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Can Bosnians Coexist Again? Mostar Is Test

The EU has begun a two-year task to help Muslims and Croats create a joint police force and rebuild the city devastated by their conflict

By Jonathan S. LandaySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 29, 1994



MOSTAR, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA

JAN MEIJVOGEL is not your ordinary police chief. Not that he doesn't confront the same cornucopia of daily wrongdoing that taxes his big-city contemporaries the world over. But that is where the comparison ends.

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Mr. Meijvogel stands out because his beat is the Bosnian city of Mostar, and his mission is rebuilding a civilian force of Muslims and Croats who, until March, savaged each other in one of Bosnia-Herzegovina's worst urban killing zones.

Normally second-in-command of the military police in the northern Netherlands, Meijvogel is not sure how he will set about his daunting new task. After two months, he still awaits the 200 West European officers he will command in recruiting and training Mostar's new force. ``This is a different culture. It is another part of Europe. They have another opinion about police work. One of the main problems is to change their attitude about violence,'' Meijvogel says.

Yet he remains confident: ``Law and order is the soul ... of every country ... and every society. One of the main aims will be to unify the [Mostar] police force with the thought in mind that they have to do this job, not us.''

This is a key tenet of the European Union administration that last Saturday began a two-year attempt to reconcile the city by restoring multiethnic government and fostering the rule of law where anarchy has reigned.

The EU administration will also try to rebuild the devastated infrastructure, housing, and factories on which revival of the economy depends.

``Of course you cannot rebuild this city in two years,'' says Hans Koschnick, a former mayor of the German city of Bremen and chief EU administrator here. ``It needs 10 to 20 years if you have good money and lots of help.

``Will they be able to overcome their hatred and work peacefully together?'' he asks. ``I don't say living together. I say working together. If they can, then peace will come.''

Comparing this job with rebuilding Bremen after Allied bombing in World War II, Mr. Koschnick says: ``There are two big differences. Everybody wanted to rebuild; there was no hatred among us. And we lost the war: There were no guns.''

EU stewardship over Bosnia's second largest city was part of the US-brokered accords that ended fighting between Muslims and Croats and led to formation in April of a federation. A power-sharing feud prompted using the EU temporarily to supervise local decisionmaking.

Koschnick is the top authority, but his pronouncements can be disputed before an EU ombudsman with arbitration powers. The idea is that political reconciliation will foster ethnic reconciliation. Koschnick calls it a ``peaceful revolution.''

For that reason, Mostar has become the main test of the viability of the new Muslim-Croat federation and of hopes that Bosnia's ethnic groups can again coexist.

``Ninety-nine percent of the people want this to work,'' says Zvonko Jovic, a former Croat fighter. ``I live in the hope that this will happen. I don't want to put on my uniform again.''

Not everyone is optimistic. ``There is an intense hatred,'' a UN official here says. ``This is reflected more at the level of the people than at the level of the politicians.''

Mostar remains ethnically divided, with the Neretva River separating the Croat west and the Muslim east, where some 55,000 people were cut off from food, water, and power for 10 months by the Croatia-backed Croatian Defense Council (HVO) militia.

The HVO, which coveted Mostar as capital of a self-declared Bosnian-Croat state, flayed the east side with shell fire that in November destroyed the famed Ottoman-built stone bridge that had stood for more than four centuries as a monument to ethnic amity.

Yet the pace of the peace has surpassed expectations, the latest milestone being troop pullouts by both sides only hours before the EU takeover. UN peacekeepers have since been deployed.

Water and power are slowly being restored to the east, and the few Muslims with money cross foot bridges to shop in the west. Most are dependent on UN food. The EU has earmarked an initial $25 million for reconstruction.

But pressure is mounting on the EU to tackle what promises to be a major challenge: returning Muslims driven from west Mostar. The main obstacle will be relocating HVO soldiers and their families or Croat refugees who moved into seized homes. The entire EU effort may hinge on this task.

``We will have confidence only when we move back to our homes,'' says Nada Rahimic, whose family was expelled from the west in May 1993. ``Croats moved into our flat with all their things, while we had to leave our place practically naked.... If I can't go back peacefully, then I will by force sooner or later.''

Expulsions of Muslims, some 5,000 of whom remain in west Mostar, have continued, with more than 80 reportedly driven from their homes since the formation of the new federation.

UN officials and Western diplomats blame gangs led by local HVO warlords. But local sources say the gangs were forced to leave just before Koschnick took office, their departures ordered by senior HVO commanders who answer to Zagreb.

Ensuring proper conditions for Muslim repatriation to west Mostar depends on Meijvogel's success with a unified police. ``One of the first steps will be to make some links between east and west in the police field,'' he says. ``If you have a unified police force, you'll get everything else.''

Neither side has disclosed how many officers they have nor their command structures. Officers must be screened for corruption or war crimes.

Finally, retraining will not simply involve teaching Western police techniques, but also a law-enforcement philosophy alien to former Communist countries whose police enjoyed unrestricted powers as guardians of state supremacy.