Balkan spring

Bosnia | With ethnic tension and economic hardship lingering over post-war life, many wonder when a new season begins

Issue: "History speaks," April 1, 2006

SARAJEVO- When a Lufthansa flight enters Bosnian airspace, the German pilot maintains 9,000 feet until the last possible moment. Then he abruptly angles the commercial jet into a chilling nosedive straight into Sarajevo International Airport. Officially this landing approach is necessary to avoid tricky winds that swirl through the snowy mountain passes surrounding Sarajevo. But for veterans of the Balkans' long war, it's an eerie reminder of the combat landing patterns used to avoid rocket launchers and snipers once hidden in the hills.

It has been a full decade since peace treaties halted the war in Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia. U.S. Ambassador Douglas McElhaney declared, "Bosnia is at peace and will remain at peace," earlier this year at a 10th anniversary celebration. "The prospect of renewed hostilities is remote," he said.

That optimism, however, is not secure in the hearts of the Bosnian people, nor is it apparent in the landscape. Fallout from war glares like a flashing neon sign: German soldiers patrol Sarajevo's downtown office buildings and public facilities disfigured by mortar blasts; in northern cities, Turkish troops stand guard between bullet-riddled apartment buildings. UN helicopters buzz over the countryside, and the carcasses of entire villages-destroyed by bombs, bulldozers, or intentional fire-are reminders of "ethnic cleansing" that swept Bosnia in the 1990s.

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While most urban areas have been declared "mine-safe," even in downtown Sarajevo dozens of neighborhoods are cordoned off with crime tape and ringed with land-mine warning signs. At one 20-story apartment building, so pocked with bullet holes that it looks like a giant block of Swiss cheese, Fikret Vukovic, a retired Bosnian special forces soldier, lives with his wife. A Serb from birth and evangelical Christian since 1999, Mr. Vukovic and his wife were forced from their home by Bosnian Muslims during one of many ethnic cleansing episodes meant to purify neighborhoods by ethnicity and religious background.

"Fundamental problems still fester," he told WORLD. "The very day that the United Nations and European Union troops leave Bosnia is the day the ethnic wars will start again." His wife Safeta agrees. She refills the coffee cups, lights a cigarette, and, referring to Bosnia's centuries of conflict, says, "The biggest problem our country has is that people do not forget."

Inter-ethnic bloodletting has long been a part of Bosnia's way of life as the three major ethnic groups-Muslims, Serbians (mainly Orthodox), and Croats (mainly Catholics)-coexist in overlapping proximity across Bosnia, an area half the size of West Virginia. "We lost our homes when the Muslims invaded our land," said Rifet Kovic, a Serbian farmer whose family has worked the same plot of land for 300 years. But his family's loss doesn't date from the 1990s conflict; he's referring to events in the year 1389 when Muslims invaded Bosnia and launched 500 years of domination over Serbs. Mr. Kovic can describe those events as if they appeared in yesterday's newspaper.

After World War II Marshal Josip Tito brought an uneasy peace to the region by creating the federal state of Yugoslavia, consisting of six republics: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. Tito quelled ethnic fighting and held Yugoslavia's national groups together by playing on the fears of intervention from Russia or the United States. Still, the dictator knew internal peace was tenuous and said, "Let us work as if peace will last 100 years, but prepare as if war will start tomorrow."

Following the collapse of communism in the 1980s, ethnic discord and nationalism grew within Yugoslavia. In 1991 Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic capitalized on the tension by adopting a policy of "all Serbs in one state." His strategy plunged Bosnia-Herzegovina into an unholy war. Serb forces captured 70 percent of Bosnia, expelled hundreds of thousands of non-Serbs, and killed thousands more.

The war, coupled with international economic sanctions, caused a drastic decline of living standards in Bosnia. The crippled economy sped into hyperinflation. In November 1995, with NATO troops and UN peacekeepers patrolling the restive region, Milosevic was forced to negotiate the Dayton Accords as a way to end the conflict. Indicted by a UN tribunal for genocide in Bosnia and other war crimes in 1999 and driven from office in 2000, Milosevic was eventually extradited to stand trial and died of an apparent heart attack on March 11 in his cell at The Hague (see interview).

From the beginning, said the Serbian farmer, Mr. Kovic, ethnic cleansing was a "near-impossible" undertaking. "The three major ethnic groups in Bosnia are all ethnically the same Slavic race. We all look alike and speak the same language," he said. The differences are defined mostly by religious loyalty: Serbs have their nationalistic heritage tied to the Eastern Orthodox Church; Croats are loyal to their Catholic roots; Bosnian Muslims are former Serbs who were forcibly converted to Islam 550 years ago. Each group identifies strongly with its religious heritage, yet all are very secularized.


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