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Bosnia-Herzegovina: Brcko Enjoys Special Status

  • Jolyon Naegele

Of all the disputed areas in Bosnia, the district of Brcko has probably given international administrators the most headaches. Sitting along the only overland route linking the Serbian heartland of central Bosnia with Serb-held districts in eastern Bosnia and rump Yugoslavia, Brcko was heavily fought over during the war and bitterly disputed for years after. The 1995 Dayton peace accords left Brcko's final status to be resolved through arbitration, a process that took more than four years to complete. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele traveled to Brcko this week. He says the district has become a model of interethnic cooperation.

Brcko, Bosnia-Herzegovina; 23 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Brcko has always been a trading center, a crossroads where the Pannonian plains of East Central Europe meet the foothills of the Balkans. The villages of this area, known as "Posavina" after the Sava River, consist almost entirely of one or another of three ethnic groups: Croats, Serbs, and Bosnian Muslims.

The fighting between 1992 and 1995 left Brcko severely damaged and depopulated of its non-Serb inhabitants. But as soon as the guns fell silent and the Dayton accords redrew the former front line between Serb, Muslim, and Croat forces, tens of thousands of newly displaced Bosnian Serbs from Sarajevo, Drvar, and elsewhere descended on Brcko in search of shelter. Many are still there to this day.

When the fighting stopped, the Brcko municipality was split in half: the town and the main east-west road linking Belgrade with Banja Luka were in the Bosnian Serb entity, while most of the outlying villages were in the Muslim-Croat Federation.

An international supervisor for the region was appointed in 1997 and after more than four years of arbitration, the former municipality of Brcko and its surrounding villages were reunited last year as a special "district of Brcko" -- the only district in the country.

The district is governed by a mayor (gradonacelnik), a government (vlada), an assembly, and a supervisor, who is subordinate to the international community's high representative in Sarajevo. All civic organs are multiethnic, including the police.

The current supervisor, U.S. Ambassador Gary Matthews, says Brcko district is functioning well -- far better, he says, than the ethnically divided city of Mostar, where he previously spent two years and which has made little progress since Dayton in reconciling its Muslim and Croat halves.

"The thing that really hits one so dramatically here is the extent to which there is a functioning multiethnic government and assembly and police force, all formed. The steps toward the formation were [taken] before even March, particularly in the case of the police, which were actually formed before then. But the government and the assembly were constituted to appointment just after the district was proclaimed on March 8, and to a remarkable degree there is cooperation among the Serb, Bosniak, (Muslim) and Croat communities."

Ambassador Matthews notes the mayor is a Serb, the deputy mayor a Croat, and the president of the assembly a Muslim. He says they have known each other for years and are able to discuss issues among themselves and implement decisions.

The mayor's chief of cabinet is Petar Vasic, a native Serb. He says the district functions surprisingly well thanks in large part to its special status.

Vasic says Brcko district has its own laws and regulations, but also respects the laws of the two entities and the laws of the all-Bosnian authorities. The district has agreements with both entities regulating the entities' roles on issues such as public health care and social security.

"Well, it is said that Brcko is a model of how to organize life [of all ethnic groups] in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in other areas that were caught up in the fire of war."

Brcko's police force is what supervisor Matthews terms "the only tri-ethnic police force in Bosnia-Herzegovina." The chief of police is a retired Serbian police officer with two deputies -- one a Croat, the other a Muslim -- and 320 officers who are assigned to joint operations.

The local authorities, together with the international community and foreign NGOs, are assisting displaced persons.

Matthews says Brcko has had more returns than all the municipalities in Republika Srpska combined, with 10,000 returns in the five years since Dayton, including some 3,000 this year.

"A very interesting thing has occurred since the proclamation on setting up the district in March. There were returns obviously before that, but then you had the interentity boundary line, the IEBL, and people were very sensitive as to whether they were in the 'RS' [Srpska] or the Federation. Now that the district is the Brcko district, and that distinction has disappeared, we are able to do a lot more in returns [within the district]."

Thus Serbs from outlying villages on Federation territory who have been occupying Croat and Muslim homes in Brcko town since Dayton are finally starting to return to their villages. By doing so, they are freeing up properties they occupied in town, enabling the displaced original residents to return to their homes.

But Matthews says 10,000 displaced Serbs from other parts of Bosnia remain in the center of Brcko town. They are still largely unable to go home, not so much out of fear but rather because their homes were either destroyed or are still occupied by displaced persons.

Commercial activity has helped Brcko to be among the first areas in post-Dayton Bosnia to overcome the lingering divisions between the two post-Dayton entities (the Federation and Srpska). Within months after Dayton, traders began setting up roadside stalls in a field near the intersection of Bosnia's main east-west and north-south roads, along a stretch of road code-named Arizona by NATO troops.

Ever more traders and customers descended on what has turned into an immense, unregulated bazaar of stalls and multistory shops, selling all types of goods from clothing to farm implements, to groceries, and appliances. Shops, restaurants, and even night clubs stand side by side, all operated and frequented by Muslims, Croats, and Serbs. Even some entrepreneurial Chinese have set up their own stalls.

The "Arizona" market has grown into a warren of muddy, unpaved alleys and roads stretching over an area nearly half a square kilometer in size with no public toilets, sewage water, or electric system. Large numbers of stray dogs roam the market further adding to the filth.

"But there is a lot of criminal activity in there too, which has grown -- organized crime -- and because this whole region is a corridor for illegal emigration [mainly from the Middle East and Asia]. There is trafficking in regular human beings and young women along with that for purposes of prostitution and the like."

In a bid to crack down on organized crime and raise tax revenue, the Brcko supervisor last week issued an edict. He limited the hours of the operation to six in the morning to six in the evening, and demanded that all entrepreneurs register within 30 days to enable a tax collection system to be implemented.

Matthews says plans are being drawn up to relocate the market to a safer, more sanitary location, which would be purpose-built with water, sanitation facilities, and electricity.

In spite of the progress, ethnic tensions continue to linger below the surface. This is in part due to political rivalries but also for sociological reasons.

Tihomir, a Bosnian Croat resident of a village in the district, speaking on condition of anonymity, says ethnic animosity is rooted in the tradition of separate, ethnically pure villages around Brcko. He says minimal contact with members of other ethnic groups has bred mutual suspicion and hostility.

One notable failure so far is seen in the schools. Brcko students recently demonstrated to demand the right to education in the language variant of their own ethnic group. Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian are mutually intelligible variations of a single language. But Bosnian, Serbian, and Croatian all exist in standardized national forms, each claiming to be a language in its own right.

Vasic says part of the problem is a lack of space to teach all three ethnic groups separately but simultaneously. A partial solution was found by having Bosnian Muslim students attend classes in the morning and their Serbian counterparts in the afternoon. But last month (Oct 17) trouble started -- ethnically hostile graffiti, and defacing of monuments and pictures -- that finally touched off a protest march by Muslim pupils through the town. Serbian pupils responded by demonstrating for the next three days, and according to Vasic smashed several shop windows. The district council responded by halting all secondary school classes. More than a month later, the classes have yet to resume.

Matthews says the unrest was instigated and exploited by extremists, who he says took advantage of the period before general elections November 11.

Matthews says he is confident the dispute will be resolved but adds that to get the students back to school, not just local officials but political parties must show leadership and responsibility.

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