The cavalry are coming, but no one knows how or when. Shrouded in confusion as thick as the noxious smog blanketing the city, the people of Tuzla are waiting anxiously for the arrival next month of 20,000 US troops, charged with enforcing the Dayton peace plan in the north-eastern corner of Bosnia.
This is an unusual corner of Bosnia and it was chosen, cynics say, as the American sector as it is likely to prove the least dangerous assignment. The three national groups live in relative harmony here and the big coal-fired power plant that dominates the entrance to the city is hard at work. It is no good Colonel Ko Bouma insisting this will be a Nato deployment. In the minds of the locals and the hordes of news organisations descending on Tuzla, the Americans are coming.
No one in Tuzla knows quite what this means. Even Colonel Bouma, Dutch commander of the giant UN air base outside the town, is still awaiting orders. But the city is preparing a warm welcome. It does not have a lot else to offer: grim, Communist-era tower blocks and potholed highways, a smog so heavy that it chokes pedestrians and smothers the satellite communications set up by the media. Still, at least it brings hot water and central heating.
Before the war, Tuzla had good access to Sarajevo, Zagreb and Belgrade. On account of its geography, it was a major target for the Serbs and was almost cut off for two years. More than 200,000 refugees live in the area, though there is little work. So most residents, especially those who own restaurants, hotels or houses suitable for rent, are eagerly awaiting the US deployment, because there is hope they might actually keep a peace, and because the mighty German mark is about to be displaced by the dollar.
"We expect them to help us to live the kind of life we had before the war," Jasmin Imamovic, secretary of the city council, said. "First, we need a road north through Brcko in order to rebuild our economy ... if we can get a road north, we won't need any more help. But if we remain surrounded, we are in trouble. Everything depends on freedom of movement."
However, there are few signs his hopes will be fulfilled, at least in the short term. The issue of Brcko, a Serb-held town in the Posavina corridor, north of Tuzla, the narrow strip of land that connects Serb gains, threatened to scupper the Dayton deal. So it was ignored and the matter will be put to international arbitration next year. Until that time it seems unlikely the US troops will force a road through Serb-held territory to the border with Croatia.
But Tuzla can expect an economic revival. Flats at exorbitant prices are being snapped up by news agencies and the American networks. Anyone who can speak English is besieged by offers of work as media translators. The city's second hotel has reopened. The first was block-booked by the television companies weeks ago.
"They must spend money", said Mr Imamovic. "We expect McDonald's ... but the most important thing is that when the Americans come here we will know we are part of the West."
Others are less impressed. "I don't believe they will do much," said Alma Ahmedbegovic. "As for the money, that can bring bad as well as good.''Reuse content