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Bosnia: Once A Serb Town, Drvar Has Become The Croat Stronghold

Drvar, Bosnia; 4 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Drvar in western Bosnia used to be a predominantly Serb town. It isn't anymore.

Last year the Serbs were driven off by the Croatian army during its Operation Storm mounted to liberate Serb-occupied Kraijna region. The Bosnian Croat army continues to maintain a highly visible presence with a large garrison.

The Serbs escaped northward to Banja Luka and Prijedor. About 6,000 Bosnian Croat refugees from central and northern Bosnia currently inhabit their homes. A few remaining ethnic Serbs live in remote mountain settlements. A United Nations official says the youngest is 57 years old.

Serb refugees from Drvar, Glamoc and other western Bosnian towns overrun by the Croats last year have formed associations to lobby for their eventual return.

Recently, some Serb refugees from Drvar have declared their intention to travel to their hometown on election day, September 14, to cast ballots there.

But the ruling Bosnian Serb Democratic Party (SDS) has called on the western Bosnian Serbs to vote in communities where they have found refuge. This amounts to an effort to consolidate the Bosnian Serb Republic's claim to towns such as Prijedor, Doboj, Brcko, Bijeljina and Srebrenica which had once had Muslim majorities but now are under Bosnian Serb control.

Drvar is a Croat town now. Or so it seems. Bosnian Croat flags fly from most buildings. Not a single Federation flag, not a single Federal policeman or a soldier is in sight. The Croatian national emblem is omnipresent.

Prices in the local shops are labeled in Croat currency, rather than Bosnian currency, and most goods appear to be of Croatian origin. A Bosnian Croat resident told RFE/RL that the merger with the Federation is a process that may take some time to implement and is of little immediate concern to both the authorities and the residents of Drvar.

The local U.N. police unit (IPTF) is concerned. The U.N. police in Drvar say the local police chief holds the rank of Lt. Colonel in the Bosnian Croat army (HVO). And they say the local chief of criminal investigation, who holds the rank of Major in the HVO appears to have no prior police experience.

The U.N. police post in Drvar quotes the top Croatian police officer in the town as saying: "the Croats fought very hard to win the Drvar area, and no Serb or Muslim outsiders will be allowed back onto Croatian territory."

The Roman Catholic priest in Drvar, Kazimir Visaticki, serves a large portion of the town's 6,000 new Croatian residents. He says 500 of them are school-aged children. A high school has just begun operating.

Father Kazimir celebrates mass in an old converted sports hall next to the boarded up Serb Orthodox Church. He once headed a parish of 1,200 -- mostly Croats -- at Doldina on the Sava River north of Banja Luka.

After Bosnian Serbs had expelled all but 30 members of the Doldina parish last year, Father Kazimir packed his bags and left. He says that many people were forced to flee as often as ten times during the three-and-a-half years of fighting. And they have nothing to return to.