In Bosnia, troops face long, hard slog

ZVORNIK, Bosnia-Herzegovina-For Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Steven Holliday and other peacekeepers in the traumatized land of Bosnia, homely signs of normalcy-a well-tended vegetable garden, the silhouette of houses unmarred by shell craters, city lights-carry geopolitical significance. "To me, the best barometers are children and old people. If they're waving, then you know you've taken a tremendous step forward," said Holliday, the head of a civil affairs team on patrol in this former stronghold of Serbian hard-liners.

Holliday's reasoning goes like this: Because the hatreds inflamed by four years of war and "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia seem to have less hold on them, the young and the old are an early reflection of the healing under way. If children and their grandparents are embracing NATO forces for the peace they have brought, then their families may yet come to reject the tribal animosities between Serbs, Muslims and Croats that brought Bosnia to ruin. On such hopes rides America's still-evolving Bosnia policy.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright's visit to Sarajevo earlier this week en route to Moscow, a fortnight before critical Bosnian elections, underscored just how heavily U.S. officials are now relying on incremental signs of progress to steer Western efforts here. NATO forces had been scheduled to depart Bosnia altogether this past summer. Instead, President Clinton announced late last year that the United States was dropping the pretense of arbitrary withdrawal dates, and he essentially committed the U.S. military to an open-ended deployment until a lasting peace is secured.

"Bosnia has achieved peace," Albright said during an Aug. 31 news conference in Sarajevo. "Now it is important that the people get what they had before the war-security and the right to travel."

The national elections scheduled for Sept. 12 will be the next in a series of major benchmarks the Clinton administration is using to gauge progress toward achieving a multi-ethnic and stable society. "The upcoming election," Ambassador Robert S. Gelbard, Washington's special envoy to Bosnia, said in an interview, "will really represent the first genuine postwar election, because there was virtually no democratic pluralism in previous elections." In perhaps the most significant breakthrough since December 1995, when NATO forces intervened here, the Bosnian Serb Republic last year elected a relatively moderate coalition, led by President Biljana Plavsic and Prime Minister Milorad Dodik.

"That has largely broken the power of [indicted war criminal] Radovan Karadzic and his clique of hard-line Serb extremists," Gelbard said. "We're also seeing moderates seriously challenge nationalists on the Croat side," he added, referring to hard-line members of the Muslim-Croat federation, the second of Bosnia's two multi-ethnic provinces as established by the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords. "So this election and the growing democratic pluralism we're seeing are critical steps in the overall process of building a democratic and multi-ethnic society in Bosnia."

The U.S. policy shift to a strategy measured by tangible results, rather than what one pundit termed "blind dates with history," has far-reaching implications that have yet to resonate with Main Street America. Yet on the ground, the consequences are readily apparent. U.S. military leaders, for instance, have begun a major $16.2 million construction effort to build semi-permanent living quarters for troops and facilitate regular rotations of units into Bosnia directly from the United States. For students of the process, the meaning of the bustling activity and construction is unmistakable: The American military is settling in for the long haul.

Lt. Col. Thomas Muir, staff operations officer at the headquarters for U.S. forces in Tuzla, summed it up this way: "The president came to Bosnia and announced that the United States will be here until we achieve a lasting peace, and sent a helpful message to the ethnic factions that they had to deal with the [NATO] Stabilization Force indefinitely. From the military standpoint," he said, "it also meant that we could make an investment in military construction that was benchmarked to roughly the five-year mark. Certainly we're not looking to pull up stakes anytime soon."

Col. Mark E. Busch, the commander of the Tuzla Air Base, has begun a $640,000 project to expand the runways and ramps in anticipation of regular flights from the United States and ongoing operations for years to come. "Probably the most important thing I've done since arriving in Bosnia is to develop a long-term plan for operations at the airfield, covering a three-to-five-year window. That doesn't mean we'll be here for five years, but it has allowed us to move from a crisis-management mode to long-term planning. And if we're here more than five years, hopefully this plan will make future operations smoother."

