BUSOVACA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- The rival commanders grumbled and hedged, and despite the static punctuating their radio conversation, their mutual distrust came through clearly. But finally the Croat and the Muslim agreed: They would meet at noon of the following day, down by the destroyed gas station.
It's the building across the road from a burned-out village of 30 homes, where Croats, Muslims and Serbs once lived together in peace. Now the village and its gas station are the center of a tense no-man's-land between Muslim and Croatian fighters in Central Bosnia. The stretch of highway running by is a frequent target of snipers, and the two commanders consented to show up only if accompanied by United Nations soldiers.
"They are very afraid, and the reason is simple -- they don't trust each other," said Hendrik Morsink, who arranged the unlikely chat in his role as a war monitor for the European Community.
But everyone arrived as scheduled. The commanders even smiled, shook hands and agreed to meet again.
Such is the micro-level of the Bosnian peace effort, an informal but painstaking process of seat-of-the-pants agreements and shaky cease-fires, in which the ultimate goal is to build a wider calm from the bottom up.
As the former Yugoslavia's new ethnic potentates join world leaders in failing to find peace at the highest levels, tiny efforts like this one seem like the best hope going. But even the small attempts usually fail, bulldozed by petty town-to-town grievances or the military ambitions of higher-ups.
The meeting here, along with its aftermath, offered a glimpse of just how difficult it will be to reach and maintain any form of settlement in this three-sided civil war.
It all began well enough. Muslim brigade commander Hrustan Mekic, a tall, --ing man with a fresh shave, wheeled into the parking lot of the gas station with his local battalion commander, Mirsad Smaka.
They drove a sporty, gray Alfa-Romeo, to which they had fastened some new Bosnian army license plates over the old Yugoslav tags. An AK-47 rifle lay across the back seat.
Their Croatian counterparts, brigade commander Dusko Grubacic and his local battalion leader, Ante Juric, arrived in a U.N. escort vehicle from their headquarters a few miles up the road in Busovaca.
None of these men cites a particular rank, nor do their camouflaged uniforms bear any stripes. Most of the fighters are not professional soldiers. Their brigades and battalions do not remotely resemble such units in most other armies in the world, in either structure or size. A brigade commander here probably has from 1,000-2,000 rag-tag fighters at his disposal, Mr. Morsink said.
Mr. Morsink, from the Netherlands, and another EC monitor, Torbjorn Junhov, from Sweden, were ready to begin. There were no chairs, so everyone stood on the broken glass by the old gas islands.
From the outset, it was clear both sides wanted the same thing: peace. Each commander spoke with passion about how he wanted an end to the fighting and, judging by the earnest, weary expressions on their sunburned faces, they seemed to mean it.
Then why all the gunfire earlier that morning, Mr. Junhov wanted to know. He mentioned in particular a long burst of machine gun fire an hour earlier, and a few larger booms a little before that, presumably from an anti-aircraft weapon. (Another note on the Bosnian military style: No one ever seems to get the right tool for the job. Anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft batteries are among the preferred tools for firing on houses and automobiles.)
Mr. Junhov might also have mentioned that morning's salutary blast from "Nora," a giant Croatian artillery piece that is fired every so often, usually no more than twice a day, lobbing huge shells north across the hills toward the Muslim-controlled area around Zenica, a city overflowing with war refugees.
Throughout the meeting, more shots spattered off and on in the surrounding hills. Mr. Grubacic, the Croatian commander, explained the problem: "It is very hard to control people who have lost their families and homes," he said. "You cannot control them with only good will."
His foe, Mr. Mekic, agreed.
"I understand that," Mr. Morsink said, "but you have to control them, because if you don't then there will be more families who lose their homes."
"We are doing our best," Mr. Grubacic said. "All the time we are on the ground. But it happens."
The Muslim second-in-command, Mr. Smaka, begged to differ. "It is obvious that the commander is not at all times on the ground, because those houses are burned. I don't think that he is doing his best to stop it."
And what about all those bigger guns that keep firing, Mr. Morsink asked. Surely you control them?
Both commanders shrugged.
Then there was more well-meaning rhetoric, and after awhile they agreed to try and stop the shooting as much as they could. Toward that end, they agreed to stay in radio contact with one another every four hours, or whenever they heard large-scale shooting. The object would be to find out which unit was firing, and then try and silence it.
Impediment to harmony
But before long they were snagged on an all-too-common impediment to Bosnian harmony: how to best exchange prisoners and hostages.
The problem is in telling one from the other. Soldiers in this war range from uniform-wearing professionals to shopkeepers and village boys who tote black-market rifles.
It also doesn't help that both sides sometimes claim that a compatriot has been imprisoned when he has actually simply moved to another, safer town. Mr. Morsink has solicited lists of so-called hostages and prisoners from both sides, and already he has tracked down people living safely elsewhere while the word was they were being martyred in their old hometowns as victims of the worst sort of atrocities.
So, Mr. Morsink offered a simple solution to the commanders. "If you can't agree on who is a hostage and who is a prisoner, why don't you just treat them all the same when you make exchanges? Everyone would be on the same list," he suggested.
Neither side seemed to think much of the idea.
But the leaders did agree to keep talking. They are due to meet again this morning, and Mr. Junhov parted from them with this bit of advice: "This problem is so big we can't solve it in one second. So you do it as you eat a cake, piece by piece."
But later that day, there were already signs that neither side was even willing to dip its fingers into the frosting, much less swallow the first bite.
By nightfall Saturday, the two sides were increasing troop movements and digging new gun emplacements, according to British military observers posted in the nearby town of Vitez.
By yesterday morning, the Croatian commander, Mr. Grubacic, was sounding less optimistic than ever. Standing on the doorstep of his headquarters in Busovaca as a light rain began to fall, Mr. Grubacic pointed into the wooded hills encircling the town and said he was convinced the Muslims were preparing an attack.
"We were expecting the attack this morning, but it did not come. We are almost surrounded. . . . Yesterday you were present when we agreed there would be no fighting. But you be the witness. They speak of one thing and do another thing."
His Muslim counterpart would probably have made the same charge against the Croats.
A few miles to the southeast, in the town of Kiseljak, roughly five miles from the Serbian siege lines surrounding Sarajevo, a U.N. official explained that Mr. Grubacic was probably right to be worried.
Nasty fight looms
Add up all the ragged units and patrols in a line heading from Kiseljak back up to Travnik, 15 miles to the northwest, and lTC there's a nasty fight waiting to happen, with Busovaca smack in the middle.
That line, following the valley of the Lasva River, controls the most important supply roads of Central Bosnia, but for now it runs back and forth through Muslim and Croatian zones. That's why the route has become popular with snipers and why it has so many checkpoints, some of them mined.
The latest word from the valley, the U.N. official said, is that the Muslim high command in Sarajevo is debating whether to make a major push to control the road.
"The feeling is that the hotheads will prevail, and it's too bad," the official said.
"I don't think they'll be able to pull it off. All it will do is get a lot o people killed, and add another round of tit-for-tat ethnic cleansing to those villages. But there is bound to be trouble. It is unfinished business."
By late afternoon yesterday, the pace of the usual scattered gunfire was picking up in the hills of the Lasva Valley, and just before nightfall it was stronger still. Competing bursts of automatic weapons jackhammered back and forth, while bigger guns thumped and thudded at a lower register.
The next local peace meeting was only 14 hours away, if the fighters come to talk peace.