Bosnia village left behind the lines

A stroke of the pen in Dayton put Muslim villagers in land held by Serbs - and they plan to stay. Emma Daly reports
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Kovacevici - The men of this Muslim village, who share a surname and a pretty, shell-scarred village of 250 houses, held out against tank fire, rockets and howitzers. But by the stroke of a pen in Dayton, Ohio, they found themselves living on the wrong side of the line, the Serb-held side, to the mild embarrassment of their own peace negotiators.

The Sarajevo Serbs fled in their thousands rather than submit to the authority of the enemy; but the Muslims of Kovacevici are made of sterner stuff. "Though we are on the wrong side of the line, we will not leave," said Mirsad Kahrimanovic, lolling in the sun with his comrades, taking a break from the communal task of repairing electricity lines. "Why should we? This land is ours."

The view across the lightly wooded rolling green hills is interrupted by a bunker some 100 metres away - a Bosnian army position close to what was the front line with the rebel Serb army. "At one time there was a tank only five metres from that house," Mirsad, young and blond, said casually.

"But although their weapons almost reached the village, their soldiers never came near," added Muzijet Kahrimanovic, a kindly, studious young man. "They attacked with everything but the atomic bomb," said Ferid Kahrimanovic, a handsome 40 year old who proves the exception to the rule that adult Bosnian villagers can look 20 years older than their age.

"The Serbs never came here during the war and we hope they won't in peacetime," said Muzijet who, like his friends, was wearing gumboots instead of the more familiar army boots. So far the authorities in Republika Serpska, the Serb-held entity in Bosnia, who should have assumed control of the area on 19 March, have declined to exercise their right to send in police patrols.

Kovacevici, whose pre-war population has halved to around 500, might yet get away: a bilateral commission set up to negotiate the changes to the inelegantly named Inter-Entity Boundary Line meets again on Friday. The village and several others in similar positions may still be swapped for uninhabited territory elsewhere.

"We heard the news that we were on the wrong side of the line through Serb media," Mirsad explained. "Well," interjected Ferid, "when we first saw the [Dayton] map it looked as if the line was east of the village - but then we realised it was three or four kilometres out ... the map on Serb TV was [drawn to a scale of] 1:300,000.

The Dayton negotiators made the same mistake. A Bosnian official, Mirza Hajric said yesterday: "When we came back [from Dayton] we had not seen the detailed map which was still being printed in the US. We got it 15 days later," Mr Hajric said. "It's one more proof that Dayton is not perfect."

Kovacevici, however, has no intention of bowing to Dayton. "The Serb police will not come - they would not dare. If I was Serb I would not dare. I would be ashamed to come here," Ferid announced. "Nothing would happen to them but I don't think they will come," added Muzijet; and anyway, the locals said the only road into the rest of Republika Serpska was virtually destroyed in the war. "They can walk in if they want," said Fedahiga Kahrimanovic - yet another cousin - with a smile.

But the men pointing to a deserted village on a hill a few hundred metres away said that local Serbs should return home. "Nobody has touched those houses and nobody will," said Fedahiga said.

"The Serbs should also start working and living there, repairing their houses," added Mirsad, explaining that villagers who sought refuge in Tuzla during the war were coming home to Kovacevici too. "We love our village and want to stay here. We could have taken that [Serb] village but we didn't want it."

This loyalty to their land underpins society in the Bosnian countryside. Refugees don't want to be given a house - they want their house. And those who held on have no intention of leaving, come what may.

What, they ask was Kovacevici known for before the war? "We had our mineral water," said Muzijet of a famous spring in a neighbouring village. "And good people," Sedahija added. "Bosnian souls," Muzijet concluded with a smile.