Bosnians take over deserted suburbs

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A gentle but relentless snow swathed the dreary suburb of Vogosca in an eerie calm as three dozen Bosnian federal policemen arrived yesterday morning to patrol the streets, deserted by thousands of Serbs in a panicky exodus.

Flames burst through the scorched roof of a block of flats torched by those departing, an act of spite intended to showtheir feelings about the hand-over of Vogosca to the Muslim-Croat Federation. A few Serbs, mostly elderly people, women and children, watched from a bus as the enemy arrived an hour after dawn. Sixteen Muslims, 14 Serbs and two Croats worked the first shift, the formula a rough approximation of Vogosca's pre-war ethnic mix.

The crowd stamping in the cold outside the central police station vandalised by departing Serb officers mostly comprised reporters; a few Serbs drifted by, though, and began to recognise local boys who fled the area in 1992 and returned in uniform.

Lubo, a young Serb, and his old friend Mustafa, a federal policeman, hugged and kissed, amid tears, after four years apart. "How are you?" asked another young officer, smiling and shaking the hand of Dragica Vukajlovic, a middle-aged woman standing beside the bus.

"He was a fireman here before the war," she said. "He recognised me." But, like Lubo, who hopped on the bus leaving Vogosca after greeting Mustafa because "others may not be so friendly", Ms Vukajlovic was not entirely reassured by the sight of a familiar face. "I've been here for 46 years and I have not decided yet whether to stay," she said. Knowing a federal policeman "would not make any difference".

Milenko Simika, who recognised many of the federal police was more optimistic. "My wife is going to stay and look after the house," he said.

"We have lived here for 22 years, so I have decided to leave only during this crisis."

Jovo Bojic, a Serb officer in the federal police, planned to seek out old friends, if any remained. "I hope many people will stay, and I hope many others will come back when they realise we were not sent to impose our will on them," he said. "I know they are scared, but I will tell them to stay and to continue living here."

The UN estimates that about 2,500 residents of Vogosca's war-time population - more than 12,000 Serbs and 70 Muslims - remain in the suburb, trying to decide whether they can trust the Bosnian government's half-hearted security guarantees.

Many flats still appear to be occupied, but few residents ventured out. Several hundred have registered with the UN's International police force. Others plan to leave before 19 March, when the Federation is to assume full control.

The Serb civilian authorities are entitled to remain in Vogosca until then, but it appeared yesterday that the mayor was the last official left. Police, firemen, doctors, municipal officials, grave-diggers - all have gone. One man whose wife died this week was obliged to seek help from Kiseljak, a Croat-held town west of Sarajevo: yesterday morning a sleek black hearse drew up outside his flat to deliver a coffin.

A pile of rough-hewn pine caskets jammed the entrance to Vogosca's dilapidated hospital, a gift from the Bosnian Serb leadership in Pale and virtually the only aid offered to people fleeing in terror fomented by those same leaders.

The evacuation buses, promised on Monday, arrived yesterday morning, a little late. "It's such a pity," Rajko Koprivica, the outgoing Serb mayor, said. "Only yesterday people were carrying babies on foot, because there was no transportation." A few trucks were still in evidence, piled high with furniture, window-frames, doors - anything and everything.

Despite looting, Serb threats to burn entire neighbourhoods proved to be hot air, though a column of black smoke curled through the sky south- west of Vogosca, where a large factory was blazing.

The road, a muddy track which winds from Vogosca to another Serb-held suburb, Ilidza, was dotted with the debris of a day-long traffic-jam: here a trailer, loaded with possessions and guarded by an old man, there an overloaded truck perilously close to collapse.

Vogosca's new mayor, Muhamed Kozadra, and the Interior Minister, Avdo Hebib, re-arranged the furniture, raising the Bosnian fleur-de-lys and switching the old Cyrillic name-plate at the police station for one in Latin script. "To all those who want to stay, and we saw that there are such people, I guarantee they will not not be harmed," Mr Hebib said.

"I would have stayed if my wife and I were guaranteed a job here," Simo Popic said. "But for now, it's better to go." Nato leaflets - one read "Don't believe the rumours! You can stay in your homes!", proved powerless to counter the fear.