Rebuilding a Nation

In the absence of artificial deadlines for withdrawal, American and NATO officials have struggled to construct-out of the rubble and chaos-a series of building blocks they hope will eventually form the framework of a functioning society. Taken together, they represent a nearly unprecedented experiment in nation-building that is redefining not only how the NATO alliance views its security role in Europe, but also how the U.S. military approaches long-term peacekeeping operations.

"NATO's credibility is on the line in Bosnia," a senior State Department official said, "because this represents the alliance's first-ever operational mission. The irony is that after all those years of Cold War planning, it turned out to be an `out of area' operation [in a non-NATO country]. Now it's increasingly clear that these types of crises will present NATO with its major challenges in the future. Neither NATO nor the U.S. military can abandon their traditional war-fighting missions, but the future is likely to hold a whole range and variety of peacekeeping operations."

The essential blueprint for Bosnia was the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, which officially ended the conflict. The agreement calls for a single nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, loosely governed by a multi-ethnic, Sarajevo-based federal government and composed of two multi-ethnic provinces: the Muslim-Croat federation and the Serb Republic.

The first and most important building blocks were the cessation of all hostilities and the strict enforcement of zones of separation between the formerly warring factions. Next came projects to rebuild Bosnia's roads, bridges, airports, electric plants, communications lines and sewage treatment facilities. Other daunting milestones to come include continuing to hold free and open elections; reforming local police forces; resettling most of the nearly 2 million refugees; and bringing prominent war criminals to justice at the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal in the Netherlands. Until those conditions are met, Western officials doubt that Bosnia will be able to attract the international investment critical to creating a sustainable market economy and replacing the old statist model of communist Yugoslavia.

In terms of ending the threat of conflict and starting the difficult process of rebuilding, the progress has been exceptional. Compared with the scenes of urban destruction and the palpable sense of menace that characterized the country three years ago, just before the shooting stopped, Bosnia today seems remarkably normal on the surface. There are cars on the streets, people in sidewalk cafes and abundant foods in shop windows. Power and water have been restored to nearly all Bosnian cities, and the nationwide railroads are running again. On a recent night in Muslim-dominated Tuzla, tourists and other secular patrons at a restaurant paused only briefly from their glasses of beer and plates of food as Islamic prayers blasted from the loudspeakers of the downtown mosque.

On a recent visit, Adm. T. Joseph Lopez, former commander of all NATO forces in Bosnia and currently commander in chief of NATO's Allied Forces Southern Command, was also astonished at the country's dramatic rejuvenation. "When I flew into Sarajevo today and saw that almost all the houses had roofs-whereas almost none of them did in 1996-the difference was just phenomenal. You can't help but be encouraged when you see busy streets, people walking around with their heads up, and what on the face of it is a very lively community," Lopez said in an interview. "We've moved from an initial era defined by the absence of war to one of stability, where people are getting used to peace. We just haven't made the transition yet to a society of private industry and free enterprise, with economic interdependence among the [three] ethnic entities, but that will take time."

The success of that transition from the absence of war to the expectation of peace is also evident in NATO's military force posture. The renaming of the "Implementation Force" as a "Stabilization Force" was not just clever semantics designed to mask the ongoing nature of the mission, but heralded a real change. U.S. forces in Bosnia have steadily declined from roughly 22,000 in 1996 to 6,900 today. In three years, NATO has monitored the demobilization of 350,000 troops belonging to the three once-warring ethnic groups, destroyed more than 6,600 of their heavy weapons and moved the rest to regularly monitored storage areas.

According to U.S. military officers, the Stabilization Force-or SFOR (pronounced ess-for)-has reached a steady state in which all three formerly warring factions have fully complied with the basic terms of the Dayton accords. Though American peacekeepers still launch an average of 100 patrols a month in their Humvees to flaunt an SFOR presence, rarely do they feel the need anymore to drive heavy M-1 tanks off base in a show of force.

"When we first came into Bosnia in 1996," said Col. Oliver Hunter, commander of the U.S. helicopter regiment in Bosnia, "life revolved around enforcing the zones of separation between the formerly warring parties. The mission then was much like duty at the [demilitarized zone] in Korea, only you had potential hostiles on both sides in Bosnia. Now we're largely out of that business. The zones are clear."

