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Multi-Culturalism Under Threat In Tuzla

  • Kitty McKinsey

Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina Feb. 1 (RFE/RL) - Even as violent ethnic hatreds ripped Bosnia-Herzegovina apart, the northeastern city of Tuzla shone as a beacon of multi-culturalism and ethnic tolerance. Throughout the war, the city's minority ethnic Serbs and Croats lived peacefully with the majority Muslims and fought together to protect Tuzla.

Ironically, now that the war has ended, the spirit of tolerance that carried Tuzla through more than three years of violence, is under threat. Human rights activists say that at the very moment when Tuzla should be serving as the example for post-war reconciliation, outside forces are attacking it.

Nada Mladina, vice-president of the Serbian Citizens' Council in Tuzla, says that the city's reputation as a model of tolerance is well-deserved.

Nearly half the city's residents identified themselves as Muslims in the pre-war 1991 census. Ethnic Croats and Serbs were equally divided with just over 15 percent each. Nearly 17 percent of the population identified themselves as Yugoslavs. This was in part a reflection of the fact, Tuzla residents say, that the city had the highest proportion of mixed marriages in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In the republic's first free elections in 1990, Tuzla was the only city in the country not to vote along ethnic lines. Its leftist vote reflected instead the industrial city's strong socialist labor heritage.

When war came, roughly half of Tuzla's 20,000 Serbs departed for the separatist side, whether out of fear of retribution or because of nationalist conviction. However, Tuzla Mayor Selim Beslagic points out that many Muslims and Croats also left. And he stresses that about 10,000 Serbs stayed and threw their lot in with the rest of the population as the city came under shelling from rebel Serbs.

But the ethnic composition of the city was severely unbalanced when tens of thousands of expellees from northern and eastern Bosnia swamped the city. The refugees were mainly conservative Muslim peasants, very bitter about having been expelled from their homes. Their appetite for revenge and their antipathy towards Serbs unnerved many longtime Tuzla residents. More than 250,000 refugees swarmed through Tuzla, a city with a pre-war population of about 130,000. Many have been resettled elsewhere, but more than 63,000 remain, constituting a potent political force.

Vesna Sehic, a member of the presidency of the Tuzla chapter of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Committee for Human Rights, said her organization has collected 52 complaints about Muslim refugees plundering the homes of ethnic Serbs, or turning them out of their houses in search of new lodgings. She says: "These complaints show that human rights of minorities are threatened here. I am very worried about the future."

But she gives credit to Mayor Beslagic for his prompt use of the police force to protect the Serbs and put a halt to threats against them. She also praises local Tuzla Muslims. In the nearby villages of Simin Han and Crno Blato, where refugees threatened local Serbs, she says other residents joined hands across a road and prevented the refugees from going further. Sehic quotes the local residents as telling the refugees: "First you have to kill us before you go and plunder their (Serbs') homes."

Mladina, at the Serbian Citizens' Council, says she's never experienced any intolerance from the refugees. In her words, "they don't bring with them hate. Some other people give it to them." She fears that the refugees who have suffered at the hands of Serbs are being manipulated, particularly by Islamists in the Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA).

But she also fears pressures from other radical outsiders, Croats and Serbs as well as Muslims, who reject the concept that all three nations can still live together. She says there are many who find Tuzla offensive because it contradicts the virulent nationalism for which the war was fought, nationalism which maintains that the three nations cannot live in harmony.

Mladina, a Serb who says she has always felt comfortable in Tuzla, adds that she detects a new subtle message on Bosnian government television since the Dayton peace agreement was signed, giving Serbs 49 percent of the country. She says the disturbing message to Serbs living in multi-ethnic places is: "Now you have 49 percent of this country and you can go there."

Instead, Mladina says, as traumatized people try to start living together again, Tuzla should serve as a model. Mladina adds: "Some people in Bosnia think Tuzla is an illusion. Tuzla is not an illusion. Tuzla is simply Bosnia, because the Bosnian spirit is multi-ethnic and multi-cultural."

Mayor Beslagic agrees. He says: "The only chance for Tuzla to keep living together is for Bosnia-Herzegovina to survive. If there is no multi-ethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina, Tuzla itself will not be able to bear the burden of multi-ethnicity."