Propaganda Aftermath Puts Bosnia in Bind

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

NATO troops are enforcing peace here, but Bosnians know the animosity in their country won't be solved by 60,000 foreign soldiers alone.

All sides - divided by almost four years of war and fed propaganda by nationalist leaders - tell different stories of the same war, deepening mutual mistrust. And reconciliation among the former neighbors will require more than a cessation of hostilities, many here say.

In towns like Brcko, where decades of coexistence among Muslims, Croats, and Serbs were destroyed by brutal campaigns of "ethnic cleansing," victors and vanquished alike are not ready to forget.

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"I'm disappointed most with the people who I lived together with for 30 years," says one Muslim refugee from Brcko, who - like nearly all the Bosnians interviewed for this story - asked not to be named. "We celebrated graduation balls, holidays, and weddings together - everything."

In 1992, Serb forces seized Brcko - a town made up of about 60 percent Muslims, 30 percent Serbs, and 10 percent Croats - in a violent campaign that left an estimated 3,000 dead and the town emptied of Muslims and Croats.

Serbs have controlled Brcko since. Details that have recently emerged of a significant mass grave there, along with testimony of other killing and body-disposal sites in the town, make clear that Serbs are responsible.

To Muslim survivors, the ethnic cleansing of Brcko was an orchestrated genocide, planned well in advance.

But to Serbs still living there, the story is exactly the opposite: It was the Muslims who planned to expel the Serb population. So Serb forces moved first to "defend" themselves, they say.

As much as Serbs would like to believe this, however, many know otherwise. But they have been repeatedly told by their leaders they were not responsible for such crimes and were justified in taking action first.

The Muslim version is closer to the truth. To accept the Serb justification for the atrocities - even denial that they occurred - requires extraordinary leaps of faith.

The cleansing of Brcko began several weeks before the Serb onslaught, in the town's Serb Orthodox Church. Meetings were held at night, witnesses say, and Serb paramilitary groups began forming.

When the Serbs attacked, the refugees say, they came in waves. In early May 1992, local Serb extremists began rounding up non-Serbs for detention camps.

The UN War Crimes Tribunal indictment of the Luka camp commander speaks of "systematic killing" thereafter. Camps and killing centers were set up immediately. By August, when Brcko's three mosques were destroyed by Serb forces, the work was nearly complete.

"We were informed of it," says one Muslim housewife. "They told us there would be a huge detonation, but that we shouldn't be scared. It would just be the mosques."

The official Serb version of events might just as easily describe a different city.

The town's Orthodox priest, Episkop Slavko Maksimovic - who many refugees also say intervened at times to help Muslims - claims that there was a Muslim plot to take over the city, and that the Serbs started fighting to "defend" themselves.

"The Muslims started leaving, destroying everything they were leaving behind," he says. "The Serbs didn't leave this town because they felt they were in their homeland, in the land of their fathers and grandfathers. So many people were killed here because the Muslims withdrew to the suburbs from where they shelled the town."

But according to Muslim survivors - who tell a story similar to those from other towns cleansed in the 1992 Serb campaign - few Muslims had weapons, and certainly would not have been able to shell Brcko. To resist meant instant death, and to be captured meant a hard detention.

The commander of Luka camp, Goran Jelisic - "also known as Adolf," according to the Tribunal indictment - faces charges of genocide and murder.

One Muslim refugee who once lived adjacent to the camp remembers one day seeing 22 men marched past.

"You could hear: 'Don't flee! Stop!' and then machine-gun fire," he says. The UN indictment speaks of "hundreds" dying in that camp alone.

According to a witness who survived the camp, one man arrived there with an Orthodox Serb Cross carved into his forehead with a knife.

But a Serb in the same neighborhood remembers things differently.

For him Luka was a "reception" center where Muslims were taken for benevolent interrogation. "There was some killing, of course, like in any war," he says, "But there was never a massacre. There were no prisoners."

For him, the "plan" of the Croats and Muslims to expel Serbs is very real and mathematical: One-third of the Serbs were to be killed, one-third expelled, and one-third forced to convert to Roman Catholicism.

His wife was told that she appeared on a Muslim "list" of those to be exterminated, and says that before the war she was told by a Muslim: "You will bleed one day, and the Americans will help us."

The disparity in the tales underscores the depth of the ethnic hatred in Bosnia, and the difficulty of rebuilding trust.

For example, Episkop Slavko's window at the Orthodox church almost overlooks Luka camp and he must have known what went on there.

But his description of what happened there is benign. Muslims were held there for "protection from undisciplined soldiers," he says. "They were put into a warehouse in Luka, so that in moments of calm they could be driven to the front line. There was no classic camp."

A similar response is voiced by Serbs coming to grips with collective guilt. Seen through the tinted lens of Serb propaganda, their side has never been in the wrong.

"Whenever we were about to liberate a town, it was declared a "safe area" by the United Nations," one Serb woman says. "Not a single Serb town was declared a safe area."

She claims that the 3-1/2 year siege of Sarajevo by Serb forces was never a siege, and that the half-million shells fired upon the Bosnian capital are a myth.

Twisting reality further, she says that the shell fired by Serbs at the Sarajevo market, killing dozens in February 1993, was lobbed by Muslim-led Bosnian forces to gain worldwide sympathy.

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