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1996 In Review: Bosnia's First Year Of Peace

Prague, 30 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - For the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1996 has been the first year of peace after nearly four years of war.

The deployment of the NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR) stabilized the military situation. The warring parties were confined to base, their heavy weapons placed in depots, confiscated or destroyed. The presence of nearly 60,000 IFOR soldiers manning check points along the inter-entity boundary line, removing local military checkpoints and patrolling the country in strength has stopped open hostilities between the warring sides.

The UN international police task force of unarmed civilian police officers from around the world was deployed early this year in communities all across Bosnia-Herzegovina to assist and train the local police.

Freedom of movement and establishment of territorial boundaries

A key Dayton accords' guarantee, the right to freedom of movement across the inter-entity boundary, proved impossible to fulfill. The boundary became a meeting place for divided families who gather in the shadow of IFOR tanks to break bread.

Attempts by displaced former residents to return to their former homes beyond the boundary met with hostility, including violence, by local authorities. These include ethnically different former neighbors and new settlers.

In late autumn, Serbs blew up scores of Muslim homes in abandoned Muslim villages near Prijedor as Muslims torched Serb homes just across the inter-entity boundary in Sanski Most in attempts to dissuade refugees from returning.

Dayton's realignment of the front line into the inter-entity boundary line entailed an extensive exchange of territory, particularly in the Croat-occupied area around Mrkonjic Grad and Sipovo in exchange for the Serb-occupied suburbs of Sarajevo and a strip of Serb-occupied land linking the capital with the east Bosnian Muslim enclave of Gorazde.

The trade of territory passed off relatively peacefully with the notable exception of instances of Serb officials coercing Serb residents of the Sarajevo suburbs to flee rather than submit to a Muslim administration.

A related Dayton promise, to resolve through arbitration the fate of the Serb-occupied town of Brcko, which straddles the narrow strip of territory linking the two main parts of the Bosnian Serb entity, has yet to be resolved. Bosnian Serb authorities in an apparent bid to ensure that Brcko remains in their hands, resettled tens of thousands of Sarajevo Serbs in depopulated Brcko and neighboring Bijeljina, towns which until 1992 had Muslim majorities.

Ethnic expulsions by local authorities and nationalist bands declined considerably in Serb-administered Banja Luka, largely as a result of some remaining Muslims taking their cases to court. They continued unabated in the Croatian part of Mostar, where more than 70 Muslim and Serb families were expelled from their homes this year to make way for members of the Bosnian Croat Army (HVO) and their families.

Political violence appeared to be most heavily concentrated in the northwest of the country in the overwhelmingly Muslim towns of Cazin and Velika Kladusa, where clashes pitted Muslims against Muslims. Presidential opposition candidate Haris Silajdzic was attacked at a rally in Cazin by club-wielding supporters of President Alija Izetbegovic's "Party for Democratic Action "SDA". Candidates and activists from other opposition parties in the area, particularly the party of Muslim rebel leader Fikret Abdic, were shot at. But there were no fatalities.

Elections intended to lead to stabilization

The September 14 elections (cantonal, parliamentary and presidential both at the entity and republic level) were organized and supervised by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The elections had been intended to be a milestone in the stabilization of Bosnia, enabling IFOR's withdrawal at the end of its one year mandate. Voter intimidation and manipulation, particularly by the Bosnian Serb authorities who tied humanitarian aid distribution to voting in assigned districts, led OSCE to postpone local elections until November and then postpone them again until next year.

Far fewer displaced voters than had been expected took advantage of the opportunity to cross the inter-entity boundary and vote in their (former) hometowns. Those who did cross the boundary by chartered bus to vote were in many cases forced by local authorities -- with OSCE, IFOR and IPTF acquiescence -- to cast ballots at polling stations near the boundary and far from their intended destinations.

As expected, the incumbent nationalist parties: the Serb SDS, the Muslim SDA, and the Croatian HDZ won landslide victories in the elections in their respective regions. Not surprisingly, post-election attempts to set up all-Bosnian government structures have been hampered by mistrust and a general unwillingness to cooperate.

The Bosnian Serb leadership has been particularly concerned with its own fate. They broke with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic for allegedly betraying Serbian national principles and forcing the Bosnian Serb leadership to accept the Dayton Accords.

Milosevic's attempt to back opposition parties in the elections failed as did his apparent attempt to back indicted war criminal and Bosnian Serb military commander general Ratko Mladic in his differences with the Bosnian Serb leadership, including Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, also an indicted war criminal. After U.S. presidential envoy Richard Holbrooke pressured Milosevic to secure Karadzic's pledge to leave politics, Karadzic's successor, Biljana Plavsic, eventually forced Mladic into retirement.

But despite warrants for the arrest of Mladic, Karadzic and several dozen other indicted war criminals in both entities, IFOR and IPTF declined to take action to detain them.

While the Bosnian Serb entity is increasingly looking like an independent state, Croatia-administered districts of Bosnia appear to have been all but annexed by Croatia.

The Croatian puppet-state of Herceg-Bosna, encompassing the Croat-administered cantons, was dissolved September 1 in what was little more than a formal act. The ethnic Croat districts continue to use the Croatian currency, the Kuna, exclusively, and depend on Croatia's PTT. Most residents have taken advantage of Croatia's offer of Croatian passports to all ethnic Croats and their family members. The presence in these districts of a huge, unsettled refugee population exiled from other parts of Bosnia and a continued heavy Croatian (HVO) military presence, indicate stability is still a long way off.

The Muslim/Croat federation's future remains very much in doubt. Muslim cantons are at the mercy of Zagreb and in all likelihood are incapable in the long-term of surviving on their own.

Reconstruction and a return to normalcy

Post-war redevelopment has been far from even, with some areas showing considerably more enterprise than others. The UN embargo and the presence of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Croatia and parts of Bosnia occupied by either the Muslims or the Croats left the Bosnian-Serb entity in particularly dire straits.

The situation appears to be somewhat better across the inter-entity boundary line in the federation, with greater investment funds brought in by foreign governments, international organizations and relatives abroad.

Mine clearance, coordinated by IFOR but conducted by the formerly warring parties, got underway across Bosnia as soon as the winter snows melted. The program is expected to take at least ten years to complete.

Roads, which in late winter had been virtually impassable due to huge craters from artillery compounded by a total absence of maintenance for four years, were resurfaced and open for heavy traffic by the end of the summer. For the first time since 1990, Bosnians were able to spend their summer holidays on the Adriatic coast. Sarajevo Airport was reopened to commercial traffic. Motorists are once again able to tank up at gas stations instead of having to depend on sidewalk peddlers hawking smuggled gasoline in wine bottles.

Although Bosnia's reconstruction effort is only just beginning, the return of a sense of normalcy to everyday life after so many years of war and deprivation is tangible and welcome by almost all residents.

When the war ended one year ago, many Bosnians had just one thought in mind -- to leave as soon as possible. Few believed peace would hold beyond the end of 1996. But by September few had left. Bosnians became increasingly confident that peace of a sort will hold, as long as it is guaranteed by NATO forces. Nevertheless, the long-term goal of Dayton, to reintegrate Bosnia into a unitary state, remains as elusive as ever.