Staking their claim to western Bosnia Muslims and Croats grab for territory vacated by Serbs


KLJUC, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- By bus, by truck and by horse-drawn cart, the land rush of western Bosnia has begun, an edgy competition endangering not only the peace process but also the lives of some of the country's most vulnerable people.

Leading the territorial charge are the Croatian and Muslim armies that recently drove Serbian soldiers and civilians out of the region, except that now the ostensible allies are vying to repopulate their new holdings with as many of their own people as possible.

One result is that thousands of Croats and Muslims who in 1992 lost their homes to Serbian "ethnic cleansing" are being dumped back on their doorsteps prematurely, according to international aid workers.

With winter approaching, some are being delivered by the busload to destroyed towns where there is no electricity, no running water, no functioning schools or hospitals, and few intact roofs or windows. And with Serbian artillery still only a few miles away, the prospect for hardship is outweighed by the prospect for disaster.

Such is the case here in Kljuc, a town only five miles south of the Serbs' new front line and captured last month by the mostly-Muslim Bosnian army. At nightfall Wednesday, bus after bus arrived, unloading hundreds of Muslims like Ermina Hasia onto the darkened streets.

Sitting in the cold with a thin blanket wrapped around her 3-month-old son, she peered through the dimness at the town's buildings, many of them gutted and burned. Dozens of bewildered people milled around her in confusion, flicking cigarette lighters to find their way.

"We are waiting for someone to tell us where to sleep tonight," she said. "Where will we get food for our babies?"

Ms. Hasia's bus had come from Zenica, a town overflowing with Muslim war refugees such as herself, yet a relatively safe place with electricity, running water and plenty of food supplied by international aid organizations. Bosnian authorities so far have barred aid workers from entering Kljuc.

Although Ms. Hasia's home is here, it is destroyed, and she wishes she could have stayed in Zenica a while longer. But she apparently had little choice in the matter. "They [Bosnian authorities] told us that we had to go back to our town because it has been liberated," she said.

Croats, meanwhile, are being shipped home by the thousands to recaptured towns such as Jayce, about 40 miles southeast of Kljuc, even though some have reportedly felt so unsafe upon arrival that they've hurried back to more stable locations.

Political considerations

"The two sides seem to be using displaced people to solidify political and military control," said Michael Stievater, a field director for the New York-based International Rescue Committee.

"It's like the Oklahoma land rush," said one United Nations official in the region, referring to the 1880s homestead movement.

Even though both sides are moving quickly, their efforts are anything but a cooperative venture. And nowhere is that more evident than in Jayce.

Before the war, most of its 45,000 residents were divided almost evenly between Muslims and Croats, with Serbs making up only about one-fifth of the population. Serbian troops banished most of the majority groups from the town with brutal efficiency in the ++ fall of 1992.

But when the Serbs withdrew from Jayce last month, Croatian militia units entered the town first. They quickly hoisted their own flags and emblems, and set up roadblocks at every approach to the town. Not long afterward, they began welcoming back Croatian former residents by the hundreds, with the total reaching at least 2,000 so far, according to U.N. officials.

Muslim former residents, however, still are forbidden to enter the city, and as many as 5,000 have been turned away at Croatian roadblocks. The town, for the moment, is virtually an all-Croatian stronghold.

Some of the arriving Muslims have simply given up and gone back where they came from. Hundreds of others have moved into deserted or damaged homes still unclaimed in villages just short of the checkpoint. Now even some of them have begun to give up, preferring to go back to refugee centers where they at least know that their children will be able to attend school.

Advia Kliko, however, is still waiting. She and her two children and her sister's family of four have moved into an abandoned hillside home in the village of Vinac, about seven miles south of Jayce.

She has been waiting to get back to her house for a month, not knowing what shape it is in.

"I am frightened," she said. "They don't let you see your house, not even a peek. I would rather kill myself than be forbidden to go back to my house."

Muslim soldiers from Jayce have fared little better.

"Some of them are able to look down on their homes [from the hills] in some areas, but they still can't get to them," said Raymond Jennings, an aid worker with the International Rescue Committee.

Croatian authorities have told aid workers that Muslims are being barred from the town because their safety can't be guaranteed as long as the Croatian militia is around. Some Croatian soldiers might still be feeling vengeful because of what occurred between Croats and Muslims elsewhere.

The authorities also say that the soldiers haven't cleared the town of mines, although the danger apparently doesn't apply to the thousands of Croatian returnees.

Territorial control

Josip Silic, the Croatian liaison to the Croatian-Muslim federation, is more blunt. It's a matter of territorial control, he said. The Muslims are being barred from Jayce because Croats are still being kept out of central Bosnian towns such as Vares and Kakanj. Former Croatian villages near those towns that have been vacant since 1993 have been resettled recently by Muslim refugees from the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica, which fell to the Serbs in July.

Mr. Silic believes that such problems will soon be resolved. In the meantime, they are straining an already fragile relationship. For all its recent successes on the battlefield, the Croatian-Muslim federation (brokered by U.S. negotiators in early 1994) remains in danger of breaking apart at the peace table. That would risk a slide back into the brutal Croatian-Muslim fighting that turned the war into a three-sided conflict in 1992-1993.

But it takes only a glance at a map to see why both sides are willing to take the risk. The recent offensive surged back into an area once populated by about 350,000 Muslims and 180,000 Croats. Serbian "ethnic cleansing" had reduced those totals to about 30,000 Muslims and 15,000 Croats.

That means that vast tracts are waiting to be repopulated. Much of the area still has the feel of a never-ending ghost town, a mountainous landscape of wrecked, empty homes, where abandoned cows and horses wander deserted roads, and families of pigs stroll through open front doors. Moonless nights are lighted only by a few, lonely campfires and by the glow of the occasional Serbian home set ablaze by vengeful soldiers.

Resettlement rush

Although the federation's initial governing assembly will be appointed based on 1991 census figures, which reflected a heavy Muslim majority, elections will decide the future composition. And because Croatian forces captured more territory than the Muslims in the recent offensive, the Muslims could improve their political position by winning the resettlement rush.

Such ambitions are already leaving some people feeling shuttled around.

"Everything was such a rush we didn't have time to think about anything like how much food to bring," said 18-year-old Alma Draganovic, after returning to Kljuc, her hometown. "It was chaos."

Bosnian policeman Lutva Cataric overheard her remarks.

"What's going on here?" he shouted, waving his arms, the pinprick of light from his cigarette making circles in the darkness. "Tell them that the journey was fine and everything was OK."

Some people wanted to wait until spring to move, he acknowledged. "But the politicians are doing their job, and we have to be flexible," he added.

Wait any longer, he said, and Croatian bureaucrats might thwart the resettlement of Kljuc altogether. "It is in our interest to do this as fast as we can," he said.

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