Bosnia ballots with bullets on its mind

As the polls open, there is little evidence that democracy will take hold, writes Andrew Gumbel
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The Independent Online
Bugojno - A few weeks ago, a Croat, Nine Pocrnja, returned to his home town here in central Bosnia to try to rebuild his life. Within a few days of moving back into his house, gangs of Muslims, now the dominant group in the town, warned him that if he did not get out they would shoot him.

He refused, so the gangs ripped the doors off his house. Everywhere he went in Bugojno he was spat at. Still he would not budge, so they took out the bathtub, sink and toilet. A few days ago, as final preparations were being made for today's elections, he finally left.

In the village of Lug, a few miles away, the gangs prefer to wait until the Croats have put the roofs back on their houses, rewired the interior and started installing the kitchen. They then pull the wiring out, rip up the floorboards and smash or steal everything else, leaving their names smeared on the walls in soot as a sinister signature. Sometimes they do not expend so much energy, but simply lob a bomb into the house.

Not only are the local police not bothered by such acts, they seem actively to condone them. When Ruzica Pavlovic, 60, a disabled Croat from Lug, complained about the destruction of her house, she was beaten up.

Such stories are familiar in central Bosnia, frontline of a Muslim- Croat war in 1993 and 1994 and now the heartland of what is supposed to be a Muslim-Croat federation.

In Bugojno, the violence is by Muslims against Croats but in many other towns in the region the boot is on the other foot.

Near Vitez, a truck driver on his way into the Muslim- dominated old town broke down in the surrounding Croat-controlled territory. By the time he found help, his truck had been set on fire. Other Muslim drivers have been stoned or stopped by Croat police and fined for no reason.

The prospects for real co- existence as envisaged under the Dayton treaty seem dim. The Serbs have set up a mini- republic behind an inter-ethnic border and the Croats have tried to do the same, running their own, territorially patchy show called Herceg- Bosna and having as little as possible to do with the Muslims.

Some parts of federation territory, such as the Muslim- controlled Bihac pocket in the north-west or the Croat- dominated south-west, are ethnically "pure" enough for rival groups to ignore each other. But in central Bosnia, Muslims and Croats have been thrown together, partly because the area has always been mixed, and partly because at the beginning of the war it filled up with refugees from both groups being attacked by the Serbs.

If Bosnia is to have any chance of stabilising, political leaders of the two groups have to get along, and they know it.

The Croats, under international pressure, agreed to dismantle Herceg- Bosna this month, while Muslim authorities have become more tolerant of rallies on their territory by the Croat nationalist HDZ party.

Overall, the federation has progressed much like the Dayton peace process: successfully on military issues but disastrously on matters such as human rights and the return of refugees. Within two days of the "abolition" of Herceg-Bosna, top brass from the Bosnian Croat army, the HVO, were invited to meet Muslim officers to discuss integrating their forces. Both have an interest in merging, since that is the condition for receiving a United States military aid package, Equip and Train. "Equip and train to have blood up to our knees," was the comment of Father Janko, the Franciscan priest and Croat community leader in Bugojno.

In all other respects, the federation is a fiction. In mixed towns across central Bosnia such as Novi Travnik, Gornji Vakuf and Vitez, communities have split into halves, with the wartime frontline acting as an invisible Berlin Wall-like barrier. The few members of the "wrong" ethnic group who have stayed on their pre-war side of the line are rapidly evicted. There is no immediate prospect of seized property being returned to its rightful owners or compensated for.

In these split towns there are two mayors, two town councils, two currencies, two sets of number-plates, even two telephone systems. It can be cheaper to call Zagreb, several hundred kilometres away, than to phone someone across the road. Street names have been Muslimised or Croatised (Tito Street in Bugojno has become Sultan Ahmed Street); in Gornji Vakuf the Croats have renamed their half of the town completely - it is now Uskoplje.

Contact between the two halves is non-existent in the harder-line towns, and restricted to little more than shopping trips in the others.

Trying to return refugees to their former homes under such circumstances is a joke. The Dayton signatories picked four central Bosnian towns, Bugojno, Travnik, Jajce and Stolac, to each of which at least 100 families were supposed to have returned by the end of last year. None has reached its target; there has been some movement in recent weeks for electoral purposes, but in these cases a "family" often ends up meaning a helpless old woman living on her own.

Globally, the Muslims seem keener on building up the federation than the Croats, if only because they have no mother country to flee to if things go wrong. The Croats, meanwhile, appear to interpret federation to mean living side by side, but not together.

"Division is the only answer," declared Zdravko Batinic, the HDZ secretary in Gornji Vakuf. "We handle our problems separately. And if we have a common problem, then we ask the international community to mediate."