GORNJI VAKUF, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — LIKE infants taking their first tenuous steps, Muslims and Croats in this devastated central Bosnian town are putting their new United States-brokered peace to the test.
Each day at about noon, dozens of front-line troops emerge from ruined buildings and sand-bagged trenches, in some places only 10 yards apart, that run through the shell-ravaged downtown. They leave their weapons behind.
Crunching down streets carpeted by glass and shell casings, past rubble mounds, gutted homes and shops, blasted cars, and live antitank mines, they gather by a water-filled bomb crater.
Here in Gornji Vakuf, where some of the first pitched battles of their nearly 10-month war erupted, Muslims and Croats now talk as they share drinks.
With their cease-fire less than a month old, memories are too fresh to speak of anything but the mundane, the conversations stilted and tinged with shades of lingering animosity.
``They [the Croats] ask us if we have cigarettes, or flour, or beer,'' says Crni, a young Muslim soldier.
``They ask us if we were bribed to fight. I tell them I did not fight for money. I fought with my heart to defend the Bosnia that I love.''
During a meeting this weekend, many soldiers just watched from the edges of the gathering, unwilling to join in, like nervous juveniles at their first prom.
``I am not happy,'' mutters Zvonko, a youthful Bosnian Croat soldier. ``This kind of an end to the war is nothing. Nothing has been decided. I want to win or lose.
``I went to school with some of them. I worked with some of them. It will be very difficult to be friends again,'' he says of the Muslims. ``If I have to live with them, I will not stay. There was so much blood spilled. There is not enough room for both of us.''
Still, peace definitely seems to be growing in the villages and towns of central and southern Bosnia for which the Muslim-led Bosnian Army and the Croatian Defense Council militia, known as the HVO, battled after their alliance to fight the Serbs collapsed.
Astonished United Nations officials say trust is slowly being rebuilt as Bosnian and HVO officers, local politicians, and technicians plot troop pullbacks and the restoration of utilities and trade.
Convoys are again grinding unobstructed through the rugged mountains of central Bosnia with food and medicines for hundreds of thousands of people who have long been marooned by the fighting between ethnic groups.
On Saturday, a day after their leaders signed in Washington the US-sponsored accord for a Muslim-Croat federation, the Bosnian Army and the HVO began exchanging hundreds of prisoners.
MEANWHILE, the first meetings between friends and families divided by war are taking place at checkpoints set up by the UN Protection Force between now-quiet front lines.
It is hard to believe that the seed of reconciliation is beginning to take root in Gornji Vakuf, whose prewar population of 25,130 was 56 percent Muslim, 47 percent Croat, and 7 percent Serb.
A mining and industrial backwater that commands a strategic road junction, Gornji Vakuf was rent by all-out ethnic warfare in June 1993, when the Croatia-armed HVO tried to seize it for part of a self-declared Bosnian-Croat state.
Like combat zones elsewhere, the sides divided the town into Croat- and Muslim-held sectors as they fought street-to-street. They indulged in retaliatory bouts of ethnic cleansing, dynamiting and looting homes and shops owned by their ethnic foes.
British UN troops, who were assigned the task of keeping the road open to aid convoys, were often targeted by both sides. The first of two British soldiers killed in Bosnia was shot by an HVO sniper in Gornji Vakuf.
The fighting eviscerated most of the town and, while it has stopped, troops have yet to withdraw from the front lines, and booby traps remain hidden in buildings swiss-cheesed by bullets.
``My father was killed by a shell that tore off half his head,'' recounts Crni. ``And, my mother and sister were wounded.
``I believe in peace, although I can never forget what has happened,'' he says. ``We could make war for centuries. But after that, we would still have to live together.''
Ibrahim Kasinovic, the local Bosnian Army military police commander, is determined that the reconciliation will be quick.
Without waiting for the approval of his superiors, Mr. Kasinovic last week began allowing family members to visit the half-dozen HVO fighters he is holding prisoner. ``The relatives asked me if they could see the prisoners,'' he says. ``I said, `Yes, come over here. I guarantee your safety.' ''
As the families crossed the front lines, so did soldiers, believed to be the first anywhere in the former Muslim-Croat battle zones to meet in such large numbers since their Feb. 25 cease-fire.
The prisoners' families, laden with food and fresh clothes, have returned every day. And after everything that has happened here, it is a bizarre scene to behold.
The prisoners wait by a bullet-riddled beach umbrella pitched in the rubble in front of Kasinovic's shell-pocked headquarters, which was once the municipal cultural center and cinema.
Their Bosnian Army captors sit beneath the umbrella playing cards atop an overturned steel cable spool, only yards from the intersection where the troops of the two sides stand quietly conversing.
The game stops as the prisoners' relatives approach. Everyone is relaxed and smiling. One prisoner relieves his mother of the case of drinks she bears and distributes cans to everyone around.
``The Bosnian military police have always been correct with us,'' says Nikola Marincic, a prisoner for eight months.
``Sometimes there were extremists who mistreated us, but this no longer matters,'' Mr. Marincic says.
``We hope we will be released on Tuesday,'' he adds. ``I used to own my own shop. But now, I don't know what I will do.''
Marincic's contemplation of the future is interrupted by the arrival of his two daughters and tearful, but smiling, wife.
Kasinovic walks away to give them privacy.
``We are only soldiers. We take orders from our commanders,'' Kasinovic says. ``We are not politicians. If the politicians say stop the war, we are ready to stop immediately.
``Nobody asked us if we wanted this war,'' he adds. ``We are not in a position to make decisions. For us, everything is possible.''