Bosnians cross old battle lines to cast ballots Many are returning to towns for first time since wartime expulsions


SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Escorted by NATO troops in armored vehicles, buses lurched and rolled out of Sarajevo early yesterday, taking Bosnian Muslims to villages in which they lived before the war, where they cast ballots and were then hustled hastily away.

In yesterday's municipal elections, seen as a vital part of the Bosnian peace accord, people across Bosnia voted in their prewar towns, many returning for the first time to places they were expelled from in the conflict among Muslims, Serbs and Croats.

In towns like Srebrenica, where several thousand Muslim men were massacred in the summer of 1995 by Bosnian Serb troops, Muslim officials will probably be elected to office, although no Muslims currently live in the area.

And in Drvar, Glamoc and Bosanko Grahovo, near Bosnia's western border with Croatia, representatives of the prewar Serbian majority were also set to be elected to power, although most of the Serbs have been expelled.

Sanctions will be imposed against communities that do not accept the election results, which are not expected before Saturday, international officials say.

But the elections, which were postponed twice, appeared unlikely to alter Bosnia's partition into three antagonistic enclaves or to release the grip on power by nationalist hard-liners.

Critics of the vote said sanctions would probably not be enough to force nationalist leaders to abide by the results.

The peace agreement signed in Dayton, Ohio, those critics said, rather than fostering a process to move Bosnia toward democratic rule and a multiethnic society, has resulted in a series of NATO-managed events that have failed to alter the political landscape.

"What we will most likely end up with are a number of governments-in-exile," said a Western diplomat. "These elected officials will not even be able to visit the towns they are supposed to administer. Power will remain in the hands of those who have always had little regard for the peace agreement or the democratic process."

The 34,000-member NATO-led peacekeeping force sent out heavily armed patrols yesterday, stationed troops in armored personnel carriers at polling places and crossroads and had helicopters buzzing over much of the country.

Buses crossing the partition lines between the Bosnian Serb republic and the Muslim-Croatian federation were stopped by NATO troops and passengers were taken off the vehicles and searched.

Ibro Obhodzas, 56, stood in line to vote outside Pale, the Bosnian Serb stronghold, that had been set up for former Muslim residents. It was the first time since 1992, when he was evicted from his house, that he had been back.

Obhodzas, a former factory worker who spent the war with his wife and two daughters in Germany, returned to Bosnia a few months ago; his family remains in Germany and sends him the money to survive in Sarajevo.

"I feel more like a refugee in my own country than I do in Germany," he said. "The people who have power do not care how we vote. We cannot build the old Bosnia, the Bosnia where people tried to live together, until these nationalist leaders are gone. And that may take years. I just wanted to stand for a few minutes on the soil where I was born."

The deep divide among the three ethnic communities was in evidence as they wrangled over the voting.

The Bosnian Croats refused, for example, to permit polls to open in the center of Zepce and Tesanj, which once had Muslim majorities. In Sarajevo, where the majority Muslim population hopes to see a common administration for Bosnia, a powerful bomb Friday night blew the front off the Croatian party headquarters.

In Mostar, Muslims at first boycotted the vote after international officials agreed with the Croats not to hold voting in the important central district of the divided city. A Muslim official was reported to have said later they had worked out an arrangement with the Croats and would take part.

The Bosnian Serbs and the Bosnian Croats threatened until late Friday night to boycott the elections.

As in the national elections a year ago, voting yesterday and today was expected to go along ethnic lines. The Muslim-led Party for Democratic Action, the Croatian Democratic Union and the Serbian Democratic Party have dominated political life in Bosnia since the war started five years ago.

Serbs interviewed yesterday reiterated their vows that Muslims would never return home, even if they were elected to run town halls in the Serbian enclave.

Many voiced bitterness at the entrance by the NATO-led peacekeeping force into the power struggle between Biljana Plavsic, president of the Bosnian Serb republic, and Radovan Karadzic, her predecessor, who has been charged with war crimes. Plavsic, backed by NATO troops, has taken control of the city of Banja Luka and accused Karadzic and his supporters in Pale of corruption.

"The international community calls this a democratic election," said Vaskrsije Kusmuk, 65, as he stood with his wife, Milena, 60, in front of a Pale polling station. "If this was really a democratic election, we would not have these foreign planes flying over our heads and these foreign tanks rolling through our streets."

"We had more democracy under Tito," he said, referring to the Communist former leader of Yugoslavia. "This is a farce."

About 2.5 million citizens, including 400,000 outside Bosnia, registered to vote for 136 municipal councils across the country. The United Nations said about 35,000 were expected to cross the line between the Serbian and Muslim-Croatian halves of Bosnia to cast their ballots.

The elections have cost the international community $14 million and are part of the terms imposed by the Dayton peace agreement.

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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