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In Tuzla, Optimism And Skepticism Mix Over Future

Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina Jan. 22 (RFE/RL) - Even though the city of Tuzla was the scene of the worse shelling massacre of the entire Bosnian war, this government-held area in northeastern Bosnia had an easier time than most predominantly Muslim regions.

By comparison with devastated cities like Sarajevo, Mostar or Gorazde; Tuzla came through the war relatively unscathed. So when Tuzla residents say today that life has improved dramatically in the last month since the NATO-led, peace-implementation force (IFOR) began arriving in the region, they are talking mostly of a psychological relief and a new sense of security.

For the past year-and-a-half, Tuzla residents - as well as the 50,000 refugees crowded into the city - have had enough basic food. Luxuries like oranges, tangerines, bananas and chocolate have long been available to anyone with the Deutschemarks to buy them.

It was last May 25 that a Bosnian Serb artillery shell slammed into the crowded cafe area of Tuzla'a Old Town in the evening, wiping out 71 lives in a blinding flash. The average age of those killed was just 22. Another 150 were wounded in the worst single shelling atrocity of the war.

But as soon as NATO began its punishing air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs, the shelling of Tuzla stopped. The city and surrounding area have lived in relative peace since last summer.

Even so, Maid Porobic, owner of the city's popular "Palma" restaurant, says he has seen a tremendous change just in the past month since U.S. IFOR troops began arriving. As Porobic puts it, "things have gotten better. People feel more relaxed. They feel safer now."

Ask any Tuzla resident to describe his or her attitude towards the American soldiers, and the response will be identical: "sve najbolji" - "all the best." Mersija Kurtovic, a 32-year-old sales clerk in a miniscule food store, adds that the situation in Tuzla has improved "drastically" with the arrival of the American soldiers. With them here, she says, she can believe the war is finally over.

Senad Osmanovic, a 29-year-old butcher, says he expects IFOR not only to bring a lasting peace, but to make it possible for the millions of refugees to go back to their homes, as specified in the Dayton Accords.

But refugees from Srebrenica - the United Nations Security Council-designated "safe area" that was overrun by the Bosnian Serb army last July with appalling atrocities and the expulsion of the entire Muslim population - have a hard time believing that anyone can help them return to their homes, now under Bosnian Serb control.

Their bitterness at the failure of the U.N. to live up to its promises to protect them has made the Srebrenica refugees in Tuzla reluctant to put much faith in IFOR. As Srebrenica refugee Kada Beganovic puts it: "Because of my experience, I have trouble believing in them. But I think that if they came to Tuzla, they want to help."

Izeta Alihodzic, another refugee from Srebrenica now living in a squalid school on the outskirts of Tuzla, says of the Americans: "I think they are really different from the U.N. troops."

It is a view echoed by restauranteur Porobic, who says he was in the town of Gracanica Saturday, some 53 kms west of Tuzla in the American-policed sector, and saw for himself that Muslims and Bosnian Serbs were freely crossing the former front line. The Bosnian Serbs were coming back to inspect homes they had fled, and the Muslims were welcoming them. This was a major accomplishment of the Dayton Peace Accords, Porobic said, and gives hope that a peaceful life lies ahead for the three former warring sides.

Osmanovic is also impressed with IFOR. He says the U.N. peace-keeping force (UNPROFOR) failed to accomplish anything in more than three years in the country. But in just one month, he says, IFOR has opened up the most important roads in the region to civilian traffic again.

Some outside Bosnia, who favored sending the NATO-led force, have questioned whether its one-year mission is long enough to truly accomplish peace. But Osmanovic says he has no doubts. IFOR is already well on the way to accomplishing its mission of establishing peace, he says. "They don't need one year because they are very strong."