Croats take over ghost town

BOSNIA ELECTIONS: Emma Daly accompanies a family from London back to Travnik. This is her first report
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The Independent Online
There is not exactly much suspense over the outcome of the elections in Drvar in western Bosnia. The Croats dominate the town and there is only one party, the Croat nationalist HDZ, that anyone is going to vote for. It would be misleading, however, to think of it as a safe constituency in any ordinary sense. Just over a year ago, it was 99 per cent Serb. All but a handful of the 18,000 population fled last summer as the Croatian Army stormed through the Krajina and western Bosnia, leaving a ghost town that is now slowly filling with Croat refugees from central Bosnia and Bosnian Croat soldiers who have been garrisoned there.

Drvar is thus a prime example of ethnic engineering - the evacuation of one nationality and its replacement with another - and also a graphic illustration of how the 14 September elections are going against the intended purpose of the Dayton Agreement. Instead of helping to re-unify Bosnia, the vote is turning into a political confirmation of the ethnic divisions created by four years of fighting.

But Drvar is not doing too badly; the refugees pay no rent and make full use of furniture and clothes left behind by the Serbs. With 3,500 Bosnian Croat soldiers, and teams of international troops, policemen and election observers in town, there is a captive market for the bars and restaurants that have opened on the main street.

And, with the buzz of new activity, all vestiges of Drvar's former Serb identity are being airbrushed away. A busy Catholic church has sprung up in a converted basketball hall, next to the beautiful old Orthodox church which is boarded up. The post office is Croat, and the currency is the Croatian kuna.

Drvar does little or nothing to dispel the fear that this part of Bosnia, having been ethnically cleansed of nearly all Serbs and most Muslims, will be taken over by its big neighbour Croatia. Although the Croatian mini-state of Herceg-Bosna, of which Drvar is a part, was officially wound up on 1 September in the interests of shoring up the shaky Muslim- Croat federation, it is clear that every encouragement is being given to keep Croats in the area and chase everyone else away.

"If I went back home I could expect to make 50 German marks a month. Here, even with odd jobs as a driver ... I can make 500," said Mladen, a Croat from the mining town of Vares in central Bosnia. "I know Drvar is not really my home, but as an ex-soldier who spent six months on my own in the woods during the war, I am much too tired to care where I live as long as I can bring up my family in peace."

While the Croat colonisation of Drvar continues apace, Muslims are still being scared into leaving the few villages still populated in the war- ravaged areas to the south. British soldiers with I-For, the peace-keeping force, say they are the only protection for villagers against explusion by the Croat police and army. The only Serbs left in the area are elderly or sick, but even they have had to put up with intimidatory tactics, including beatings.

Talk to the local HDZ-run authorities and they will pay lip-service to the Muslim-Croat federation and the need to re-unify Bosnia. But the local party secretary, Drago Tokmakcija, could not suggest one concession towards co-existence with other nationalities.

His vision of inter-ethnic tolerance sounded distinctly ominous. "The Muslims will be as welcome here," he said, "as Croats are supposed to be in the areas they control." With tension sky-high between the two groups wherever they live together, that sounded more like a threat than an invitation.

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