Cease-Fire at Mostar Creates Guarded Hopes for Peace
TEARS glazing her hollow cheeks, Dila Husic stares into the watery grave of the 16th century bridge once famed as one of former Yugoslavia's greatest monuments to ethnic amity.Skip to next paragraph
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``I have spent my entire life here,'' the Muslim widow murmurs, transfixed by the green Neretva River slashing through the deep chasm at her feet. ``This bridge was like an old friend.''
It was the first time she had visited the shattered ramparts of Stari Most, or Old Bridge, to mourn the graceful Ottoman-built stone arch blasted apart by Bosnian Croat tank fire last November. ``I hope it can be rebuilt,'' Ms. Husic says.
Such hopes would have been dismissed three weeks ago, when it would have also been impossible for Husic to stand where she was without being hit by Bosnian Croat gunfire.
But to the amazement and relief of combatants, civilians, and international aid workers alike, peace seems to be taking hold in what was Bosnia's bloodiest urban battlefield.
``It's incredible,'' exclaimed Kirsten Young, a UN High Commissioner for Refugees official. ``The change is so rapid. It is very difficult to envision this happening. You have to be optimistic, but it has to be guarded optimism.''
The transformation began after the United States sponsored a Feb. 25 cease-fire between the Muslim-led Bosnian Army and the Croatian Defense Council, the Bosnian Croat militia funded and armed by neighboring Croatia and known as the HVO.
The truce takes
The truce has become more secure with progress at the US-brokered peace talks in Vienna; a Muslim-Croat federation plan would create Swiss-style ethnic cantons that could eventually confederate with Croatia.
Enticed by US promises of political, economic, and financial assistance, the two sides are expected to sign a new constitution this week. On Saturday, they agreed to merge their armed forces.
Nowhere was a truce more unexpected than in Mostar, the main city of the Herzegovina region. The prewar population of Mostar of 127,000 was 35 percent Muslim, 34 percent Croat, 17 percent Serb, the rest others.
The Muslims and Croats together drove out the Bosnian Serbs in the first half of the 23-month-old war. But they began fighting each other in mid-1993, when the HVO tried to carve a self-declared Bosnian Croat state out of central and southern Bosnia.
Bosnian troops and thousands of Muslim civilians were encircled on Mostar's eastern side and a slice of the Neretva River's west bank reachable by the Old Bridge. The HVO cut food, water, and power and incessantly shelled the Muslim enclave.
HVO soldiers swept thousands of Muslim men from western neighborhoods and nearby towns into concentration camps. Their families were herded into east Mostar, its population swelling to some 55,000 people.
The struggle degenerated into a stalemate in which more than 2,000 Muslim soldiers and civilians were killed and 6,000 wounded before the truce.
The HVO puts its losses at 450. Croatian civilian casualty figures are unavailable, but they are believed to be a fraction of those on the Muslim side.
Suddenly the shooting has ended, the whispering breezes that sweep down the towering heights of the surrounding Neretva River Valley broken only by occassional sniper fire.
The change has been so abrupt that many on both sides are bewildered by their political leaders' decision to reconcile after so much suffering.
``Seven of my relatives were killed by the Croats,'' says Eso, a Bosnian soldier. ``I was expelled from the other side, and from this side I watched my house burn down,'' he says. ``How am I supposed to feel? I don't want to go back to the right bank and live with them anymore,'' he adds.
Blaz Stojicic, who commands HVO front-line positions around the shattered city swimming pool, also says he is pessimistic.