Alienated Bosnians May Get to Phone Home

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

During the 4-1/2 year Bosnian war, telephones were used as weapons. Now they are being viewed as a potential instrument for peace.

When Bosnian Serb leaders began their fight in 1992 to carve out an ethnically homogenous Serb state in what was an ethnically mixed Bosnia, they launched a campaign to make lifelong Serb, Muslim, and Croat neighbors terrified of each other. The military effort to ethnically cleanse Muslims and Croats from territory the Serbs claimed was accompanied by propaganda to make the civilians believe they could never live together again.

To seal the division between the ethnic groups, telephone lines between the sides were blocked, so that old neighbors and friends could not talk with one another and get information that might make them oppose the ethnic division of the country. Now those links may be restored.

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The 1995 Dayton peace accords, which brought peace to the region, gave the Serbs 49 percent of Bosnia. Muslims and Croats got the rest. By the time the ink dried on the Dayton maps, the fluid boundary line that was supposed to separate the Serbs from the Muslim-Croat entities had become almost as forbidding as the Berlin Wall.

The de facto ethnic partition between the two sides has been reinforced by a technical segregation that is stalling international efforts to reconcile the former warring populations. The war has been over for nine months, but phone lines between the Muslim-Croat and the Bosnian Serb entities haven't been turned back on.

Now, international officials are reporting progress in convincing Bosnia's new leaders to restore telecommunications links between the entities.

"I think we are close to a real breakthrough," says Captain Joseph D'Addario of NATO's 22nd Signal Brigade in Tuzla. After months of negotiating with officials on both sides of the Inter-Entity Boundary Line (IEBL), he reports, "I think we have the green light to restore some links between the Republika Srpska and the Muslim side."

Letting their fingers do the walking

Many Bosnians are eager to speak with their old neighbors, friends, and relatives who now live on the other side. And many of Bosnia's 3 million war-displaced people want to find out if they can return to their old homes.

Before refugees can even consider returning to their homes on the other side, they would like to make some telephone calls to investigate: Is the house still standing? Is it safe to go back? Are old neighbors glad to hear from them? Is some new family living in their house?

"With a flick of a lever somewhere in Lukavice, the telephone lines between [the Bosnian Serb capital] Pale and Sarajevo could be restored," reports Michael Maclay, a deputy to UN mediator Carl Bildt, referring to the Sarajevo suburb where Bosnian Serb and Muslim-Croat sides touch and where a key phone exchange center is located.

While several thousand telephone lines were destroyed in the fighting, NATO officials working to restore Bosnia's communications say those between Sarajevo and Pale are in good shape and only need to be turned back on.

"It's not like Kuwait, when the telephone lines [between Iraq and Kuwait] were cut, they were actually destroyed," says Col. Lou Bruun of the NATO-led Peace Implementation Force in Sarajevo. "The lines here are in good shape. The two sides just have to decide that they want to let their people speak with each other."

Until recently, the Bosnian Serb leadership has actively resisted the idea of restoring telephone links that they suspect will lead to Muslims and Croats returning to their homes on the Serb side. But when the three members of Bosnia's joint presidency met last week, one of the first agreements made was that they wanted their offices connected by phone and fax. Being connected, they quickly agreed, is a key to any chance at effective government.

First phones, then trade

International officials here are convinced that it is only a matter of time before telephone links are reestablished. They say that the renewal of these links will be followed by more crossing of the IEBL by people.

"The division between the sides as it stands now is simply not sustainable, neither politically nor economically," Mr. Bildt says. "People want to talk with each other. They want to trade with each other."

Alex, a young Serb woman in Rogatitsa, says that she has gone to Muslim-held Sarajevo twice in the past month to go shopping. "I ran into a Muslim friend of mine. We both started crying. I can't explain what I felt," she says. "She gave me her telephone number."

While the trips into territory held by the other side render palms sweaty, Bosnians are showing that in the end generations of living together may have more pull on them than the past 4-1/2 years of ethnic conflict.

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