Germans, too, hope 'past is past' Bosnia: The number of German peacekeepers in the Balkans will increase soon, with hopes that memories of Hitler's troops will not be an obstacle, especially in towns such as Foca.

Sun Journal

December 06, 1996|By Gillian Sandford | Gillian Sandford,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

FOCA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Even by the not terribly high standards of Bosnia, the town called Foca is a grim, unlovely place. It huddles close to the Drina River in southeastern Bosnia like a scrap yard of ruined concrete alongside a maltreated creek.

Foca is Bosnian Serb territory, and in the past 50 years it has been the site of two massacres that have an unsettling symmetry. In 1942, a force of Serbs overran a mainly Muslim militia that was the murderous puppet of the Nazi occupation forces, and once the militia was slaughtered, the Serbs moved on to kill thousands of Muslim civilians.

In 1992, another Serb force forced 20,000 Muslims from their homes here, raped many of the women and apparently !c murdered the men -- "apparently," since the men were taken away and have not been seen since. In June, the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague indicted eight Bosnian Serbs on 62 counts of crimes against humanity for their actions here.

Then the Germans returned.

German pilots and German fighter-bombers were part of a NATO strike force that in September 1995 destroyed the three bridges that spanned the Drina, thereby cutting the main supply routes between the Bosnian Serbs and their only ally, Serbia.

A year later, 40 German army engineers came to repair some of the damage. They built a new bridge -- only one lane wide and made of metal, but perhaps the most important construction project in town since the return of peace. A German brigadier general attended the dedication ceremony; there was an exchange of gifts between German officers and town officials.

"I think it's very good, what the Germans did for us," says Zarko Boskovic, 63, who left Muslim-controlled Sarajevo for Foca during the war. "They built the bridge that NATO bombed."

The legacy of the Nazis?

"The past is the past," he shrugs.

That is the attitude that Germany is counting on as it prepares to deploy ground troops as part of a reorganized NATO force in Bosnia. Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Cabinet approved this week the deployment of up to 3,300 troops, beginning as soon as Dec. 20. The German Parliament still has to vote on the mission, but its approval is expected next week, with members of the main opposition party and the pacifist Green party favoring the

expanded role.

"I see a successful deployment as probably the start for German intervention for peacekeeping," says Marieluise Beck, a Green member of Parliament.

Government spokesmen say the military contingent will include reconnaissance units, engineers, electronic surveillance specialists and medics. German pilots will continue to fly transport planes and reconnaissance jets while German sailors will continue to serve on NATO ships.

As recently as September 1995, Volker Ruhe, Germany's defense minister, insisted that he would not "under any circumstances" send ground troops to Bosnia. But Ruhe had slowly won the battle for German public opinion through a series of step-by-step deployments: sending an army field hospital to Cambodia in 1991, providing support staff for a United Nations mission to Somalia in 1993, dispatching German aircraft to help enforce a U.N.-approved embargo against Yugoslavia in 1994.

Troops and army doctors and logistics experts went to Croatia in 1995. But Bosnia still seemed too dangerous -- too burdened with history from wars past.

Foca is not a place that welcomes strangers. You cross the Drina on the German-built bridge. But cars without "Republica Srpska" license plates are soon stopped by plainclothes police.

A tall, thin man leaves his vehicle, knocks on your car window and barks, "Ausweis!" -- "Identification!"

In the half-light of dusk, the town hall appears deserted behind the fluttering national flag. There is a stench of urine in the corridors. But Mayor Petko Cancar is his office.

Foca now calls itself Srbinje -- "belonging to the Serbs." Cancar says all 25,000 residents are Bosnian Serbs and that before the war Bosnian Serbs were 70 percent of the population. But United Nations figures show that in 1991 the population was 40,500, more than half of them Muslim.

Pub Date: 12/06/96

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