Serb mayor tries to stem exodus

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The Independent Online


An impassioned appeal for Tito's beloved brotherhood and unity it is not, but at least one Bosnian Serb politician is trying to reach an understanding with his former enemies in Sarajevo.

Maksim Stanisic, mayor of the Serb-held districts of the capital during the war, is working against the odds to persuade his neighbours to stay in the five Sarajevo suburbs reverting to Bosnian government rule. His new group, the Democratic Initiative of Sarajevo Serbs, hindered at every turn by the Bosnian Serb leadership in Pale, has made little headway so far - some 40,000 people are estimated to have fled, against about 10,000 still in the area.

But as the last hope of the international community - "the last straw", one observer said - Mr Stanisic is nurtured by foreign officials desperate for any sign of support for the peace process and the reunification of Bosnia. Mr Stanisic's decision to stay in Ilidza, which this week reverted to government control, required courage - perhaps allied to a sense that as a Serb in a united Sarajevo he might build a political base with more power than numbers alone would warrant.

Yesterday, he looked drawn and nervous, chain-smoking and fiddling with his notebook or a hanger, but remained resolute. "We must try to carry on the work of the organisation. We must help everyone who has had a bad experience and has now decided to leave, but at the same time we will help anyone who wants to stay," he said.

The Democratic Initiative was founded last month at a meeting in Ilidza attended by around 300 people - quite a number, given that many Serbs regard those who want to stay as traitors. Aside from the genuine fears of reprisal by those the Serbs besieged for so long, stirred to fever pitch by the leadership in Pale, anyone who considers staying on in the five suburbs faces serious practical problems: those departing have cut off utilities, and stripped factories and houses.

Mr Stanisic has said there is nothing he can do to prevent such asset- stripping in Ilidza, though he is trying to ensure that at least one clinic is staffed throughout the transition.

"People are afraid, and we are working in impossible conditions," Mr Stanisic said. Did we know the cartoon "Stop the world, I want to get off"? "I feel a little bit like that . . ."

Mr Stanisic, a lawyer who worked before the war as the deputy administrator for Sarajevo, is a politician but not, he says, a member of the Serb Democratic Party, the nationalists led by Radovan Karadzic into war. International officials who worked with him throughout the war in his capacity as mayor of Serb-held parts of Sarajevo view him as a moderate - at least in relation to Mr Karadzic and his colleagues in Pale.

Mr Stanisic says he has received a positive response from the Bosnian government, but wants more in the way of guarantees that angry refugees will not be allowed to storm into the suburbs and harass Serbs there.

As Ilidza reverts to government rule, does he envisage a life shared with Muslims? He has said that children should be bussed to Serb schools in Lukavica, which remains under Pale's control, but what about mixed communities, shops, bus services and so on? Mr Stanisic looks uncomfortable. "I'm just saying that the Serb people here have an interest in staying here, and whether they live with or next to Muslims is not important," he said.

So if Serbs and Muslims could live together in some form, what was the point of the war? He laughed, put his head in his hands, then dodged the question in best Balkan style: "For the answer to that we must go back in time . . ."