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Many-Layered Process in Bosnia

March 6, 1996



BOSNIA has receded from the headlines in recent days as events in other parts of the world - notably the Middle East - have literally and tragically exploded.

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But Bosnia remains a central challenge to international order, with profound implications for the future. If religious and ethnic conflicts can be effectively addressed there, the chances of addressing them elsewhere will be immeasurably enhanced.

The work of the Implementation Force has so far gone reasonably well. But the imposition of a cease-fire is just a beginning. What could count even more are ground-level, grass-roots efforts at reconciliation and democracy-building made possible by IFOR's presence.

The picture on the ground this week is typically dark, but mixed in are some glints of hope. Bosnian Serbs continue their dreary trek out of Sarajevo's suburbs. They are driven by their leaders' fear-mongering propaganda and by a mid-March deadline for turning over all such towns in the vicinity of the capital to Bosnia government (i.e., Muslim) control.

The Serbs exiting Sarajevo, taking even their dead with them, pour into the Serb-held sector of Bosnia, only to scrounge for shelter and perhaps displace the few Muslims remaining there. The grim process of ethnic cleansing thus goes on, even under the Dayton accord. Ironically, it's now coming down hardest on the Serbs.

Meanwhile, continued passions of war in Mostar and other southern Bosnian towns keep Croats and Muslims at odds.

How can this legacy of politically coerced group separation, rife with resentments and anger, be lifted?

It will take extraordinary patience and good will, and time - all of which are at a premium in Bosnia. A sense of urgency is unavoidable, since IFOR's term of duty is up by the end of this year, and national elections are scheduled for this September. If the latter exercise in democracy is to have any lasting meaning - and not just cement nationalistic divisions - the ground must be prepared now.

Basic to that task are efforts to bring individual Muslims, Serbs, and Croats together to discuss their differences, their hopes, and their common future. The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies has sponsored a series of meetings among Muslim, Catholic, and Serbian Orthodox clergy and laypeople. The Oregon-based group, Mercy Corps International, is also active, as are many other church-related and aid organizations.

Such endeavors can seem terribly small next to the viciousness that has marked the Bosnian conflict. But contacts across ethno-religious lines in Bosnia are a critical investment in that country's future. How many people would really welcome such contact? Perhaps more than the political hard-liners would care to admit. Reports of constructive relations between the few Serbs that have remained behind in Sarajevo and the Bosnian police assigned to their areas are a hint of goodwill.

These grass-roots efforts should be of a piece with broad, internationally backed economic rebuilding. People have to see something other than destruction taking place around them.

Greater commitment on that front could help wean Bosnia's government from potentially destructive alliances with Iran's Islamic extremists. Support for the work of the War Crimes Tribunal is crucial too. The international forces in Bosnia must take a stronger role in identifying suspects and, when possible, detaining them. Allowing the perpetrators of atrocity impunity will deepen resentment and make reconciliation that much harder.

The most optimistic observer might hope that by this fall a start, at least, could be made at reconciliation. This should include the formation of multiethnic political parties, such as that now being planned by former prime minister Haris Silajdzic. Tremendous energy will be required to organize the balloting in a country where millions have been uprooted and deprived of community or address.

By year's end, the country's divisions are not likely to be healed, but a healing process could be under way. And a world community attuned to the benefits of dousing the Balkans' long-burning fuse should be willing to give that process more time.