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Bosnia-Herzegovina: Witnesses Tell U.S. Congress Refugees Must Return

The Dayton peace accords of 1995 ended the warfare in Bosnia. But some Bosnians believe that their country is still as troubled as it was when the fighting raged. Three Bosnians told a committee of the U.S. Congress Wednesday (25 July) that their overriding concern is the return of refugees -- particularly Croats who once lived in the region of Bosnia that is now known as Republika Srpska. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports.

Washington, 26 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Three prominent Bosnians told a committee of the U.S. Congress on 25 July that a lasting peace cannot be achieved in their country until all refugees are allowed to return to their prewar homes and all ethnic groups attain equal rights.

One witness, Ejup Ganic, a former president of the Muslim-Croatian federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, said the Dayton accords that ended the country's civil war in 1995 would be betrayed if refugees -- particularly those from Republika Srpska -- remain displaced. Otherwise, he said, frustration is likely to lead to a resumption of fighting.

Also testifying before the House of Representatives' International Relation Committee were two Roman Catholic prelates: Cardinal Vinko Puljic, the archbishop of Sarajevo, and Bishop Ratko Peric of Mostar.

All three witnesses said the government of Republika Srpska consistently keeps non-Serb refugees out of its borders. And they urged international authorities overseeing the governance of Bosnia -- particularly the U.S. -- to intervene.

Ganic said the international authorities in Bosnia -- like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- are carefully trying to avoid small problems while remaining blind to the bigger problems. He likened them to the ship Titanic avoiding bits of floating ice but being unaware of the iceberg that eventually sank it.

"This is like, you know, avoiding, as I say, every small piece of ice in Titanic water, but then ignoring the big iceberg in front of it."

Ganic said the government of Republika Srpska encourages a practice called "ostanak" -- keeping people, including refugees, where they are.

Peric noted that according to the 1991 census, the area that is now called Republika Srpska had a population that was 54 percent Serbian. Now, the bishop said, it is more than 90 percent Serbian. He said the international authorities must send troops into Republika Srpska to protect returning refugees from Serbs, who he said steal their homes and their crops.

"We believe there can be no peace and reconciliation without the active presence of international forces."

Congressman Benjamin Gilman (R-New York), a member of the committee, asked the three witnesses what they would recommend to restore peace in Bosnia. All agreed that a return of the refugees would be essential. And Cardinal Puljic added:

"I openly request before this committee that you urge the government of the United States to apply the same standards and the same attitude toward all three constituent peoples in Bosnia-Herzegovina."

Puljic said there are fewer Croats in Bosnia than there are Muslims or Serbs. As a result, he says, Croats have the fewest rights in the country.

Many U.S. political leaders are uncomfortable about sending American troops to help maintain peace in a distant country. One, Brian Kerns (R-Indiana), said many of his constituents share that discomfort. He asked when the peacekeeping forces might be able to return home.

The three witnesses were emphatic that the troops -- particularly the American troops -- should stay until all refugees have returned to their prewar homes, and all three ethnic groups have equal rights.