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Bosnia-Herzegovina: Little Has Changed In Banja Luka

  • Jolyon Naegele

Five years ago, the leaders of the warring sides in Bosnia signed the Dayton peace accords, bringing an end to almost four years of war in Bosnia. Correspondent Jolyon Naegele recently revisited the city of Banja Luka, the capital of the Bosnian Serb entity, in search of signs of change. He found the city -- and the attitudes of its inhabitants -- much the same as in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Banja Luka, Bosnia-Herzegovina; 21 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- What strikes the visitor to Banja Luka, the capital of the Bosnian Serb entity -- or Republika Srpska -- is how little has changed in the five years since Dayton.

In contrast to elsewhere in Bosnia -- particularly in the Muslim-Croat Federation where much of the material damage from the 1992-95 fighting has been repaired -- the most visible change in Banja Luka is the reduced presence of the NATO-led peacekeeping force SFOR and the UN civilian police. A few pizzerias, cafes, gasoline stations and a rebuilt hotel have opened up, but little else.

Banja Luka's sidewalks are still largely populated by suspicious-looking young men with little more to do than stand around with their hands in their pockets, eyeing passers by.

The town's open air market is depressingly unchanged. Large numbers of peasants stand around hoping to sell their produce, smoked meats, eggs, cheeses and homemade plum brandy in staggering quantities that far exceed the demand of the largely impoverished populace. One of the liveliest places in the city is outside the town hall where newlyweds emerge every few minutes to be met by Roma bands rushing up the stairs, greeting them with drums and fanfare.

Across the street, construction work on a new Serbian Orthodox church appears to have made minimal progress since our reporter's last visit four years ago.

Compared to other parts of Bosnia, there was relatively little destruction in Banja Luka during the war -- beyond the razing by Serb forces of all 17 of the city's mosques, including the historic three-century-old Ferhadija mosque. There has been no visible attempt to rebuild the mosques, and the Islamic community declined a RFE/RL request for an interview because its leaders say there is nothing new to report.

Outside of town, large four- and five-story villas are being built, reportedly by local Serbs who got rich smuggling gasoline.

A returning reporter had a sense of "deja vu". -- The remarks by local residents are identical to those of five years ago. The atmosphere of an illicit, post-war state -- rife with black-marketeering -- is still apparent at every step. There are hardly any Muslim or Croat returnees to this ethnically cleansed city -- in contrast to some other politically hard-line areas of Republika Srpska.

Even the graffiti remains defiantly nationalistic. "I am proud of myself because I am Serb," someone has emblazoned on a wall just off the main square. Anti-Croat graffiti are scrawled across a wall facing the modern Roman Catholic cathedral.

Father Karlo Visaticki, the spokesman for the diocese, says it is difficult to change anything as long as the government lacks sufficient moral standing.

"Banja Luka was and remains a multi-ethnic city regardless of whether [minorities] were one percent of the [total population] in 1999, five percent in 1995 or ten percent in 1990."

Visaticki says there continues to be what he terms "a hostile atmosphere toward minorities, be it toward Muslims or Croat Catholics." He predicts this will prevent a mass return anytime soon. Visaticki puts it this way: "When I walk down the street in my cassock, I can see in the eyes of passersby that they want to kill me."

But Igor Gajic, the deputy editor-in-chief of "Reporter," a successful Banja Luka-based news weekly, dismisses Visaticki's remarks. Gajic asks rhetorically: "What does he expect here if he goes around dressed as a Catholic priest?" Nevertheless, Gajic concedes that the issues of Serb guilt and accountability are far from resolved.

"No one is demanding that we love each other, but rather that normal life begins -- doing business, walking about, thinking and speaking, nothing more."

Gajic blames the politicians for putting Bosnia's Serbs in the predicament they now find themselves in - ostracized at home and abroad. "Perhaps some politicians began the war in the name of the Serb nation. But the Serb nation certainly never demanded of anyone that they establish concentration camps."

Miodrag Zivanovic is a Banja Luka philosophy professor who is an outspoken critic of the nationalist Serbian Democratic Party, or SDS, which won the largest share of the vote in legislative and presidential elections last month.

"Once again, at the psychological level, people are afraid because the SDS again is fully pushing its well-known thesis of the threat to one nation by a second and threat to that by a third and so on. In this way, they are trying to gain power by showing that their policy was productive and good. Of course this is not the way it is, but we really need some distance to be able to evaluate objectively what has happened with these people and why people voted the way they did in the last elections." Zivanovic says Bosnian Serb politics are in the process of what he terms a remake, but that little of substance has changed. The only noticeable difference, he says, is that SDS co-founders Radovan Karadzic, who is still at large, and Momcilo Krajisnik, who is awaiting trial at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, have been replaced by Mirko Sarovic, the president of Republika Srpska, and vice president Dragan Cavic.

Sarovic, in his inaugural speech last Saturday (Dec. 16), pledged to crack down on corruption and to revive the entity's sinking economy.

The SDS and its allied parties say they have enough seats to form a majority government in the Bosnian Serb legislature.

But the Clinton administration has warned that if Sarovic appoints SDS members to the new government, the U.S. will withdraw all aid to the Bosnian Serbs. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke, recently broached the idea of banning the SDS but was rebuffed by the rest of the international community.

"For someone to be guilty, and to be [held] accountable, he has to answer to someone else. Here the problem is that after the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in the power centers, the decision-making centers, the same people stayed on who ran the war. Consequently, among these [officials], there are a large number of people who committed war crimes. This tendency has not been interrupted and some of these people even today are to be found in power in Bosnia-Herzegovina and certainly in Republika Srpska."

Zivanovic says as long as new people who are not tainted by war crimes do not enter the government, there can be no serious attempt to bring officials to justice.

He points out that a large number of war criminals have not yet been brought to justice. He says until that happens the people of Bosnia will not be able to build international trust or a normal state. But he rejects any suggestion of collective guilt.

"Certainly, those who committed war crimes have names and do not represent collective guilt, for example of one or another nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, for war crimes. Individual people committed these crimes."

Zivanovic says only individual responsibility for specific acts committed in specific places can ensure that the nation as a whole is not held accountable.

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