’s a litmus test of the peace process.″

For Muslims, real progress won’t be visible until the Serbs allow the rebuilding of some, any, of the more than 200 mosques blown up in the 1992-95 war _ as were hundreds of Croat Roman Catholic and Serbian Orthodox religious sites.

The obliteration of one in particular, the majestic 400-year-old Ferhadija Mosque in Banja Luka, remains for many a painful symbol of the war’s finality.

The Muslims’ latest bid to reconstruct it was quashed this spring by hard-line Mayor Djordje Umicevic, who said in an interview that building it now would ``spoil the good moment″ in the peace process.

Today the mosque is only a postcard on the wall for the elderly men who gather daily in an office building behind the Ferhadija site, now an empty grass-covered lot. Outside the room where they pray are pieces of shattered pillars from the ancient mosque.

``What can our rights be when they don’t allow us to rebuild what they destroyed?″ asked Amzalaja Kapetanovic, secretary of the Islamic Community.

And yet, typical of Bosnia’s mixed picture of pragmatism and despair, many Muslims privately acknowledge the time may not be right to erect an ethnic landmark that could strain improving relations.

``The atmosphere is better,″ said Kapetanovic. ``No one attacks you now. How it’s going to be after the international peacekeepers leave, I don’t know.″

Quietly and cautiously, refugees are testing this atmosphere, coming back to look at what they lost. Some are defying common sense and staying, like 10 Muslim families who returned to Baljvine in northwestern Bosnia, where they are living in half-destroyed houses or building new ones on top of the ruins.

Starting over means putting faith in war-time enemies for Muslims like Saban Habibovic, who came back to Baljvine with his wife and 7-year-old son after fleeing in 1995.

``I don’t blame anyone,″ said the carpenter, whose new home looks out on the wreckage of the mosque and village.

``The Muslims here are in a good situation _ everybody accepts us. We just need some help.″

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