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Bosnia: Banja Luka's Mufti Tell Of 'Four Years Of Horror'

Banja Luka, Bosnia; 6 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The mufti -- Muslim religious leader -- for the western part of the Bosnian Serb Republic oversees a devastated community.

The RFE/RL correspondent in Banja Luka says that chunks of the interior walls of the 500-year-old Fehediga Mosque line the hallways of the Islamic Community Center in Banja Luka where the mufti has his office.

Until three years ago, the mosque occupied the site adjacent to the community center as what the mufti terms a cultural bastion of the Muslims and all other nationalities resident in Banja Luka.

That mosque and at least 205 others in Mufti Ibrahim Halilovic's domain were destroyed -- blown up or burned down -- by Serb gangs over a six-month period in 1993. The site of this and most other mosques was leveled and hardly anything remains to indicate a mosque ever stood on the site outside the Mufti's window.

"There is a black hole here in this town," he said.

United Nations officials say the only mosque in Serb-controlled western Bosnia to escape destruction is in the village of Baljvina near Mrkonicgrad. Although the Bosnian Serbs had expelled Muslims from the village early in the war, when a Serb gang later came to destroy the mosque, the local Serb inhabitants persuaded them to leave the mosque alone, saying it was part of the "local color."

"The last four years have been years of horror," says the mufti.

In 1991, about 224,000 residents of the area the mufti now oversees declared themselves as Muslims, including about 30,000 in Banja Luka.

The mufti says many more were Muslims but declared themselves as "other" in the census that year. Currently, he says, just 13,000 remain in the Serb-controlled districts of western Bosnia, including about 4,000 in Banja Luka. The rest either fled, were killed or were expelled. Their property was either destroyed or taken by ethnic Serbs.

"Due to terrible people, the honest ones suffered a horrible injustice. The Muslim Bosnian culture was murdered without scruples," he says.

He quotes a top Bosnian official in Banja Luka as having told him at the end of 1993 that "everything has been protected that was of any cultural value."

But, before the fighting erupted in Bosnia in 1992, Mustif Halilovic supervised more than 200 Imams in his region. Currently, beside the mufti, only two active imams remain. One is in Banja Luka and the other in Bosanska Gradiska on the border with Croatia.

Comparing the situation five years ago with the present state of affairs, the mufti says the Muslims of western Bosnia have suffered what he terms "a terrible genocide." International officials say more than 200,000 Bosnians, the largest portion of them Muslims, are believed to have died in the war.

The mufti, noting the recent death of a Muslim resident of Banja Luka by police torture and the refusal of Serb refugees to allow seven Muslim families to live in the Muslims' own homes in the Banja Luka suburb of Vrbanje, is causing what the mufti terms "tremendous difficulties and uncertainty for Banja Luka's remaining Muslims."

Mufti Halilovic says he is disappointed with what he calls the ineffectiveness of the international community, which announced that the seven expelled Muslim families will be resettled in a third country.

"The international community has been humiliated, having been shamefully inadequate in preventing the expulsions, as well as in responding to them after they occurred," he said.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman in Banja Luka, Mans Nyberg, says ethnic harassment, particularly evictions, has grown worse over the last six months throughout Bosnia, and not just in the Bosnian Serb Republic. For example he says, Bosnian Croats have evicted 49 Muslim and Serbian families from their homes in Croat-controlled western Mostar since the beginning of the year.

Nyberg says the small minorities remaining in the various, virtually mono-ethnic regions are barely being tolerated, as what he terms "guests, who will eventually have to leave."

Those who fled and just want to come back for a brief visit are also being threatened or attacked, as recently happened at Mahala near Zvornik. International authorities in Bosnia are particularly concerned with the potential for violence on Bosnian election day, September 14, when busloads of refugee voters cross regional boundary lines to vote in their hometowns.

Nyberg says the goal of the Dayton Accords -- to return Bosnia to being a unitary state -- is in his words: "very much a thing of the past."

Mufti Halilovic says the postponement of local elections was a very good move, since, he says, allowing local balloting to proceed merely would have recognized and confirmed ethnic cleansing. For example, he says, immediate local elections would allow Bosnian Serbs to vote in large numbers in communities where they only recently have settled, and from where they have expelled virtually all non-Serb inhabitants.

The mufti says he hopes the outcome of the regional parliamentary and presidential elections will lay the groundwork for the refugees to return. But, he says, the international community must do more to press Croat authorities to accept Krajina refugees back from the Bosnian Serb Republic. The Krajina returnees then would vacate the homes of Muslim and Croat expellees, enabling them to go home.

However, judging by the rhetoric of the current election campaign among political parties in the Bosnian Serb Republic, the Bosnian Serbs have no interest in allowing non-Serb refugees to return.

The mufti says that the re-integration of Bosnia would be possible only "through the return of refugees to their former homes and hearths."