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Bosnia: Rebuilding Progress Slow

Prague, 20 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - When the Dayton peace accord put an end to the fighting in Bosnia armies of diplomats, bureaucrats and aid workers moved in with the lofty goal of trying to rebuild the multiethnic society.

Even senior NATO commanders heading the multinational peace force now admit that the efforts so far have been largely in vain.

Refugees are still being prevented from returning home. Rather than "peace," international officials prefer to describe the situation as "an absence of war." The slide back into all-out fighting remains a distinct possibility once the peace keepers depart.

Despite the general mood of pessimism, reconstruction work is still going ahead.

Dr.Sultan Barakat, an architect and director of the Post-War Reconstruction and Development Unit at York University in England, is among those who believe that Bosnia's Serbs, Croats and Muslims can live peacefully together again.

As a Palestinian growing up in the troubled Middle East, Barakat told RFE/RL in an interview that he experienced first hand the displacement and upheaval caused by war.

He believes that the reconstruction of cultural heritage can help bring communities back together again.

The destruction of historic towns like Dubrovnik in Croatia and Mostar in Bosnia was highly publicized by the international community during the war. This ensured that once the fighting stopped, repair work would begin soon.

But, says Barakat, smaller and less well-known settlements of exceptional historical, cultural and architectural value are also in need of attention.

Arriving in Sarajevo last year at the invitation of the British Council, Barakat and his colleagues discovered a number of major problems hindering repair work. There had been no overall assessment of the damage to cultural heritage during the war. Local preservationists lacked experience in international fundraising.

This year British and Bosnian professionals met again to begin tackling the issues. Building on work begun by the Institute for the Protection of the Cultural, Historical and Natural Heritage of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a catalogue of damaged sites and structures was compiled.

Training workshops were also held for Bosnian conservationists on formulating funding proposals.

In Herzegovina, the village of Pocitelj, which lies about 25 kilometers southwest of Mostar, was selected as a pilot project for reconstruction.

Before the war the village had a majority Muslim population. Driven out of their homes, which were taken over by displaced Croat families the Muslims also suffered the partial destruction of their mosque and other key buildings.

Pocitelj, once a strategically important town in the Ottoman Empire, is now listed by the World Monuments Fund, a non-profit organization based in New York, as among the world's most endangered sites.

Barakat believes that there is sufficient will in both communities to rebuild the village and make it habitable.

"The majority of people remain distant from the conflict which was run by the various militias," says Barakat.

Presently the project is only in its initial phase. Barakat says that one of the next steps will be to identify a team of negotiators who are neutral to the conflict and who can help reach an agreement between the two communities.

"Both sides are currently unhappy," he explains. "The Muslims lost their homes but the Croats who now occupy them lost their original homes too."

The biggest step will be in reestablishing trust between the two sides. Although he could not say exactly how this will be done Barakat clearly believes it is possible.

He acknowledges that reconstruction can be fraught with many ethical problems. Any foreigner going into someone else's country must be conscious that their decisions affect lives, he says.

Besides Bosnia, Barakat also has researchers in other war-torn areas such as Azerbaijan.

Students from Bosnia, Croatia, Georgia and Latvia will be taking part next year in his course in Post-War Recovery Studies.

Once completed, the hope is that they will be able to put their newly-learned skills into practice.