In Sarajevo, Ethnic Partition Plan Is Deeply Troubling
Bosnians of mixed heritage, cosmopolitan outlook see proposal as depriving them of home
SARAJEVO — THE proposal to carve up Bosnia-Herzegovina into separate Serb, Croat, and Muslim entities has caused dismay not only among Bosnian Muslims, but also among the many cosmopolitan Bosnians of different backgrounds, especially in the capital, Sarajevo, who still believe in pluralism and coexistence.
The Muslim-led Bosnian government, headed by President Alija Izetbegovic, rejected the partition proposal raised in Geneva last week by Serbs in talks chaired by European and United Nations mediators Lord David Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg.
"If he were to accept such a plan, he would not be able to come home; such is the strength of feeling here," says one government official in Sarajevo, sizing up Mr. Izetbegovic's position.
The problem for the Bosnian Muslims is one both of identity and of geography. By any standards, they will get the short end of the stick in any partition deal.
In 15 months of fighting, the Muslims have lost a great deal of territory - and had many thousands of their people displaced - as the Bosnian Serbs established their grip over some 70 percent of the country.
With the Croats entrenching themselves in about 20 percent of the land, that leaves only around 10 percent for the Muslims, who in the 1991 census made up 43.7 per cent of the population. (The Serbs constitute 31 percent and the Croats 17 percent.)
Some Bosnian Serb officials say they take it for granted that they would have to give up at least some land in exchange for a separatist peace - at least in the form of corridors linking Muslim enclaves.
But there is not yet any formulated Bosnian Serb position on how much territory they would cede.
Given that the Serbs clearly feel victorious, and that land gained by force is rarely yielded easily, the Muslims are not expected to win by negotiation much of what they had lost by arms.
Negotiating what all Muslims would regard as an inherently iniquitous deal would entail obvious risks. Any Bosnian government leader endorsing the partition could be courting displacement. And given the sense of injustice it would provoke, the formula itself could prove unstable, with the Muslims becoming increasingly radicalized.
"We will not give up. With the current cease-fire, we are just buying some time. We are getting some arms supplies in and making others ourselves. We will fight back," says a Bosnian Army officer.
A government official adds: "We would rather the United Nations simply pulled out, as it has only served our enemies by providing cover for Serbian expansionism.
"What we want is for the arms embargo on us to be lifted, so we can fight on level terms," the official says. "If the choice for us is between two forms of suicide, we would rather go down fighting."
For the Bosnian Muslims, the problem of identity is a real political issue. Especially in Sarajevo, Islam sits lightly on these people, whose forebears converted to the faith in the 15th century for essentially pragmatic reasons. Mosque-going believers are fairly few and far between.
Islam thus does not provide Bosnian Muslims with a sense of
national identity of the strength and type felt by the Bosnian Serbs and Croats, who look to Serbia and Croatia for both material and spiritual sustenance.
For many Bosnians, the "Muslim" tag assigned them by the international media is a source of great irritation. It's even more so for the many non-Muslims of Serb (Orthodox), Croatian (Catholic), or mixed origins living in "Muslim" areas, who do not share the dream of ethnically "pure" nations.
"I was brought up as a Yugoslav," says one Sarajevo resident. "Then I became a Bosnian. Now I suppose I am a Sarajevan." And being a Sarajevan is increasingly difficult, given building nationalist pressures.
According to the Serb Consultative Council, a pro-government body that opposes Serb separatism, there are about 80,000 Serbs and many Croats still living in Sarajevo, nominally regarded as a "Muslim" area.
"Mixed families in Sarajevo are the rule rather than the exception," says one Sarajevan of mixed Serbian and Croat parentage now married to a Muslim. "What is to happen to us if the country is carved up ?"
Her husband adds: "I come from a village where the majority is Serb. I don't want to lose my home."
But if the current trend continues, the cosmopolitan pluralists are likely to find themselves increasingly caught in the middle. Many Sarajevans complain of the arrival of large numbers of displaced Muslims who are less tolerant in their mind-set, and who have taken over some of the levers of local power.
Non-nationalist Serbs are increasingly obliged to keep a low profile for fear of attracting attention. But the pressures on identity are mounting from outside, too. A recent meeting of the mixed government-Serb-Croatian military commission had to be called off after the Bosnian Serb side refused to negotiate with the government team unless its leader, who was also a Serb, converted to Islam.
"I think we don't need any more internal borders, we need to live together as we did before this madness," says one Sarajevan.
But as happened in Lebanon and elsewhere, the best and the brightest, disillusioned, are trying to leave the country, believing there is no longer a place for them.
"I was always an optimist, but in this situation I'm being quite realistic," says a woman of mixed Serbian-Croatian parentage who recently married her similarly cosmopolitan husband.
Seeing no future for them here, they are planning to leave. "If this goes into another winter, it will go on and on, and it will become another Palestine," she says.