Frontline: Vlasenica, Bosnia - Bloody hate that knows no boundary

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The Independent Online
LIKE MOST young people of Vlasenica, a small town in eastern Bosnia, Ranka Kraljevic, is unapologetic about being a racist. "It's not that I hate Muslims," the demure 30-year-old Bosnian Serb explains with disarming candour, "It's just that I'll never trust them again."

Ranka has ambitions to work in the forestry industry but there is no work for her in Vlasenica, where unemployment runs at 50 per cent. She is a "Displaced Person" from the town of Olovo, 30km away. About 80 Serb families made the move during Bosnia's vicious ethnic war between Muslims, Serbs and Croats. Olovo is in Muslim-held territory these days. Conversely, Vlasenica used to be a mostly Muslim town as well. Not one of the 8,000 Muslims who lived here until 1992 lives here now. As elsewhere in the Republica Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity, the mosque in the town centre has become a patch of grass.

One day, at the start of the war, Vlasenica's Serbs heard rumours of a Muslim-on-Serb atrocity in the next door village. "I saw two women and three babies skewered on a spit. They had been cooked over a fire by their neighbours. I couldn't eat for a month after this."

Now, when she wants to go shopping in Banja Luka, the main city in the Republika Srpska, she does not take the direct road through Muslim territory, but goes the long way round via Brcko, a seven-hour trip, instead of four.

Last week she visited the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, for the first time in years, to visit the grave of her boyfriend who was killed in the war. "My father was a soldier: he defended his family. Now, both my name and my accent give me away. I have to be so careful whom I talk to."

Bosnia has just held a general election. Western peace-keepers and organisations that helped to stage the poll hoped Bosnian Serbs such as Ranka would vote for the moderate candidate, Biljana Plavsic; but as far as Ranka and her friends are concerned you can forget it. This is the kind of town where some people sincerely blame the war on "the Jews". In eastern Bosnia, support remains rock solid for the Serb Democratic Party of Radovan Karadzic, the war-time Bosnian Serb leader. The fact that Karadzic is wanted by the United Nations for war crimes cuts no ice in Vlasenica.

Ranka's greatest fear is that Mrs Plavsic and the moderates will let Vlasenica's expelled Muslims return. "If the Muslims came back here there would be another bloodbath," she says. "And how can I go back to my apartment in Olovo? I wouldn't feel safe."

Attempts to rewrite the town's ethnic past are belied by the make-up of the town council, 40 per cent of which is still controlled by the Muslims. The councillors mostly live over the country's internal border in Tuzla, and come by bus, sometimes under an armed escort of Western peace-keepers to vote on behalf of a community that no longer exists.

Bosnian Serbs such as Ranka look at the West's defence of Vlasenica's municipal make-up and feel paranoid and cheated in equal measure. "You Westerners think all Serbs are bad but you don't know anything," she says.

Before the election earlier this month, Western organisers optimistically predicted that the Muslims would turn up by the busload to vote in their old municipalities, as they are entitled to, under the 1995 peace deal that ended the war. No one in Vlasenica is surprised that only a handful did so.