It's tense, but local leaders sit and talk

May 17, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

BUSOVACA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- The rival commanders grumbled and hedged, and despite the static punctuating their radio conversation, their mutual distrust came through clearly. But finally the Croat and the Muslim agreed: They would meet at noon of the following day, down by the destroyed gas station.

It's the building across the road from a burned-out village of 30 homes, where Croats, Muslims and Serbs once lived together in peace. Now the village and its gas station are the center of a tense no-man's-land between Muslim and Croatian fighters in Central Bosnia. The stretch of highway running by is a frequent target of snipers, and the two commanders consented to show up only if accompanied by United Nations soldiers.

"They are very afraid, and the reason is simple -- they don't trust each other," said Hendrik Morsink, who arranged the unlikely chat in his role as a war monitor for the European Community.

But everyone arrived as scheduled. The commanders even smiled, shook hands and agreed to meet again.

Such is the micro-level of the Bosnian peace effort, an informal but painstaking process of seat-of-the-pants agreements and shaky cease-fires, in which the ultimate goal is to build a wider calm from the bottom up.

As the former Yugoslavia's new ethnic potentates join world leaders in failing to find peace at the highest levels, tiny efforts like this one seem like the best hope going. But even the small attempts usually fail, bulldozed by petty town-to-town grievances or the military ambitions of higher-ups.

The meeting here, along with its aftermath, offered a glimpse of just how difficult it will be to reach and maintain any form of settlement in this three-sided civil war.

It all began well enough. Muslim brigade commander Hrustan Mekic, a tall, --ing man with a fresh shave, wheeled into the parking lot of the gas station with his local battalion commander, Mirsad Smaka.

They drove a sporty, gray Alfa-Romeo, to which they had fastened some new Bosnian army license plates over the old Yugoslav tags. An AK-47 rifle lay across the back seat.

Their Croatian counterparts, brigade commander Dusko Grubacic and his local battalion leader, Ante Juric, arrived in a U.N. escort vehicle from their headquarters a few miles up the road in Busovaca.

Rag-tag fighters

None of these men cites a particular rank, nor do their camouflaged uniforms bear any stripes. Most of the fighters are not professional soldiers. Their brigades and battalions do not remotely resemble such units in most other armies in the world, in either structure or size. A brigade commander here probably has from 1,000-2,000 rag-tag fighters at his disposal, Mr. Morsink said.

Mr. Morsink, from the Netherlands, and another EC monitor, Torbjorn Junhov, from Sweden, were ready to begin. There were no chairs, so everyone stood on the broken glass by the old gas islands.

From the outset, it was clear both sides wanted the same thing: peace. Each commander spoke with passion about how he wanted an end to the fighting and, judging by the earnest, weary expressions on their sunburned faces, they seemed to mean it.

Then why all the gunfire earlier that morning, Mr. Junhov wanted to know. He mentioned in particular a long burst of machine gun fire an hour earlier, and a few larger booms a little before that, presumably from an anti-aircraft weapon. (Another note on the Bosnian military style: No one ever seems to get the right tool for the job. Anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft batteries are among the preferred tools for firing on houses and automobiles.)

Mr. Junhov might also have mentioned that morning's salutary blast from "Nora," a giant Croatian artillery piece that is fired every so often, usually no more than twice a day, lobbing huge shells north across the hills toward the Muslim-controlled area around Zenica, a city overflowing with war refugees.

Throughout the meeting, more shots spattered off and on in the surrounding hills. Mr. Grubacic, the Croatian commander, explained the problem: "It is very hard to control people who have lost their families and homes," he said. "You cannot control them with only good will."

His foe, Mr. Mekic, agreed.

"I understand that," Mr. Morsink said, "but you have to control them, because if you don't then there will be more families who lose their homes."

"We are doing our best," Mr. Grubacic said. "All the time we are on the ground. But it happens."

The Muslim second-in-command, Mr. Smaka, begged to differ. "It is obvious that the commander is not at all times on the ground, because those houses are burned. I don't think that he is doing his best to stop it."

And what about all those bigger guns that keep firing, Mr. Morsink asked. Surely you control them?

Both commanders shrugged.

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