Guns' silence turns Bosnia fear to hope: Emma Daly in Zenica meets a Croatian family that is not uneasy living among Muslims

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The Independent Online
THE PAINTED egg has been sitting in a white china bowl for almost a year, a symbol of the longing Jaga Sakic felt for her daughter and of the hope that Viktorija Biljaka would return one day to the house in Zenica where she was born.

Mrs Sakic and most of her clan live on the land colonised by their ancestors five generations ago. Antonija, a handsome woman instantly recognisable as a Sakic, shares a house with her mother. Her brother Viktor and his family live next door, while Lucija and her family have a house nearby. Bozica, the youngest, lives in Croatia and her older sister, Ruzica, has moved to Hollywood.

But war has made a mockery of geography and it is Viktorija, living only 20km away in Stara Bila, who is furthest from her family, imprisoned by a front line that has seen fierce fighting, the road home scarred by the gutted houses of Ahmici, where Croat forces massacred more than 100 Muslims at the start of the central Bosnian war.

The Sakic family are Bosnian Croats, Catholics living in Zenica, the most Islamic of the towns held by Bosnian government forces (BiH). Stara Bila, by contrast, is at the centre of the Vitez pocket, an enclave under siege by the BiH and defended by the Croatian Defence Council (HVO).

On Friday, two weeks and 15 minutes after the HVO and BiH signed a ceasefire, Viktorija crossed the front line, now marked by the reassuring presence of a UN-controlled checkpoint, to visit her family after 11 months apart. 'Zenica - it's like Rio de Janeiro, Paris, London. It's my favourite town,' Viktorija said joyfully. 'I've only been able to imagine this road, to dream about it.'

The reunion outside her mother's modest stone house was simple - hugs and tears and smiles. Only Mrs Sakic remained dry-eyed; unlike her children, she has seen war before. As a young woman she survived the Second World War, though her brother died fighting for the Croatian army. She fussed around Viktorija, brought coffee and slivovitz to toast her return. Only later did she admit to the fear she had felt for her child.

They had last seen each other on Palm Sunday. Viktorija left, promising to return a week later with sacks of flour for the family, but Mrs Sakic was worried. 'In my heart I felt I might never see her again,' she said. 'But I was afraid to say that out loud.'

In spite of her foreboding, Mrs Sakic and her children painted eggs for Easter as they do every year, and the egg bearing the legend 'Happy Easter Vikica (Vicky)' is waiting to be claimed by its rightful owner next Easter Sunday.

When Viktorija appeared on Friday, 'I felt as if I had died and been born again,' Mrs Sakic said. 'I did not believe I would ever see her again. The road to Vitez was so close and yet so far away.'

Both she and her daughter imagined the worst. 'It's very hard - almost impossible - to express my feelings,' Mrs Sakic said. 'Last Christmas it was awful. I was sitting here and I could hear them shelling Vitez. I was afraid she might get killed. What else could I think?'

'I was afraid half of them would be gone,' Viktorija said later, back at home in Stara Bila with her husband, Milan. 'I was most afraid I would not find my brother (Viktor), that he would be in prison because he refused to join up.'

Viktor was detained briefly by BiH forces and ordered to report for duty, but he obtained a medical certificate declaring him unfit to fight. 'I didn't want to join any army,' he said. 'If I joined the BiH I would have to go to Vitez and shell my sister, if I went to the HVO I would shell Zenica, and my sisters and my mother. I just don't want to be involved in this war on any side.'

The family is praying for the success of the ceasefire and of the UN's efforts to pacify the countryside and restore a measure of the normality that would allow each of them to travel freely and safely to the houses of friends and relations.

'This war has been crazy from the beginning,' Viktor said. 'War is war,' said Mrs Sakic. 'War is evil, but especially this war because it is a civil war between neighbours, where one house attacks another. It is terrible.' But the Sakic family was keen to point out that they have received nothing but friendship from their mainly Muslim neighbours. And now Viktorija's visit has given them all grounds for hope.