The realization that the NATO mission had fundamentally changed came to Muir during a change-of-command ceremony at Task Force Eagle, headquarters for U.S. forces in Bosnia. "The military leaders of all three formerly warring factions came to the ceremony, and afterwards we all went to the dining facility and ate shrimp cocktail together-including the Serb general who we arrayed our tanks against in the early days of the mission. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to see that."

Dangling the carrot of millions of dollars' worth of reconstruction aid, U.S. military and diplomatic leaders have made the transition from simply mandating compliance with the Dayton accords-as in the early days-to trying to induce local Croatian, Serbian and Muslim leaders to become vested partners in rebuilding the country. At every turn, financial aid is directed at towns and localities that reject the obstructionism of the nationalist parties and adopt a more moderate approach. After the Serb Republic elected new, relatively moderate leaders, for instance, the U.S. directed $70 million in aid to the region. "However," Muir said, "there are still hostilities below the surface and pockets where extremism and hatred run very deep. Many refugees are still afraid to return home."

Refugee Resettlements

This past April 11, 26-year-old Marine Cpl. Lynne Blanke witnessed firsthand how seething animosities can quickly rage out of control over the issue of resettling minority refugees. The civil affairs specialist shared an office with members of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in the Croatian-dominated town of Drvar. The UNHCR had just returned 150 Serbians to the houses and apartments they had occupied in Drvar before the town was "ethnically cleansed" in the war. After a crowd of Croats surrounded Blanke in her armored Humvee, pelted it with rocks and smashed a bullet-proof window, she and her colleagues evacuated the UNHCR offices in the face of what rapidly became a violent mob. Eventually the rioters stormed the UNHCR offices, set the building on fire, and attacked and severely injured the town's Serbian mayor.

As is often the case in Bosnia, intelligence later revealed that the riots had been organized and started by outside agitators who bused in many participants. In a similar outbreak of violence over refugee returns last year in the town of Jajce, U.S. officials discovered that the instigators were actually two of the most-wanted Croat war criminals on the U.N. tribunal's list. Once the pair was turned over to U.N. officials, the resistance largely disappeared.

In the eyes of some Bosnians, the Drvar and Jajce incidents also revealed the dangers of a premature withdrawal of NATO forces. "The Drvar riot," said Enes Aganovic, a young Bosnian interpreter who works with the American forces, "shows you how everything can get turned upside down in Bosnia in just a moment's time, especially if someone is provoking trouble. That's why SFOR needs to stay. Right now, everything is still possible in Bosnia-Herzegovina-peace as well as a return to war."

Although the UNHCR had proclaimed 1998 the "Year of the Refugee Returns," U.S. officials concede that the level of minority resettlements has been disappointingly low, in part because SFOR has focused its efforts instead on helping the new, moderate Serb coalition lock in the gains they made in the last election. Once the next elections are over, Gelbard says, the United States has made it clear that major progress on minority resettlements in Bosnia will top the list of priorities. To date, roughly 400,000 out of a total of nearly 2 million refugees and displaced persons have returned home since the war.

U.S. officials assert that the resettlement effort will be buoyed by this past summer's deployment of a battalion of 500 Italian Gendarmes-police specially trained in crowd control and civil disturbances.

U.S. and other Western officials will use their financial largess as a way to push localities to allow the peaceful return of refugees. For example, in Sarajevo, where the Muslim-dominated government has dragged its feet on a commitment to return 22,000 minority refugees to their homes in the suburbs by year-end, Western officials withdrew $22 million worth of aid that had been earmarked for the city and its suburbs.

U.S. officials' unyielding pressure for moving refugees home reflects a conviction that resettlements are essential to reversing the years of wartime "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia and to realizing the Dayton accords' vision of a truly multi-ethnic society. If the return of refugees stalls and the country is locked into its present configuration, the fear is that Dayton will have led to the de facto partition of Bosnia into three ethnic blocs with uneasy borders requiring indefinite policing by an international overseer.

