Stubbornness stifles Balkan peace Local leaders agree mostly to disagree, to mediators' dismay

June 09, 1996|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

POSAVINA CORRIDOR, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- The weekly meeting was called to order in the plywood room between the trenches. There were mines to be cleared, houses to be rebuilt and old animosities to be softened, here in Bosnia's most bitterly contested corner.

U.S. Army Col. Gregory Fontenot knew from previous occasions where such agendas often led.

The local Serbs would spout lines straight from the mouth of leader Radovan Karadzic in Pale. The Muslims would toe the line of their national government in Sarajevo. The Croats would parrot their Mostar overlords. And the visitors from aid organizations and Washington bureaucracy would prattle on about delays and assessments.

Peace needed a kick in the pants.

Fontenot rose to his feet.

"Enough surveys and assessments -- let's see some bucks," he told the bureaucrats. Then he turned toward the locals.

"You guys," he said, "are famous for quoting the [Dayton] treaty to me as if I'd never read it, but if you'll recall, the treaty allows and encourages local compromise. I can read for myself what is said in Sarajevo, Pale and Mostar. I don't need to hear it here as well. And I'm sorry for that outburst."

With NATO's one-year peacekeeping mission to Bosnia approaching the halfway mark, Fontenot could have been speaking for every would-be arbitrator and rebuilder in the country.

They've watched the promising early progress of December bog down in the same fears and hatreds that led to war. Although the armies of all three sides have gone back to their barracks, their political leaders are figuratively still in the trenches, and NATO's Implementation Force seems unwilling and perhaps unable to force them out.

"We will not take over this place; this thing must come out of this country," said Michael Steiner, primary deputy to Carl Bildt, High Representative for the civilian side of the peacekeeping effort.

"It's up to the leaders to tell people, 'The war is over; they are not our enemy anymore,' but these signals so far have not come," Steiner said.

The stubbornness has been particularly pronounced in Pale, where Karadzic, accused of war crimes, continues to lead the Bosnian Serbs.

As a result, most refugees attempting to return to their homes across former battlefronts are being routinely -- and sometimes forcefully -- turned back.

That, in turn, is slowing reconstruction aid from donors hesitant to endorse hardening ethnic partitions.

And that, in turn, is transforming the initial relief of a war-weary populace into frustration with prolonged economic hardship.

Already, the international monitoring organization Human Rights Watch calls the Dayton Agreement "a failure in the making."

Even those who remain optimistic admit that efforts are well behind schedule.

The mission's successes and failures, as well as the dangers awaiting it later this summer, can be viewed in miniature here in the Posavina corridor, a strip of land running through the town of Brcko (BIRCH-ko), now controlled by the Serbs.

Lines of power cross

"Brcko is one of those places where everything comes together, where all the lines of power cross," Steiner said. "It will be one of those places at the end of the year where the future of this country will be decided."

For Serbs, Brcko is the indispensable hinge joining their east and west holdings.

For Muslims, it is a place lost to "ethnic cleansing" that they feel entitled to have back.

For Croats, it is a desired point of access to ethnic brethren just across the border in Croatia.

And for all three, it is a coveted port on the Sava River.

The problems of peacemaking unfold daily for Lt. Col. Tony Cucolo, whose 985-member battalion of the 1st Armored Division is camped in what was once a mine-filled "no man's land."

Cucolo lately spends as much time being a diplomat as being a soldier, mediating the disputes of three local "mayors" -- one Croat, one Muslim, one Serb -- with overlapping claims to various parts of the area.

In December, he thought the hard part would be taming the local armies.

But the combatants separated and began putting away their artillery so meekly that Cucolo was convinced by February that it was time for "Operation Handshake."

The Muslims from the village of Satorovici would get together with the Serbs of Dubravice Gorne. They'd shake hands, renew old acquaintances. Mutual good will would blossom.

Local authorities rejected the proposal and insist they're still not ready.

Then came Muslim refugees who decided in February to test the Dayton agreement's guarantee of freedom of movement. The test failed, and they staged a protest.

But conditions only got worse.

In March, a trial visit by Muslims to a cemetery on the Serbs' side was answered by sticks, stones and angry shouts.

'Good and reasonable' men

Cucolo decided that month to organize a weekly meeting of the three mayors -- Miodrag Pajic, the Serb; Munib Jusufovic, the Muslim; and Mijo Anic, the Croat.

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