Even 'peaceful' parts of Bosnia perilous Refugees, victims of 'ethnic cleansing' perpetuate tensions

GORNJI VAKUF, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — GORNJI VAKUF, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- If U.S. or other NATO soldiers who may soon come here need a lesson in the confusion, heartache and danger involved in keeping peace in the Balkans, they should ask Milica Gadza.

She's a 32-year-old Croat who lived in the town of Bugojno until Serbian rebels attacked three years ago.


She fled the Serbs only to wind up here, fired upon by Muslims. Her parents left here only to end up in Mostar, where all three sides were fighting.

Then in February 1994 peace came to Bugojno, Mostar and Gornji Vakuf, in the form of a U.S.-brokered truce between the predominantly Catholic Croats and the Muslims, while the war moved on to other parts of the Bosnian map.


Yet, 21 months later, Mrs. Gadza still can't move back to her old home in Bugojno, her parents can't return to their home here, and both Mostar and this town remain bitterly divided -- Bosnian hybrids of 1980s Beirut and Cold War Berlin.

Sure, Mrs. Gadza concedes, most of the shooting has stopped, and she has taken advantage of the relative calm to open a flower shop a block from the destroyed central square dividing the town's Croat and Muslim neighborhoods.

But this peace still leaves her scared, disheartened and pessimistic.

A broader peace that Bosnia's warring parties are negotiating in the United States would include U.S.-led NATO troops to enforce it.

It is generally assumed that the most difficult part of a NATO peacekeeping mission would be policing the long line of confrontation between the Serbs and the Croat-Muslim federation.

Not only is this zone dangerously spiked with artillery, mines and snipers, but it was also the scene of the most recent fighting.

But, as Mrs. Gadza's predicament illustrates, Bosnia remains a hazardous place even in regions ostensibly at peace.

The troubles that have persisted through nearly two years of a federation truce between Croatian and Muslim forces indicate just how difficult, and lengthy, a NATO mission could be.


One need only look at a United Nations situation map to see how riddled federation territory is by green "internal confrontation lines." Snaking across rivers, villages and key highways, they are the sutures of wounds still fresh in the minds of hundreds of thousands of people who have lost homes or loved ones, often both.

"If we needed NATO to stand on our inner confrontation lines, then it wouldn't be a federation anymore," says Josip Silic, the Croatian liaison to federation leadership. "But if NATO has a surplus of troops, it would not be a bad idea to put them in a few spots here and there."

Whenever Mr. Silic needs a reminder of how bitter the Croat-Muslim fighting once was near his central Bosnian home in Vitez, he looks at a print on his living room wall, where a lump of shrapnel has been embedded since a shell landed in his yard in 1993.

Or his wife, a schoolteacher, can remind him of the shell that landed a few blocks away. It killed eight children, including one of her students.

As if to drive home such points, the U.N. war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia last Monday charged six Croatian leaders -- including the former mayor of Vitez -- in connection with massacres and atrocities committed against Muslims in Vitez and other villages of the Lasva River Valley.

Such wounds still seem particularly raw at the central square of Gornji Vakuf. Although severe damage and destruction can be found throughout much of Bosnia, here it is on a level not seen in Europe since World War II.


Entire blocks of buildings were pelted to rubble by artillery fire, and the surviving walls are scarred by shrapnel.

Walk a block toward the tower rising from a mosque on the Muslim side of town, and the local currencies are German marks and Bosnian dinars. Autos carry Bosnian license tags, and municipal buildings fly the Bosnian flag.

Walk a block in the other direction, toward the steeple of the nearby Catholic church, and the accepted currencies are marks and Croatian kuna. The auto tags here are issued by the self-declared Croat Republic of Herzeg-Bosna, and municipal buildings fly the Herzeg-Bosna flag.

The two sides can't even agree on the town name anymore. The Muslims use the old name of Gornji Vakuf. The Croats have picked a new name, Uskoplje.

"Our relationships with the Muslims are at a dead end," Mrs. Gadza says from her flower shop.

"Things are exactly the way they were just before the cease-fire began."


A few blocks away, Mehmed Begic has a more optimistic outlook. He and his wife, Keka, are cleaning up inside a new cafe that will open soon.

Its shattered facade has been replastered and repainted, and the interior gleams with wood and ceramic tiles done up LTC tastefully in teal and lavender. The Begics are betting heavily on peace.

"I've invested 40,000 German marks," says Mr. Begic, 35, who sees each investment and every new construction scaffold as another vote of confidence.

He has been pleased to note "that they [Croats] are doing the same thing over there."

There are still troublemaking hotheads on both sides, he says, but he figures that if he can bury his anger, anyone can.

"Half of the men in my family are gone," he says. "I have lost a brother, two cousins and a brother-in-law, all of them killed in the war. So what should I do now? These problems should be solved on a higher level. Normal people are not guilty for what happened."


Mr. Begic is not without worries and complaints, however.

He cites an incident from a few months ago, when a Croat and a Muslim drinking together began to argue. The Croat went home to fetch a machine gun, then sprayed a passing bus of Muslims.

Not only did the shooting bring on curfews and roadblocks, while prompting a retaliatory killing of a Croat in Vitez, Mr. Begic says no Muslim has yet learned what became of the guilty man.

"He did it on his side of town, so it was handled by his people," Mr. Begic says. "We still don't know if he was even punished."

The newest tensions have come from the struggle to claim territory recaptured from the Serbs by Croat-Muslim offensives during the past four months.

The competition between Croats and Muslims to repopulate the land has turned into a Cold War in which the ammunition of choice is refugees, moved by the thousands into the new territory.


Mrs. Gadza has been able to visit her home in Bugojno, but she can't move back because a Muslim refugee woman now resides there.

The Muslim woman in turn can't go back to her home in Vares; a Croat refugee lives there.

Mrs. Gadza's parents remain in Mostar because their Gornji Vakuf home, on the "wrong" side of town, is now inhabited by Muslims.

"There's a lot of work to be done in these areas with displaced people and victims of ethnic cleansing," says Paul Beaver, a Bosnia analyst with Jane's Defense Weekly in London.

"It will be very tricky for NATO."

Recent reports from U.N. field workers in the region have been "less than optimistic," according to one coordinator. A recent U.N. background paper noted, "Numerous centrifugal forces are working against the federation."


But the most damning reports come from people such as Mrs. Gadza.

She gestures toward the opposite side of town and says, "We are not going to feel any better about each other as long as we're living this close together."