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Bosnia: Croats in Republika Srpska Face Uncertainty

Banja Luka, 17 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The decimated Croatian Roman Catholic community in the Bosnian Serb Republic has hoped that the Saturday's general elections would ease their plight and enable the return of refugees.

The spokesman of the Banja Luka diocese, Father Karlo Visaticki, says the biggest problem facing the remaining Croats in Banja Luka and elsewhere in the Bosnian Krajina is the uncertainty about the future.

"For the time being, the biggest problem is we can not plan for the day after tomorrow. It is just an excercise of surviving. The worst thing of all about these elections is that although the Bosnian Serb electorate is split into several blocs and parties, not a single party in Republika Srpska opposes ethnic cleansing." The Roman Catholic cleric says much depends on the outcome of the general elections. He adds that the ethnic intolerance of political parties in Sarajevo and Mostar differs little from Banja Luka. In his words, "Bosnia-Herzegovina is ill from the ghost of nationalism."

"Maybe we in the deepness of our hearts expect the beautiful peace to come and so on and that democracy will start but somehow I would say it is too much to expect because the war lasted more than five years here in Banja Luka and it takes a certain time to establish a normal life."

An official with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Banja Luka, Mans Nyberg, agrees. He says that although refugees hope the election results may set the stage for their eventual return, post election moves by the incumbent nationalist victors will seek to consolidate the status quo. Nyberg says he expects the Bosnian Serb officials will feel sufficiently confident by the election returns to try to turn the inter-entity boundary line into a state border. In his words, "the biggest problem in the Banja Luka area concerns the security of minorities."

Nyberg says tens of thousands of displaced Krajina Serbs from Croatia who found refuge in the region last year are taking the most militant stand in opposition to the return of displaced local Muslims and Croats unless their own return to historic homelands in Croatia is secured.

Father Carlo says Croats remaining in Republika Srpska are hopeful. "The war stopped. It was a war where a lot of force was used. It was stopped by force. It is now a beginning of the peace, we do hope a beginning of democracy also, but democracy first of all has to be born and then to be educated and to grow up."

Father Carlo notes that as a result of the fighting, ethnic cleansing and the division of Bosnia into two entities, the Banja Luka diocese now encompasses a smaller area and a much smaller number of believers. "Some parishes where not a single person was left, for instance the parish of Liskovica, near Mrkonjic Grad, as far as I know, nobody is there from the Catholics, and the parish of Sokoline which belongs to Kotor Varos, nobody is left. In Mrkonjic Grad... some three or four Catholics are left."

Father Karlo says 92 percent of the region's 80,000 Catholics -- overwhelmingly Croat, but including small Polish, Italian and Czech communities -- have left the area in the last five years. He says most congregations are reduced to between seven and ten percent of their pre-war size. He characterizes the Croatian community in Republika Srpska as consisting mainly of elderly women.

But despite these statistics, young people are a highly visible element at services at "this is the only place where they can freely meet each other -- it is a safe haven." The cleric says young people can speak freely on the cathedral grounds.

Father Carlo says the only Roman Catholic parish in Serb-administered western Bosnia in which larger families have remained is at Gornja Ravska, southwest of Prijedor. This particular parish, Gornja Ravska used to have some 105 or 106 young men who served in the Serbian Army. So it was the reason for them, for the families to stay. But I don't know if they would like to stay further, to remain here or if they would like to go also to Croatia. That is the only parish I know in which a bigger number of the faithful still stays in their homes.

The overwhelming majority of Croats from what is now Republika Srpska have found refuge either in Croatia itself or in Croat-administered areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina, particularly in Drvar and Glamoc and the western half of Mostar. Father Karlo describes the new Croat Catholic communities in Drvar and Glamoc as, in his words, "artificial parishes" in which refugees live in towns that until last year were overwhelming Serbian Orthodox.

"Just looking at these elections and looking at what happens after the elections -- Is there a life for us, I mean for the refugees or is there no life? Obviously everybody as far as I know would like to go home."

For the last four years Father Karlo has been supervising humanitarian aid in Serb-administered western Bosnia for the Catholic aid society, Caritas. The society currently looks after 17 thousand beneficiaries, of whom 60% are Catholics, 35% Serbian Orthodox and five percent Muslims. Their monthly ration of humanitarian aid from Caritas affiliates in Western Europe and Croatia is about ten kilos of flour, cooking oil, sugar, salt, margerine and canned food per person.