A police lorry for towing away illegally parked cars trundled down the main street. "That's the ultimate normality indicator," joked one British army officer from the British-led division responsible for this sector. The children who played as our helicopter touched down in a muddy field west of the town, beneath the mountains from which the Serbs had bombarded it, looked healthy and happy for youngsters who had grown up through three years of darkness and despair.
But appearances are deceptive. The Bihac area has seen the most blatant intimidation and harassment of opposition candidates in the forthcoming elections anywhere in Bosnia.
In the past two weeks there have been eight beatings in police custody and 11 mysterious explosions, some of which have been directed at opponents of the Muslim SDA party of President Alija Izetbegovic. The acts pose a serious threat to the elections planned for 14 September.
An official of the UN's international police (IPTF), which monitors the Bosnian police, reported that the "level of intimidation" in Cazin, 12 miles north of Bihac, "was at such a level that because of it they [the electorate] may well not go to vote on election day".
Bihac has a strange history. It was the only area where Muslims fought Muslims, when a rebel Muslim army under Fikret Abdic battled against Muslims loyal to the Sarajevo government, with help from the Serbs. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which is supervising the Bosnian elections, and the IPTF have highlighted incidents in Serb-controlled territory. But they place most stress on the authorities in Bihac.
Yesterday, Abdic posters were plentiful. Although Mr Abdic faces war- crimes charges in Bosnia, he has not been indicted by the international criminal tribunal in The Hague and is eligible to stand for election under the Dayton peace agreement rules. Karsten Geter, deputy director of OSCE in Bihac, said that with three weeks to go to the elections he was very pleased with the number of people who had registered to vote but was "less happy with the political atmosphere that is developing".
"There have been a number of incidents, especially in Cazin recently, in which representatives of basically all opposition parties have been targeted," he said. Another incident involved campaign material belonging to Zdruzena Lista BiH, the opposition coalition, which was confiscated by the police in Bihac and partly destroyed. The confiscation took place because the material was "against the interests of the ruling party".
That is no way to run an election, Mr Karsten told journalists from the Muslim-Croat federation and the Republika Srpska, whom the Nato peace forces had brought down from Banja Luka into Muslim territory by helicopter. "I call on those responsible for creating a positive campaign atmosphere to think about the image that this canton [one of 10 in the Muslim-Croat half of Bosnia] is projecting, if there are abuses of human rights and harassment of opposition politicians," he said. Although there were problems in Republika Srpska, they were not as bad as in Bihac, Mr Karsten said.
The IPTF reported disturbing incidents on both sides. They began with the death of a 55-year-old Muslim, Hasan Kovacevic, in Serb police custody on 1 August after suffering 16 broken ribs and with a litre of blood on his lungs. A second case concerned Alexander Baric, a resident of Sanski Most known as "the Chetnik" [Serbian fighter] who was beaten by the local Muslim police. The IPTF had requested access to the prisoner, who was allegedly beaten for five days, but refused. It was alleged the Muslim police tried to make him confess to war crimes, which he denied.
There appears to have been a systematic campaign against opponents of the SDA. One Abdic supporter was allegedly beaten in Bihac police custody, and a hand grenade thrown at his house while he was being held.
Last Saturday in nearby Velika Kladusa the IPTF received a complaint from an Abdic supporter who said she and four others had been detained and told they should "not be so open in their affiliation to Mr Abdic, or they could face some consequences".
In spite of international concern the elections are unlikely to be called off. The OSCE ambassador in Sarajevo has said they would only be stopped in the case of a "major outbreak of violence".
Eight beatings and 11 bombings do not meet that criterion. A senior diplomatic source told The Independent yesterday: "You had a choice. Either this route - elections - or create a sort of international protectorate and have elections in, say, five years' time. They chose this route".Reuse content