For numb, bitter Bosnians, civil war is a daily tragedy

May 23, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

VITEZ, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- The people who inhabit the surreal landscape of the Bosnian civil war make little connection with the anxious diplomatic machinations of Zagreb, Belgrade, Washington and Moscow.

News of "safe havens" and peace plans tends to sound remote, especially after it has filtered through the propaganda prism of the various nationalist radio broadcasts.

Attention shifts to the little events down the road, like the death of a 73-year-old Muslim farmer who has hanged himself from a tree next to his barn.

It takes an international team to verify the cause of death. And so, on a warm drizzly afternoon, two United Nations trucks set out with a Red Cross jeep to do the job, bringing a handful of British soldiers and a pair of war observers from the European Community. A Muslim military commander accompanies them in case anyone should later question the pronouncement.

Inevitably, they encounter the painful difficulties of the Bosnian conflict and its surprises.

The old man had killed himself, all right, but waiting at the top of the mountain with his body is a Bosnian version of the Hatfields vs. the McCoys -- two opposing farm hamlets, heavily armed and ready to strike at the slightest provocation from their neighbors. It was a display in miniature of the insular rural hatreds that have consumed this country.

The small convoy moves uphill on a narrow road, coming first to the Croatian hamlet.

Unshaven older men wearing camouflage shirts materialize from a patch of trees. They seem wary, more distrustful even than the soldiers who man the checkpoints on the highways of the valley. They poke their heads into the cabs of the trucks, while a few more filter from the trees and stare, mouths agape, not a full set of teeth among them.

Mixed into their wardrobes with the camouflage are farm clothes -- scuffed leather barn jackets and bulky sweaters knit from the wool of their flocks. Even up here, the weaponry of choice is the AK-47.

Farmers block road

The Croatian farmers have blocked the road with a large mound of dirt and stones. So the convoy rumbles into a meadow, rolling across dandelions and buttercups into another patch of woods.

Here there are five more men standing around with automatic weapons. They have built a low, crude bunker of sticks, stones and dirt, which faces 50 yards across another field to the first of the Muslim farmhouses.

By the time the trucks reach the house, easing back onto the road, a Muslim farmer is out by the pavement. He, too, look distrustful. He, too, wears camouflage and work clothes, and he holds a huge machine gun that looks at least two wars past its prime.

Farther on is a cluster of 10 homes; the old man's place is at the end of the road. As the U.N. soldiers climb from the trucks, they step onto a farm lot straight out of turn-of-the-century West Virginia, right down to the museum-vintage implements and the pile of corn shucks peeping from the loft of the barn.

A crowd of men and boys gathers while the old farmer's widow walks out her front door. Nearly everybody but the widow seems to be carrying a gun.

As it turns out, no one here was worried about verifying the cause of death. The widow explains that she simply wants a U.N. armored escort down the hill to her husband's funeral, and another for the return trip.

The U.N. people gently tell her that they can't spare the men or the time to accompany her back.

Very well, the Muslim widow says. Then she will stay here and let her husband's body make the trip without her. Better that than try traveling through the Croatian neighborhood unprotected, she says.

Sheer lawlessness

There are some places in Central Bosnia where ethnic hatred doesn't hold sway. That's usually because it has been overtaken by mere lawlessness.

At impromptu checkpoints deep in the mountains, bandits and irregular soldiers have made a living waylaying trucks and cars. One group of fellows in Vitez decided they wanted to own a gasoline station. So they stole one.

They did it on an opportune day -- April 16 -- when heavy fighting broke out between local Muslims and Croats, who were allies against the Serbs.

The Croatian opportunists raided the station and took it from a Muslim owner, the locals say, and not even Croatian soldiers have been able to wrest it away from them.

The restaurant next door to the gas station has also been the site of an odd drama. When its owner was killed in the fighting, he left behind a bear that lived out front in a small cage.

The bear soon began looking a bit thin and listless, and a battalion of British soldiers based just down the road went into action. Their U.N. mandate may have prevented them from doing anything about the gang at the gas station, but it didn't stop them from helping the bear. When their call for help went out, animal welfare organizations from around the world responded.

At last report, the bear was said to be living happily in Greece.

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