Peace deal sends village fleeing for safety

Bosnia: British troops vainly urge Croats to stay in homes that will soon lie on the wrong side of the line
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The Independent Online


"Let us make a sign of peace." In a freezing church at Majdan, British officers shook hands with the Bosnian Croat HVO and local civilians, their breath like steam in the church's icy white interior. Fr Adolf Visaticki prepared for communion.

There could have been no fitter words. But even peace has its problems. Another round of "ethnic cleansing" has started, sanctioned by the Dayton peace agreement and encouraged by local authorities anxious to complete tidying up the map and partition Bosnia still more cleanly. It may not be the last Catholic Mass in Majdan, but most people of this Croat village, which is to be returned to Bosnian Serb rule, have left or were leaving yesterday. At the end of the service, the British commander of peace implementation troops in the area, Brigadier Richard Dannatt, tried to persuade the people to stay, but it was too late.

During almost four years of war and Serb occupation, the hundred or so families in Majdan, between Mrkonjic Grad and Jajce, lived unmolested.

Then, last summer, the Bosnian Croat HVO, backed by the regular Croatian army, drove the Serbs north. Serb troops around Jajce, fearing they might be cut off, fled, giving the Bosnian government army an easy ride north as well. But under the Dayton agreement the area including Majdan will be handed back to the Serbs. All HVOforces must withdraw by 3 February and yesterday it looked as if most people from Majdan would join them.

The reasons why Bosnian Croat villagers who survived Serb rule are suddenly anxious to leave can be seen in the villages all around. Along the road to Majdan, you pass Serb villages that have been completely burned and wrecked by the Croats, including an Orthodox church with its distinctive onion dome.

The villagers of Majdan, who yesterday flew a flag saying"This is Croatia" for I-For's benefit, did nothing to stop it. When the Serbs return, they are likely to be angry.

In any other circumstances, Majdan could be from a fairy tale. The houses look prosperous; steep-roofed barns overflow with chickens. "Before the war we could live with the Serbs, but now we can't," said Franjo Kovcalije, 52, who was preparing to move with his wife, Slavija, 40, their three children, a good-natured dog and a black-and-white kitten. They were loading possessions onto a truck, which looked as if it belonged to the HVO.

Franjo had been a refugee before, from Mrkonjic Grad. He had moved into this, his brother's house, and now they were moving everything to Glamoc, a town which has been assigned to the Croat-Muslim zone, where they had somewhere to go. "We'll take the cat and dog, too," he said. "We wouldn't like them to suffer here."

In Glamoc, the houses formerly owned by Serbs are lying empty. "I've got a Serb friend down the road," said Franjo. "I'll move into his house and he'll move into mine. He doesn't want to either, but it's the change of boundaries - the governments." Slavija began to cry. "I went to Glamoc yesterday to see our new house. It had no doors, no windows, nothing."

But at least the Kovcalijes have somewhere to go. The Serb mayors of Mrkonjic Grad and Sipovo visited their old towns on Saturday, and news of the visit had got back to Majdan. The Serbs had tried to reassure the Croats but the Croats started haranguing them, which made the Serb officials less reassuring.

The use of HVO lorries and comments from many people suggest the local Croat authorities are trying to get people to leave. The only person, apart from Fr Visaticki, who wanted to stay, was Franjo Deljik, 47, a blacksmith who lives with his 75-year-old mother and some nieces and nephews. "Where else would I go?" he said.

But then his mother interrupted him. "He'll go," she said. "We're not staying. Not on your life. Don't listen to him."

Fr Visaticki said he would stay until he was forced to leave, and his sermon paved the way for Brig Dannatt's address after the service. He used the example of the apostles Peter and Paul. "Don't listen to your mother-in-law," he said. "Peter and Paul dropped everything to follow a teaching they trusted."

Brig Dannatt held up the Dayton agreement, saying that was what they had to trust. "The fact is that the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina is over," he added. "It is also a fact that the country was divided into two administrative portions or entities. As it happens, your village is in the part which will be administered by the Serbs."

He stressed that they should stay where they were. "Don't let others think of you as people who are going to collaborate or ... become unduly wrapped up in the Serb state," he said. "I have placed my soldiers in this village to give some protection, but my soldiers are only here in support of the Dayton agreement, which contains your rights. The choice is yours.''

"I have in my possession just two books at the moment," Brig Dannatt added. "Put your faith in God - His word is written down in the Bible, and put your faith in the Dayton peace agreement, because that has your future wrapped up in it.

"I hope very much you will be here in church this time next week."

Franjo Kovcalije reckoned everyone would leave by 3 February. Others estimated that of 100 families, 10 might stay.