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Bosnian village in sniper's grip Once-peaceful Vitez is a microcosm in a war haunted by ancient ghosts


VITEZ, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- The Croatian sniper ha become as reliable and insistent as an alarm clock, only he never seems to wind down. He announces each dawn with a gunshot, firing into this town from a pretty green ridge above. Then he keeps at his work until dark, his shots popping throughout the day like bacon in a skillet.

The sniper is but a single soldier in the widening war within a war that is pitting Muslims against Croats here in central Bosnia, while both sides keep one arm free for their larger struggle against the Serbs.

But the Vitez sniper in his daily perch makes a tidy case study of the Bosnian conflict, a war in which clarity, purpose and the possibility of identifying "the good guys" seem further beyond reach every day.

First, there is the sniper's odd narrow mission, indicative of the thousands of personal vendettas, carried out block by block, day by day, in picturesque towns where the antagonists once lived peacefully.

He is a one-man "ethnic cleanser," taking aim daily at an opposing hill of a dozen Muslim households. Besides killing one -- a visiting Croatian woman, he might be disappointed to learn -- and wounding two, his shooting has forced the Muslim families to send their children and elderly relatives to a safer town. Those who remain stay away from windows and visit neighbors only by running in a crouch. They tend to their cows and vegetable gardens in pre-dawn darkness, wondering whether it might be better to just move.

Then there is the view from the sniper's perch, impressive if only for how neatly it sums up the messy battle lines of the conflict at large.

In the distant high ridges to the northwest, Serbian units sit quietly, biding their time and only rarely lobbing an artillery shell into the valley around Vitez.

In the nearby hills there are the chattering machine guns and thumping mortars of clashing Muslims and Croats. The Muslims hold the ground in the hillside towns straight ahead, while the Croats control most of the towns in the valley below.

One Croatian regiment hurried away from the Vitez area only a few days ago, however, high-tailing it for the northeast reaches of Bosnia.

Why did the unit break off its fight with local Muslims? To go help out distant Muslims, of course, in their struggle to stop a new Serbian offensive.

Nonetheless, British officers based in Vitez with the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) say they fear that the surrounding towns and valleys near Vitez will become the next hot spot of the war, much in the way that heavy fighting between Muslims and Croats engulfed the southern Bosnian city of Mostar during the past week.

World War II echoes

But perhaps the most unsettling development is the way that events have begun to echo some of the murderous behavior of World War II.

In those days, a Croatian fascist movement, the Ustashi, rallied behind leader Ante Pavelic. With the backing of Adolf Hitler, Mr. Pavelic helped the Ustashi kill off Jews, Gypsies and Serbs. Serbian nationalists, known as Chetniks, countered with massacres of Croats and Bosnian Muslims.

A German journalist, Teodor Frundt, decided recently to compare notes on some of the worst behavior then and now, and his research of historical records turned up strikingly similar patterns, he said. The cities and towns near Vitez that have seen the most "ethnic cleansing" during the past year got similar treatment 50 years ago, he said, and the transgressions broke down along the same fault lines of ethnicity and religion.

The Ustashi, meanwhile, is making a comeback among more extreme elements of the Croats. Its symbols appear in village graffiti, soldiers are seen using its old salutes, and pictures of Mr. Pavelic have begun cropping up on the walls of a few Croatian military checkpoints.

The Serbs and Muslims now openly refer to the Croats as "Ustashi," while the Croats and Muslims deride the Serbs as "Chetniks."

In this region where 600-year-old war cries are still repeated with passion, and past grudges seem to be passed along in the genetic code, this has been especially inflammatory.

Yet for many of Bosnia's beleaguered residents, such as Jasmina and Ferid Barupa, a Muslim couple living on the edge of Vitez, the most disturbing aspect of the war has been the baffling tendency of once friendly neighbors to turn savagely against one another.

There is the sniper on the green ridge, for instance. Their home is one of his favorite targets. They've sent their three children north, across the rugged mountain road to the Muslim-controlled city of Zenica.

They're also providing the shelter of their home, with all its hazards, to five Muslim men who were forced out of their homes in the center of Vitez. The men reciprocate by standing guard at night, armed with an AK-47 and a hand grenade that hangs by its pin from a peg in a basement wall.

The Barupas have heard all the broad explanations of generals and diplomats for the increasing violence -- the explanation, for example, that says the boundaries of the Cyrus R. Vance-Lord Owen peace plan have encouraged Serbs, Croats and Muslims to try to scour their allotted zones clean of interlopers.

History's ghosts

They prefer a simpler explanation: A few bandits and drunks, fortified by greed and plum wine and haunted by the ghosts of history, lash out at others under the banner of nationalist passion. Their victims respond in kind, striking back at the most convenient targets. And from there everything begins to spiral out of control between all three groups.

In the center of Vitez now, Muslims are "cleansed" not so much by violence as by implied extortion. "The HVO [Croatian army] tells them, 'I cannot guarantee your safety,' " Mrs. Barupa says. " 'I do not know what will happen if you stay. I recommend that you leave.' "

These displaced people then keep an eye on their old homes by binoculars from the hills on the edge of town.

"I was with a friend who was watching," Mrs. Barupa says, "and she said, 'Oh my God, my next-door neighbor is taking my television out of my house.' "

If the fighting around Vitez worsens, as some military observers expect, the acts of neighborly hatred will only intensify, she says. Then, even they might give up and move north, forsaking a home that has taken them 10 years to build, virtually brick by brick, a floor at a time.

Up until the fighting in Mostar, the shooting between Muslims and Croats has run almost absurdly hot and cold. Towns would erupt one week in a hail of mortar fire only to return to near-normal peace the following week.

Consider the case of Gorni Vakuf, a few miles south of Vitez. Fighting near the center of the town, which is roughly split in half between Muslims and Croats, left burned out apartment

buildings, and pockmarked the streets with the dimpled sunbursts of mortar impacts.

Early last week there was more scattered fighting, and Croats set up a log roadblock on the main road.

But by Friday afternoon, as the midday call to prayer was sounding from the town's two mosques, the streets were filled with frolicking children and farmers shepherding their cattle and sheep. Women stooped in their vegetable gardens. One could even sip a cup of Turkish coffee on the sidewalk of a two-table cafe on the Muslim side, although paying the tab with Croatian dinars drew a smiling snort of "Ustashi dinars" from the teen-aged waiter.

Next week? Who knows, say British officers, who list the town as one of the most likely places to explode back into combat.

But even if heavier fighting spreads to Vitez, in the long run the larger stakes for people such as the Barupas may be the extent to which they lose the hope for any future return to civility.

Seeds of vengeance

Mrs. Barupa has so far managed to remain fairly tolerant, even of the sniper, who she someday hopes to meet after the war so she can taunt him for his poor aim.

"We have so many close friends who are Serbs and Catholics [the religion of most Croats], and how can I blame them," she says. "How am I to hate somebody whose blood is also in me, because I am from a mixed marriage. My mother is Catholic."

But she knows there are limits to her clear thinking and reason.

"Probably if someone shoots my child or my husband I will have the hatred in me, the revenge."

For Mr. Barupa, the breaking point will be if they are forced from their home, whether by the insistence of the sniper or by larger acts of violence.

"And if someone else then moves in," he says, "perhaps it is not his fault. Perhaps he is a refugee and told to move here. But maybe when I come back I will put a big bomb in his house.

"And then what has happened? Why must he die? Why must it happen?"

"You see," says Mrs. Barupa, as her husband falls silent. "In this way, we are all losing our conscience."

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