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Bosnian War Legacy of Ballots and Bullets

Author: Susan Lynne Tillou
September 29, 1998
San Francisco Chronicle

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HOW WOULD YOU like to find a stranger living in your house? After returning to the town of Vitez to vote in recent general elections, Asim, a Bosnian Muslim, drove past the house where he lived before the war. It looked exactly the same. His family's curtains still hung in the window. The only difference was the name spray-painted over the doorway. The new inhabitants were Bosnian Croats. Asim drove away.

Three and a half years after the war, ethnic tension is the norm in Bosnia. Random violence is common. During my second trip there earlier this month, our group of international election supervisors was forced to find lodging in another town because a bomb went off in our hotel.

The violence is fallout from the war's ethnic cleansing and the subsequent population relocations. Most cities have been resettled by one ethnic group. Some have been tensely divided into completely separate administrations run by two or sometimes three different ethnicities. Although efforts to return displaced persons to areas where they are in the ethnic majority have been largely successful, there has been little progress in returning refugees to areas where they would be minorities.

Minority returnees can face angry mobs, harassment and discrimination, but there are also obstacles to resettlement resulting from the implementation of the Dayton accords.

One is a ripple effect. The attempt to resettle one displaced family uproots up to four other families in the process.

Another is the reluctance of NATO forces to arrest indicted war criminals. This has served to bolster nationalists who claim that Westerners will back down when confronted by an ethnically united political front.

The nationalist election victory in the Bosnian Serb autonomous region of Bosnia may shock the international community, which has poured millions of dollars into backing moderate, pro-Dayton candidates, but the outcome is understandable to Bosnians, who remain poor and live in fear amid ethnic tensions. The West put its hopes and its resources behind moderate candidates, but being seen as a puppet of the West does not make one popular in a country where nationalistic pride abounds. Nationalist parties seeking to consolidate territory through their own nationalist refugee policies retain great influence. Ironically, although they elected a nationalist candidate, the Bosnian Serbs have less to complain about than the Croats. The Serbs have been relatively successful in their goal of achieving independent status. Separated by an inter- ethnic boundary line (IEBL), Bosnian Serbs in the Republika Srpska enjoy a separation from the Muslim-Croat Federation and legitimately maintain strong ties with Serbia under Dayton.

The Bosnian Croats feel they came away from the peace accords shortchanged. They resent Dayton and tend to be the most defiant about its implementation. This is not only a result of the ruling Croat party's ability to perpetuate its nationalist ideology, but also because of some genuine inequities in the accords.

The West conceived the Muslin-Croat Federation to balance the Serbs, but the Croats make up just 12 percent of the federation's population. They greatly resent this minority role which, in their view, deprives them of an independent representation and territory. The resentment the Croats harbor from their shotgun marriage with the Muslims has the potential to completely unravel the fragile peace. It is held together only by 32,000 NATO-led troops in a country of some 4 million people.

My sense is that many Bosnians desperately want to move beyond the war. However, the dire conditions in which they live make them long for a return to communism, or push them toward nationalistic hatreds of other ethnicities. If the United States seeks a multiethnic state in Bosnia, we will need to reconsider the effectiveness of the Dayton accords. We will also need to keep American troops in that country for at least as long as they have been in Korea. But whatever our commitment, it is imperative that we buttress it with a realistic long-term plan to turn Bosnia's fragile truce into a durable peace.

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