A Centuries-Old Serb Enclave Stands Firm

Villages around Bosnia's Mt. Ozren resist being placed under any non-Serb authority

LIKE most of the men in this impoverished farming hamlet, Milan Radovic quit his job, bid his family farewell, and joined the conquest of the self-declared Serb state in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

After 18 months on front lines across the now-devastated northern tier of the former Yugoslav republic, Mr. Radovic has returned home, disillusioned and bitter, wondering what he fought for. ``Why didn't our leaders tell us before we began bleeding that they would sell us out?'' asked Radovic as he stood in his garden, cradling his baby daughter. ``It's logical to ask, `Why Ozren?' ''

Questions of that kind illustrate why attempts to broker peace between the three warring factions in Bosnia have failed.

The 55 villages in the forested slopes and rugged valleys around Mt. Ozren were to be included in a Muslim republic that would have been created by an international peace plan dividing Bosnia into three ethnic ministates. That plan fell early this month when the Bosnian Serbs rejected land concessions sought by the Muslim-dominated Bosnian Parliament.

Although the Bosnian Serbs have conquered 70 percent of the republic through fighting and ``ethnic cleansing,'' Ozren makes clear the cost to the Bosnian Serb leadership of relinquishing too much.

Throughout the war, Ozren's 50,000 Serb peasants never doubted that they would be included in the state for which they were asked by their leaders to sacrifice their lives. The region has for centuries been the center of the largest purely Serb enclave in Bosnia. It was with fury and disbelief that they learned that Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic agreed to give Ozren to the Muslim republic.

``I was released from the army in May. But when I heard about it, I was so revolted that I went back to the front. I wanted to kill somebody,'' exclaims Borislav Simic, a former factory worker. ``Karadzic can't give Ozren away like any hand-me-down,'' he says. ``I will become a rebel. I will kill anybody. I will not leave.''

Mirko Ristic, a senior police officer, agrees: ``People will be ready to fight.''

Many Ozren Serbs believed that they would be forced to surrender their properties to some of the hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees uprooted from other areas of the war-savaged country. Others said they would refuse to live under the authority of those against whom they have been fighting.

Such misgivings have contributed to warnings that dividing Bosnia could ignite population migrations of up to 1 million people that could result in slaughters similar to those triggered by the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent. Peasantry's roots

Many Ozren Serbs have vowed to resist divisions of Bosnia that would leave them outside of a Bosnian Serb republic, even if that meant battling the NATO forces, including United States troops, that would be sent to enforce a peace plan.

``We will double the number of soldiers if we have to. Even women will fight,'' declares Tomislav Blagojis, a farmer, as he offers some guests drinks on the back porch of his modest home. ``We will rather die than move.''

The savagery of the devastating conflict that has claimed almost 200,000 lives in Bosnia is in part rooted in the peasantry's ferocious attachment to the land.

Nowhere is that affinity stronger than in Ozren.

The Ottoman Turks bypassed Ozren in their 15th century conquest of Bosnia, content to leave its fiercely independent Serbs alone as long as they paid taxes and refrained from attacking them. The Nazi Germans also avoided Ozren in their World War II occupation. Instead, its people fought each other, divided between pro-monarchy Serbian guerrillas known as Chetniks and the eventually victorious communist Partisans of Josip Broz Tito.

Anchored around the mountain from which its name derives, the finger-shaped region has for most of today's conflict been virtually encircled by Bosnian Army troops, the only access on its eastern wing a narrow, heavily defended corridor from Doboj.

A rutted, semipaved road runs along the Sockovac River between front lines that parallel each other and run south for some 80 miles before looping north and following the Bosna River back toward Doboj.

In many places, including the main village of Petrovo Selo, the front is just 200 yards away. Several hundred yards beyond enemy lines, the minarets of Muslim settlements stand as constant reminders to the Serbs of Mr. Karadzic's duplicity.

Milan Nedic, a grizzle-faced soldier, said he did not want to join the Bosnian Serb army at the start of the war, but finally did ``only for the survival of Ozren.... One thousand people were killed or wounded in this area and now we are being sold out.''

The Serbs' claim to the region stems from the presence of the Ozren Monastery, a Serbian Orthodox church built more than 500 years ago several miles outside of Petrovo Selo.

``Ozren - the heart of the Serbs,'' proclaims a sign painted on a rock next to the rutted, unpaved road that leads to the monastery, which has given Mt. Ozren a semi-sacred status.

``This monastery is older than America. It would be genocide to cleanse more than 50 villages without any reason,'' says Brother Theodore, one of two monks living there. ``The people are angry at the politicians. They will not accept this. There is no sense in a plan that will make the largest Serbian area Muslim. I will try to stay here, but if they burn everything, I will probably go.''

Karadzic defended his decision to relinquish Ozren by asserting that its people must consider the greater interests of the ``Serbian nation.'' An economic liability

Many analysts believe that Karadzic had important considerations in mind. By jettisoning the peninsula-shaped region, he could create a more uniform, defendable border for his formative republic's northern flank.

More important, the area has little economic value, and what prewar commercial and transportation links existed were oriented toward the towns of Gracanica, Lukavac, and Tuzla - all of which the peace plan would have placed in the Muslim republic.

Karadzic and his patron, President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, are finding it increasingly difficult to keep alive important war-damaged economic centers, let alone support remote areas like Ozren, to which precious fuel, food, and weapons must be diverted. For those reasons, some Ozren residents admit that they would pack up and move to a Bosnian Serb republic if placed under Muslim authority.

``This is a poor region and we don't have resources,'' says one man, speaking on condition of anonymity. ``A minority would probably try to see that we stay here. But a majority of people think that if an order comes, they would probably leave.''

Not so, argues Mr. Ristic, the police officer, who refuses to believe Ozren will be abandoned. ``I think they will find some other territory to give the Muslims instead,'' he says, a tremor in his voice belying his confidence.

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