"We believe that refugee returns are at the heart of Bosnia's future. It's only natural that people traumatized by four years of war will take time to heal, but we've seen that when former neighbors start talking to one another again, many of these problems stirred up by nationalistic leaders disappear," Gelbard said. "Put simply, resettlements are key to our goal of having one state of Bosnia-Herzegovina, composed of two multi-ethnic [provinces]. Anything less will be a failure. We also firmly believe that war criminals like Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic and their ilk have to be brought before the War Crimes Tribunal, both to symbolize that justice will be rendered and so they don't attempt to regain power."

War Criminals and Retribution

The smoldering sense of historical grievance that hangs over the region and provokes periodic bloodletting is sharpest in towns such as Zvornik, in the Serb Republic. A hardscrabble industrial hamlet on the banks of the Drina River, Zvornik was previously home to 40,000 Muslims. They were effectively "cleansed" from the town during the recent war, many ending up dead, floating face down in the Drina. Then Zvornik's former mayor, a hard-line nationalist, razed the town's historic mosque in retribution for the destruction of a Serbian church-in 1463, by the Ottoman Turks.

On a recent afternoon, Marine Sgt. Holliday, the civil affairs specialist, sat in the dilapidated town hall to negotiate reconstruction projects with Dragan Jeftic, the city manager of Zvornik. Since the emergence of a relatively moderate governing coalition in the Serbian Republic, badly needed Western aid has finally begun filtering into Serbian towns and villages like Zvornik. When Holliday starts quizzing Jeftic on the issues of refugee returns and the discovery of a mass grave in the hills above Zvornik, the city official becomes testy.

"We believe that SFOR should be helping to rebuild the Serb Republic faster," Jeftic tells a reporter, "but they want to make things too complicated. We also see for ourselves that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is constantly changing the Dayton agreement." Jeftic particularly objects to new international license plates that make it impossible to judge the ethnic origin of car passengers. "Dayton said nothing about license plates. We see the Americans changing Dayton every day."

Outside, Holliday reveals the origin of the tensions. "We have rejected one of those reconstruction projects twice, mainly because city officials maintain they know nothing about a mass grave we found near here," he said. "Well, they know about it. I'll show you."

Down a long logging road deep in the Glumina Mountains above Zvornik, by an excavated grave site, white U.N. trucks and a refrigerated trailer dot a sunny hillside, like ambulances that have come too late to the scene of an accident. Nearby, U.N. and SFOR officials stare down at what looks at first like unearthed clumps of clay. But they turn out to be grotesquely contorted arms and legs. This was no accident.

"That's the sixth grave site we've unearthed in this region this year," sighed Steve Garner, head of the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. "We're almost certain that's the aftermath of the slaughter of Srebrenica"-referring to perhaps the worst atrocity of the four-year Bosnian war. While U.N. peacekeepers looked on helplessly in July 1995, Bosnian Serb troops and paramilitary units rounded up 5,000 to 7,000 Bosnian Muslims in the U.N.-declared "safe area" of Srebrenica. Few were ever seen alive again.

To date, 35 of the former Yugoslavia's 79 publicly indicted war criminals have been brought to justice in the Hague, and U.N. officials vow to keep pursuing even the most notorious. "We're going to keep gathering evidence on the people who did this, as long as SFOR provides us security, because the perpetrators live in and around Zvornik," says Garner. "I also think that seeing this raises the consciousness of the SFOR troops. It reminds them that this kind of atrocity could happen again. It reminds them what Dayton put an end to. It reminds them what they're doing here, so far from home."

Indeed, as NATO forces approach the third anniversary of their intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina, some observers wonder what the statute of limitations is for hatred and revenge, in a landscape crisscrossed by such painful monuments as the Glumina Mountains burial pit. NATO helped end the war and even brought stability and the hope of democracy. The question remains, however, whether the alliance has the collective will and forbearance to break Bosnia's long cycle of retribution.

"For those of us who've studied the culture of civil wars, you understand that once people cross a certain psychological barrier, many of them can never go back," said a knowledgeable U.S. officer with years of experience in Bosnia. "They will always be mortal enemies of the group they fought or who persecuted them. You find that's still very prevalent in parts of Bosnia. That's why I feel we will be required in Bosnia until those who led the fight pass from the scene. I believe it could take a generation."

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