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Bosnia: Bosnian Serb Town Rebuilds With British Help

Mrkonjic Grad, Bosnia; 11 September 1996 (RFE/RL) - The largely Serbian town of Mrkonjic Grad in central Bosnia emerged from more than three years of war and eight months of Bosnian Croat military occupation depopulated and heavily damaged.

But since the Croat withdrawal seven months ago, most of the town's about 8,000 prewar residents have returned and started reconstruction.

Only a few former Muslim residents were allowed to resettle here after the war ended. And these were people who had fled to Banja Luka with the rest of Mrkonjic Grad's Serb residents rather than to Muslim-held areas. In addition, some displaced Serbs from Croat-administered areas settled in the town.

Mrkonjic Grad has profited from an unusual geopolitical location. Surrounded by densely forested mountains, the ethnic Serb town is in an area flanked by Muslim-administered territory to the west and Bosnian Croat territory to the south and east.

The town was the center of a thriving lumber industry before fighting erupted four years ago. The industry is one of the few to reestablish contacts across the inter-entity boundary and supply its products to the Muslim/Croat federation. The location on the main east-west highway linking Sarajevo and Jajce to the east with Bihac and Croatia to the west also helped. Traffic there flows largely unimpeded.

A British IFOR battalion has maintained a visible presence. It provided military protection and also served as the conduit for assistance from Britain's Overseas Development Administration (O.D.A.), the aid wing of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Since May, the British battalion has been involved in many reconstruction projects. Some of them focused on injecting funds into the community, said British IFOR Captain David Goddard. The battalion has hired local firms, supervised rebuilding and paid directly for work done.

The projects run the gamut from constructing new bridges to repairs of school buildings, clinics and factories. All of them have helped generate employment.

Mrkonjic Grad was in ruins when Republika Srpska regained control earlier this year. Goddard says that one-third of the buildings were without roofs. The main employer in town, the Mladost clothing factory, was largely destroyed. The town's streets were blocked with rubble.

By April, when several thousand inhabitants had returned, there were only a few cars in town and about eight functioning shops, bars and kiosks.

Now, the market is well stocked by Republika Srpska standards, with a wide variety of home grown and imported fruits and vegetables. One can also buy imported blue jeans. The streets are filled with parked cars.

The destruction is beginning to disappear. But the gaping holes in the walls and roofs of many apartment houses are reminders of the heavy fighting that occurred here as recently as one year ago.

Major scars remain. Serbs blew up Mrkonjic Grad's two mosques three years ago and leveled the sites. The Roman Catholic church is roofless and badly battered; a frieze of the Virgin Mary and Jesus over the entrance is pockmarked with bullet holes.

The smashed facade of a 19th century town house in the center of town leans precariously over the street, appearing as if the slightest tremor would send it crashing down.

"We were forbidden from driving down this street for months, but since the facade has not budged since we arrived, we have reopened the street to IFOR vehicles," noted a British IFOR soldier, with a mixture of naivet� and black humor:

The town boasts three radio stations, one state owned, another an unlicensed pirate operation and the third run by the British Forces Network (B.F.N.). IFOR liaison officer Mark Smith says ODA and IFOR provided substantial assistance to the town's two elementary schools, both heavily damaged in the fighting.

"When we arrived in April, the school was quite badly damaged, unusable. There were many broken windows, the roof leaked. It had been quite badly vandalized inside. For instance all the electrical, sanitary and water fittings had been vandalized," said Smith.

"We managed to get approval for 43,000 German marks from the British O.D.A. and with that money we have now been able to repair the school. It is now weatherproof. The sanitary system works. The electricity works."

The liaison officer notes that IFOR has also chalked up success in renovating the Mladost clothing factory in the center of Mrkonjic Grad.

"Where we are standing there was a pile of rubbish probably 15 or so feet tall. The facade of the building was completely demolished and there was no roof and as you can see it was quite a large building. The employees of the firm have worked for very little pay long hours and they have reroofed the entire building," said Smith.

"With the help of the ODA and British taxpayers' money, we were able to finance the purchase of 17 different sewing machines in order that they can recommence production. Indeed, they've fulfilled two orders so far of clothes."

Mladost's first order was for uniforms for the V.R.S., the army of Republika Srpska. IFOR said the deal was legal.

Mladost director Milorad Rudic says that later this month, 600 people will be at work daily producing raincoats, overcoats and jackets.

Mladost employed more than 1,000 workers at the time the fighting erupted four years ago. Rudic notes that some employees were killed in the war while others sought refuge elsewhere. He says the factory currently employs several Muslims, who, he insists, are treated the same as ethnic Serbian employees.

Rudic says that before the war Mladost exported to markets throughout Europe. Now he plans to turn to a new market.

"We have to focus on the markets of the Serbian lands -- Republika Srpska and Yugoslavia," said Mladost.