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Bosnia: Sanski Most -- A House Divided Against Itself

Sanski Most, Bosnia; 5 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- For three-and-a-half years, Sanski Most was under Bosnian Serb occupation -- until its liberation by Bosnian Croat and government forces last October.

The town's ethnic Serb residents fled north to Prijedor and Banja Luka. Soon after, former Muslim and Croat residents began returning. The Muslims returned in large numbers, but just a few hundred of the 4,000 pre-war Croats came back.

Sanski Most Mayor Mehmet Alagic, a leading member of the ruling Muslim party, the Party for Democratic Action (SDA), is a retired Bosnian army general. He has a reputation for being a powerful figure in town, both politically and in the burgeoning, but unregulated, business community.

Last week, Alagic held what a U.N. official describes as a very cordial and constructive meeting with his Bosnian Serb counterpart from Prijedor. The meeting with Milomir Stakic was the first such cross-boundary working group to discuss the fate of refugees and displaced persons. The two mayors agreed to meet on a regular basis, to meet persons displaced from their own areas and to open a U.N. busline between the two towns.

Mayor Alagic also has sought to overcome differences with the Sanski Most Croats. Two years ago, General Alagic, as Bosnian army commander in central Bosnia, oversaw the expulsion of the Croatian majority from the town of Bares north of Sarajevo and earned the enmity of Bosnian Croats.

Last weekend, the main Croatian party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), held a rally in a school building in Sanski Most, behind the site where until last year the Roman Catholic church had stood. The fleeing Bosnian Serbs had blown it up, along with two other churches and all mosques in the area.

Of the approximately 700 Croats who HDZ says now live in Sanski Most, fewer than 100 showed up for the rally.

In a move rare by the standards of the current election campaign in most parts of Bosnia, but perhaps understandable in the still ethnically mixed Una-Sana region (canton), Mayor Alagic not only attended the HDZ rally, but delivered the keynote speech.

The message was clear: to ensure a united Bosnia, re-elect the national parties to represent your interest. That means vote for HDZ if you're a Croat, SDA if you're Muslim. In an interview, Mayor Alagic said the September 14 local elections should result in "a victory for Bosnia and its nations."

Mayor Alagic's remarks reflect a philosophy that is common among all three ruling national parties, SDA and HDZ in the Muslim-Croat Federation, and the SDS in the Bosian Serb Republic. And that is: retain the status quo, and give priority to the concept of "narod," or nation. Critics say this policy will only further consolidate the division of Bosnia, and hamper the development of a civil society.

The main HDZ speaker at the rally was Jadranka Cigelj, who occupies top posts in the party in Croatia and Bosnia. She referred to Mayor Alagic as a "general of peace." In an apparent attempt to defuse lingering animosity over his role in the expulsion of Croats from Bares, Cigelj expressed frustration with the slow pace of repatriating displaced Croats and reconstructing their homes.

"A people which has no hearth has no homeland," she said. She called on the Sanski Most Croats to vote for the "Croatian nation" by voting for HDZ.

According to the last census in 1991, Croats made up 7 percent, Muslims 47 percent and Serbs 42 percent of Sanski Most's 60,000 inhabitants. Sanski Most's Roman Catholic priest, Ivo Orlovac, says that, of the Croats who remained in Sanski Most throughout the war, the Bosnian Serbs killed 50 during the occupation, and persecuted the remainder. One hundred seventy Croats who survived greeted the liberators 11 months ago.

Father Orlovac described Muslim-Croat relations in Sanski Most as "relatively correct." He says the neighborhoods, where most of the Croats lived before the war, were largely destroyed during the Serb occupation, or toward the end of the war. That was, he said, when the frontline passed right through this area.