Referendum haunted by fear

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The Independent Online
THE old Muslim woman wept. 'We have no rights. We are nothing. Nothing.' The words trailed off into tears. A Bosnian Serb police car passed and she hurriedly moved away. Welcome to Janja, the last majority Muslim town in Serb-controlled eastern Bosnia.

Just a few blocks away from a pile of rubble that was one of the village's two mosques before extremists blew it up recently, people trickled into the fire station to vote in a referendum that will finally decide the fate of the Vance- Owen peace plan.

The referendum, which ends today, has been thrown together quickly throughout the self-styled Bosnian Serb republic. Unlike other towns in Bosnia that have been ethnically cleansed by murder squads or through fierce battles, Janja is still a mixed town. As such, it may be the only place in Serb-held Bosnia where the Vance-Owen plan will win any support at all. That is if the Muslims vote.

'Everyone can vote, refugees and Muslims,' said Desa Tesnjak, a polling official who sat behind a voter registration table on the top floor of the fire station. Two cardboard screens propped up on a table at the back of the room offered privacy to voters. This is a local initiative - other polling places in eastern Bosnia did not have booths or screens. 'We decided on that because Janja is so mixed. We thought people would want privacy,' said Ms Tesnjak, herself a refugee from Zenica, a Muslim-held town in central Bosnia.

Despite the precautions and the assurances that everyone was welcome, the officials admitted that few Muslims had turned up to vote yesterday. 'They were all informed about the referendum. I think they'll come,' said Slavko Kopic, vice-president of the Janja voters committee.

However, the old woman said Muslims were not allowed to vote, a possibility which could not be entirely ruled out. But it is also likely that the Muslims have surrendered their right of suffrage because they know that even if the whole of Janja backed the plan it would make little difference.

The Bosnian Serb parliament rejected the plan on three occasions, but it left the final decision to the people. Given an official propaganda campaign and the censored news in the country, the result is expected to be 'no'.

On the wall of the Bosnian Serb TV station in Pale, a graffiti slogan reads: 'We want war. Peace is death.' The message beamed from the building is a little less crude, but basically the same. Both the TV station and Bosnian Serb radio have spent the past week urging their audiences to reject Vance-Owen.

Neal Ascherson, page 25