BRKA, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — IF peace is ever to come to Bosnia, the eight Muslim men in the Enver Pamukcic Cafe must do an extraordinary thing. After more than 3-1/2 years of being sniped at in a muddy trench as their homes were menaced by long-range Serb artillery, they must turn in their weapons and trust American and Russian troops to protect them.
The men in this drafty, candle-lit cafe named after a Muslim war hero are struggling with heartfelt emotions that may ensure the failure or success of the United States mission here.
"There is no way we are going to give up our arms. There is no way to trust the Serbs," says Lt. Nedzad Nidzic, whose forces are to withdraw within 60 days from Brka, a village that lies within a front-line demilitarized zone to be established by American and Russian troops. "We'll move back if the Serbs move back. If they don't, it means the war will continue."
Conversations with Muslim soldiers along the bitterly contested Posavina corridor - the most likely flash point of renewed fighting inside the US-patrolled zone in Bosnia - revealed a combination of suspicions and hopes that will make the US mission here a crawl or a cakewalk.
Bosnian government soldiers expressed skepticism and concern that the world's latest attempt at Bosnia peacekeeping will protect their front-line homes. But they spoke of a greater fear of not obeying orders in this former communist country long dominated by a single political party.
Ironically, NATO's cold-war archenemy, the communist police state, may be its biggest ally in the formerly communist Bosnia, where workers were trained to do what they were told.
Soldiers in Brka and Celic, another front-line village on the Muslim side of the Posavina corridor, say they are receiving orders to cooperate fully with American and Russian peacekeepers that will soon deploy here.
Although Nidzic and the other soldiers in the Brka cafe bitterly complain about the peace plan and talk tough, they say they will obey their superiors. "We just need heavy weapons and tanks to take the corridor," boasts the burly dark-haired lieutenant. "But we don't decide about [if we attack], the high command does."
Just north of Brka, the strategic corridor reaches its narrowest point and is only 2.5 miles wide. Some of the most bitter battles of the war were fought here. Thousands of Serbs and Muslims have died in pitched World War I-like trench battles over the last two years, which resulted in small gains by either side.
Muslims bitterly complain that the corridor and its main town of Brcko had a majority Muslim population before the war, but was brutally "ethnically cleansed" by Serbs to create a secure corridor between Serb-held parts of eastern and western Bosnia.
The status of the corridor nearly derailed last month's peace talks in Dayton, Ohio. It was the only unresolved issue during the final days of the negotiations, with Serbs demanding a wider corridor and Muslims and Croats demanding no corridor at all. A compromise proposal calls for international arbitration to decide the fate of the corridor within the next six months.
But soldiers in Brka vowed they will give up none of the land they have fought for so bitterly. If the present boundaries remain in place and Muslims are not allowed to return to their homes in the corridor as promised by the Dayton agreement, they say fighting is possible after NATO forces leave in a year.
"If Brcko is not under [Muslim] control in a year," Nidzic says, "it will be war."
But in Celic, a nearby shell-pocked town of 3,000, soldiers were more optimistic. In the "Cafe NBA," where Kalashnikov rifles lean against a wall covered with hand-painted Boston Celtics and NBA logos, soldiers expressed confidence that the plan would work.
Soldiers tell stories of talking to Serbs in the enemy trench only 150 yards away during lulls in fighting. Like so many other front lines in Bosnia, many of the opposing soldiers here know each other. "We had some cases where they would ask which of our soldiers were killed," says Bosnian Army Lt. Hussein Ferizovic. "If it was someone they knew, they would say they were sorry and were being forced to fight."
Bosnian Army Cpt. Sead Foric says a Serb friend telephoned him after fleeing Bosnian Serb territory to nearby Slovenia and promised to pay back the $2,000 he owed him. Captain Foric said that another Serb friend, whom he worked with in the local fruit juice factory for 14 years, broke into tears when they met at a prisoner exchange in July 1993.
Foric and other soldiers warned that any peace would collapse after NATO forces leave Bosnia if indicted Bosnian Serb war criminals, such as Bosnian Serb "president" Radovan Karadzic and military commander Gen. Ratko Mladic, are not turned over to The Hague-based International War Crimes Tribunal.
"If they get rid of the extremists like Karadzic and Mladic, it will be all right.... The Serbs are welcome to return here," says Lieutenant Ferizovic, his unit's political officer. "We don't want to build any Berlin walls here."
Soldiers in Celic expressed disappointment that Russian peacekeepers, who are viewed as friendly to fellow Christian Orthodox Bosnian Serbs, would be patrolling their town, but said they would have to trust the Russians. A clear indication of what could go wrong or could go right for the NATO peace mission here was muttered by one soldier standing 500 yards from Celic's now quiet front line.
"Even if I live 1,000 years, I won't trust the Serbs and won't give up my gun," says the soldier. "But if the [Bosnian] high command says I have to, it's not a question anymore. It's an order."