Weary men in the trenches pray peace deal will stick: Frontline troops hope the Croat-Muslim accord is the beginning of the end of the war

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The Independent Online
BOSNIAN Croat troops manning the front line in Vitez have planted a sapling in a hole left by a Muslim mortar fired before last week's ceasefire agreement. It looks spindly and vulnerable, like the recent Muslim-Croat political deal, but the troops hope both will flourish.

'The ceasefire is holding so far, and we wish it would carry on like that,' said Jozo Ivancic, who is 'sort of in charge' of a Croatian trench 500 metres from the Muslim line. 'But after all that has happened here, we still cannot believe it is peaceful here.' The trench, neatly dug out of yellow earth, sits in a wood which has been the scene of heavy fighting in the past 10 months. At Christmas Muslim troops advanced to within 20 metres. 'We were very frightened and had to be very careful then,' Marco Jurcevic said. 'Now it's beautiful - no shooting.'

The ceasefire, product of a political and military agreement for a Croat-Muslim federation in Bosnia, has brought relief and hope to many; soldiers on both sides seem to have wearied of a war many see as senseless. 'We could have avoided this and solved things in a peaceful way,' Mr Ivancic said. 'It would have been far less painful. Now we have to sign this agreement, which is good because we must all live in peace sooner or later.' He believes the war was the fault of political leaders, adding: 'The people are the least to blame.'

His sentiments were echoed by his supposed enemies, a 20-minute drive away in the Muslim town of Travnik. 'I don't know why (the war) happened,' said Buri, a member of the 17th Brigade, which is made up of refugees from areas that were 'ethnically cleansed' by Serbs. 'It was the politicians. They are always to blame for every war.' His comrade Senab agreed. 'The agreement is a good idea, but it's a bit late now - perhaps two years too late,' he said. 'It would have been better if all three sides had agreed on something in 1991.'

The Lasva valley, site of the Croat-held Vitez pocket, is a beautiful agricultural area of rolling green hills, neatly tended fields, gentle woods and, in the distance, snow- capped mountains. The red-tiled houses on opposite sides of the line are indistinguishable; the only visible signs of affiliation are ragged flags - red, white and blue with a red-and-white chequerboard for Croatian areas, blue with gold fleurs-de-lis for Muslim ones. But the destruction is widespread - houses holed in the roof, gutted by fire, shelled and shot. It has been too much for the people here, who long for peace, but who are scarred by war and who may find it hard to forgive and forget.

'I think all sides are out of breath,' said Senab. 'Physically, emotionally and psychologically exhausted - and technologically. I think even the Serbs are running out of shells. If only the Serbs would sign, it would be even better.' But there is much mistrust between those who are about to become allies again. 'Everyone is happy that people are not dying,' said Ivica Saric, a spokesman for the Croatian Defence Council (HVO) in Vitez. 'One sort of pressure has been lifted but there's a big question mark: how to implement the agreement. So many people have died, some of them in horrible circumstances, on both sides.'

Asked if they are willing to live with their former neighbours, everyone says it will be difficult. 'Peace is the most valuable thing, so we'll try,' said Mr Ivancic. 'There have been so many casualties in my family; I was wounded. In this area there is no house, no family that has not lost someone.' It is the same story in Travnik, and among some of the Muslim soldiers it is further complicated by the Serbian factor. Senab and Buri come from Prijedor, a town which was 'cleansed' by the Serbs in the most brutal manner. Another man, smoking a pipe, said: 'All the 17th Brigade were cleansed. How can I be a neighbour of someone who committed genocide against me and my family? The Serbs - and all the extremists - should all be moved out of Bosnia.' His comrade, who wore a gold fleur-de-lis earring, said bitterly: 'The agreement is not going to be as perfect as people think. It's not very likely we'll be able to walk to Vitez. We who have been fighting have lost someone and gained nothing. I think it would be better if we carried on. Only people who have something are afraid of fighting. We who have nothing to lose are not afraid.'

But Buri, who spent 78 days in a Serbian prison camp, disagreed. 'There have been wars before. There is only one road system, only one postal service. We have to live together.' And as Ljuban Maros said from his bunker in a Croatian trench, if the politicians decide on a joint administration: 'We will have to live under a Muslim-Croat government.' And if the people don't like it? 'Who ever asks us?'

(Photograph omitted)