Muslims find peace in Serbia: The border allows an uneasy refuge, says Robert Block in Mali Zvornik

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AT FIRST the mosque at Mali Zvronik hardly seems worth a second glance. Apart from its spindly minaret, it is indistinguishable from the local red- roofed houses.

But viewed from the other side - the Bosnian side of the Drina river where the ruins of destroyed mosques are landmarks of extremist intolerance in almost every village and town - the little mosque in Serbia stands out from its surroundings like a palm tree in the Antarctic.

The war and 'ethnic cleansing' that has forever transformed this part of the world has been taking place only 500 yards away. But to this day, residents say Serbian special police and army units protect the mosque and the 150 Muslim families that live in the village from falling victim to the same fate asmosques and Muslims on the other side.

'This is Serbia,' Omar, a Muslim born and raised in Mali Zvornik, said yesterday in such a way as to divorce his side of the river, its government and people from the horrible events that have unfolded within view of his home. 'Serbia will not allow the war to come here.'

Mali Zvornik means little Zvornik, a reflection of the fact that the houses and cafes hugging the Serbian bank of the Drina were an extension of the main town, Zvornik, on the Bosnian side. That the waterway marked the administrative boundary between Serbia and Bosnia seemed irrelevant before the war. Serbs and Muslims have, or had, relatives in Bosnia and passed freely back and forth to work or to visit across three bridges connecting the village to the town.

Now, however, war and politics have turned that boundary into an international border. This has been underscored since Saturday when the government of Serbia and Montenegro, which form rump Yugoslavia, clamped a blockade on Bosnian Serbs for their leaders' rejection of the Vance-Owen peace plan. Yesterday vehicles were subjected to thorough customs checks by Serbian police before being allowed to enter the self- styled Bosnian Serb republic.

The Muslims in Mali Zvornik see the border as a thin line of protection but not one that has completely obliterated the fear of living in the shadow of an 'ethnically cleansed' town.

'It is a border zone in war and 90 per cent of the people here are sick with fear,' said Almasa, Omar's sister.

Omar and Almasa live with their father, Ahmed, and Omar's wife, Djamila, in the shadow of the little mosque that is sometimes a target for Bosnian Serb snipers across the river. The mosque is now safe, they say, but has been closed to worship for 13 months because the local imam fled. There used to be about 500 Muslims families living in the village. Most of them left, Omar said, for economic reasons. Their jobs were across the river and when war broke out there was no more work.

But fear was also a powerful factor. Zvornik was a predominantly Muslim town, with four mosques. But Bosnian Serb extremists rolled through the town last year killing or frightening off Mulims and levelling their places of worship.

'Zvornik is always in front of us,' Djamila said. It is a permanant reminder of the war and the fate of her father, who disappeared last year. Her mother and brother are refugees in Tuzla. She said she bore no grudges and refused to see the world in ethnic terms. Still, she is grateful to be in Mali Zvornik.

Her two children go to school with Serbs and there is no trouble. But with the war being so close it is hard to hide from them what is happeneing. 'They are big enough to understand war but I do not tell them about 'ethnic cleansing'.'

Sitting in their garden behind the small pear trees, the family was trying constantly to reassure any doubts about their faith in the Serbian authorities and President Slobodan Milosevic. But it was clear that they are uneasy. At one point Ahmed said that a visit by a foreign journalist could lead to misunderstandings that might bring trouble.

'He is most fearful as he survived one war already,' Almasa explained. 'He is afraid for his children and his grandchildren. A border is a border and a border zone during war is dangerous,' she said.

Djamila said she thought the blockade was proof that Muslims in Serbia were being protected. 'But it would have been better to have had the peace plan adopted to bring this war to an end,' she said. 'I am glad the mosque is still standing but that is not important. I can always pray at home. What I want is to live in peace.'