Shopping as an antidote to war Commerce: Named for the main road to the U.S. military headquarters in Tuzla, the Arizona Market is considered the one place in Bosnia where you can buy almost anything from almost anybody.

Sun Journal

February 18, 1997|By Barbara Demick | Barbara Demick,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Leave your guns and ideology at home. Bring plenty of money. Any currency will do.

Here at the Arizona Market, shopping is the best antidote to war.

Named after Route Arizona, the main road leading to the U.S. military headquarters in Tuzla, the market is a cross between a flea market and an experiment in building democracy through free trade. Sprawling over 18 muddy acres, it is the one place in Bosnia where you can buy almost anything you want and, more important, do business with anyone you choose.

"Nobody here is interested in war. We just want to make some money," says Fedahija Suvalic, a demobilized Muslim soldier, as he barters with a Serbian customer over a case of Croatian brandy.

Out of a rickety, wooden kiosk, Suvalic, 31, sells wholesale liquor. Although he doesn't drink, he has no objection to trading with Serbs who might have fought against him during the war.

"We are just ordinary people who didn't ever want there to be a war," says one of his customers, Zoran Sljokic, a Serb who also traded his fatigues for a business suit. He now runs a cafe that features striptease at night. The strippers are Romanian; the customers are Serb, Croat or Muslim.

"People come in here to have a cup of coffee or a beer, and I don't know who they are," Sljokic says. "I don't ask and I don't care."

The Arizona Market wasn't conceived so much as it evolved. After U.S. troops arrived in December 1995 as part of the NATO mission to enforce the peace pact, a 2 1/2 -mile-wide zone of separation was established between the two entities that had been carved out of Bosnia.

This demilitarized zone might have become a no-man's land; instead, it turned into everybody's land.

Initially, the trade was in salt. The Muslims in Tuzla had plenty from that city's famous salt mines, while the Serbs were in short supply. Then came a handful of entrepreneurs with cigarettes and whiskey. Somebody parked a trailer to dispense cold sodas to the growing crowd.

The early merchants hovered next to the safety of a U.S. Army checkpoint named Alpha Two.

"At first, people distrusted each other and stayed at opposite sides of the checkpoint," Suvalic says. "But each day they'd come a little bit closer, and the market kept on growing."

Bosnian authorities objected that the market was full of smugglers avoiding taxes and customs. But what they saw as a black market, Americans saw as capitalism. Rather than chase away the crowd that was starting to block the road, the U.S. military decided to nurture the Arizona Market.

In June, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started bulldozing a cornfield and clearing land mines to accommodate the burgeoning commerce. The U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) stepped in with $50,000 for water, electricity and toilets. Another $50,000 has been designated for a parking lot and other infrastructure improvements that will begin when the snow melts.

"From a political standpoint, we found it useful to have a place where the sides could get together," says Tibor Nagy, an AID official in Sarajevo in charge of the market.

As though to live up to its name and its American endowment, the Arizona Market has an unmistakable aura of the Wild West. Up the road, there is a grill called the OK Koral and a Red Bull Cafe. There is a brothel with Ukrainian prostitutes. The crude, wooden huts belch smoke from potbellied stoves. Burly truck drivers swagger down the frontier-style unpaved roads with $12 cartons of duty-free Marlboros tucked under their arms.

Brawls are common, especially when tempers are lubricated by the abundant supply of alcohol. In November, a small bomb destroyed two kiosks, one Serbian and one Muslim. An off-duty Croatian colonel was shot in the arm last month as he drove up the road. But it is not the kind of violence usually associated with Bosnia.

"If people get into a fight, it is usually Serb vs. Serb, or Muslim vs. Muslim," says Stana Savic, a bar waitress. "When they get drunk, people fight plenty, but nobody seems to remember what it is about afterward."

Just about anything can be purchased at the Arizona Market, usually in enormous quantities. In the wholesale grocery, kiosks are stacked high with cases of Dutch beer, Slovenian wine, Hungarian crackers, Croatian coffee, Macedonian shampoo. Imitation-leather jackets ($50) and counterfeit blue jeans ($15) come from Turkey. At the upper end of the market are Korean satellite dishes and German cars. If they are stolen goods, nobody seems to know or care. There is a livestock section, too, with squealing piglets, cows, horses and chickens.

Unlike other parts of Bosnia, where an attempt to pay with the wrong currency can get someone killed, the Arizona Market accepts almost any tender, whether it be the Croatian kuna or Serbian dinar. The license plates -- some with the Cyrillic lettering favored in Serb-controlled areas -- also reflect the fact that people from any part of Bosnia are permitted to shop and socialize here.

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