Bosnia taints hopes of new arrivals

Emma Daly ends her series with the Selmun family's return to Travnik
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Amir Selmun points to a gorgeous view, the old minarets of Travnik below the majestic heights of Mount Vlasic, in central Bosnia, and imagines how it will look from the house that he and his business partner are building on a site overlooking the Lasva river. They hope eventually to add a motel and a car-wash, though both are dentists by profession.

"We need just time, you know, and peace," Amir says, three days after shrugging off the mantle of refugeedom in London and returning to Bosnia. His optimism marks him out as a recent arrival; and as one of the privileged classes. Their departure in 1992 from Banja Luka, the largest Serb-held city in the country, was a typically Bosnian experience: they lost their house, their country house, their car and most of their possessions. But on their return, they face a softer landing than most.

Amir and his wife Alma will start working next week as dentists in the Travnik hospital, adding to their income with work at a private practice. They expect to move into a flat provided by the hospital soon.

Mirna, their 11-year-old daughter, started school yesterday and Damir, who is six, will follow his sister today. Amir's parents, miserable in a foreign country, are delighted to be back.

The family crossed into Bosnia with a coach-load of other returning refugees late on Friday night. "It was a very impressive picture, because we were so happy, everyone was crying and emotional - for the first time in four years we were in our country, after the war," Amir says over a coffee at a restaurant in the old Muslim town of Travnik. "At the border I saw two of my friends from before the war, it was a wonderful situation."

His enthusiasm is touching, but not infectious enough to dispel the cynicism of Damir Sagolj, a Bosnian photographer here to take pictures of the family. He is convinced that Amir will slump into the apathetic despair prevalent among those who saw the war out in Bosnia.

The country goes to the polls this weekend to elect a three-member ethnic presidency, a national parliament and an assembly for one of the two "entities" (the Muslim-Croat federation and the Bosnian Serb statelet). But few Bosnians expect the voting to end the argument that started the war: partition or union.

The Selmuns are registered as absentee voters, which means that Amir and Alma will vote in Travnik - but for local government candidates in Banja Luka, civic centre of the Serb heartland. And, like all of their compatriots, they are products of Communist Yugoslavia, which means there is a slightly uncomfortable discussion about their voting intentions.

"It is very simple - if you know me, you know who I will vote for," says Amir, chuckling. I hazard a guess - the Muslim SDA, the ruling party throughout the war. "Yes, because the SDA saved this city, and when I see soldiers without legs, without arms, then I have to vote for them." But this answer is partly directed at his friend, who is sitting with us and who is almost certainly a party member.

"But," Amir adds obliquely, "it's a very personal question. Maybe I will tell you that I will vote for the SDA but then, maybe I won't."

So far, the family's reception has been friendly - "People are lovely," Amir says - but the photographer, who lived here throughout the war, poses the questions many Bosnians would like to ask of returning refugees. "Did you ever think of coming back to join up and help your country? Does anyone ever call you 'traitor'?"

Amir is uncomfortable. "All day, every day I thought about coming back but the problem was in my head: my children, my children," he replies, adding defensively that his family has, after all, lost everything.

Already the political climate is working its way into Amir's bones; in London he was confident of returning one day to Banja Luka, saying that the Serbs who changed from friends into enemies could change back. Alma still believes she will be able to visit her old town soon, but her husband has changed his mind. "I see no possibility of going back but anyway I don't want to - I hate too much these people from Banja Luka," Amir says firmly. Now he really is home.