TWO weeks ago, Bosnian Muslim and Croat soldiers caught glimpses of each other only through the lenses of their sniper sites in central Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Now 10 days into the latest truce, which both sides hope will be the last, soldiers are curiously peering around barricades and exchanging pleasantries through newly placed United Nations peacekeepers positioned between the two sides.
``It's incredible,'' says one UN British soldier manning a new checkpoint placed between Croat and Muslim troops in Stari Vitez. ``Last week they were blowing each others' heads off, and now they are asking me to pass chocolates and cigarettes back and forth to each other.''
Stari Vitez is the old quarter of Vitez, where an estimated 1,200 Muslims are crammed into a 720-square-yard-patch of dilapidated dwellings. The town's residents have managed to hold off Bosnian Croat soldiers besieging Vitez for the past 10 months.
But Vitez itself is a Croat pocket completely surrounded by Muslims who are, in turn, completely surrounded by Serbs and Croats. The configuration epitomizes the seemingly unmendable patchwork of ethnically divided territory Bosnia has become.
Before last week, those divisions seemed beyond repair. Bosnian Croat and Muslim forces were originally allied against the Serbs, but that alliance broke down just over a year ago when the Bosnian Croat forces, known as the HVO, demanded that Muslim-led Bosnian government troops come under their control, purged Muslims from the government, and forced thousands of Muslims from their homes.
Since then the HVO, backed by Croatia, has been fighting fierce battles with Muslim-led Bosnian government forces in central Bosnia in an effort to carve out their own Bosnian Croat ministate, which would eventually merge with a ``Greater Croatia,'' UN and diplomatic sources say.
The Bosnian Muslims have since launched successful counteroffensives in central Bosnia that have sent thousands of Bosnian Croats fleeing the area.
But yesterday, the once deserted streets were packed with soldiers who had just come back from the front lines. People emerged from their shelters to repair their roofs and fix their broken windows. Most former neighbors-turned-enemies refrained from direct contact, but many waved to each other from across the confrontation line.
One man pushed the limits. For 10 months Davor Markovic, a Bosnian Croat, had dreamed hopelessly of a reunion with his wife, Dzeneta, a Bosnian Muslim.
From his apartment in Croat-controlled Vitez he could see Stari Vitez, where she was trapped 550 yards away. Encouraged by the cease-fire and presence of UN troops, Mr. Markovic decided he could no longer bear the separation.
Defying danger warnings from his fellow Bosnian Croat soldiers, a determined Markovic, his heart pounding, took a deep breath and walked slowly across no man's land. ``I just trusted that they would not shoot,'' he says. ``When you can see the UN soldiers there, you feel so brave. You know that they can see everything that happens.''
As he got closer, the men pointing their guns at him began to recognize Markovic and slowly let down their guard. Most of them had attended his wedding just 11 months earlier, only weeks before he and his wife were separated by war.
``Those 10 or 15 steps were the most nerve-wracking steps of my life,'' Markovic says, adding ``not because I was worried about getting shot, but because I was so nervous to see Dzeneta,'' he says with a laugh.
After greeting him warmly with bear hugs and cheers, the soldiers finally went to get Dzeneta. The two had 10 minutes together. With the help of UN soldiers, they were able to have a bit of privacy and a long-awaited kiss amid applause from onlookers. ``We just had time to say `I love you,' and we were both crying,'' the lanky former factory worker says as tears well up in his eyes.
The UN has established 10 joint Muslim- and Croat-controlled checkpoints on key roads throughout the region. It is just one aspect of a complex cease-fire agreement reached between Bosnian Army commander Rasim Delic and his Croat counterpart, Ante Roso, on Feb. 23.
As part of the accord, Croat and Muslim forces began either handing in their heavy weapons to UN collection sites or pulling them back from the front lines - six miles for mortars and 12 miles for tanks and heavy artillery. On several fronts, witnesses saw the withdrawal begin a day earlier than the Monday deadline. Military hardware removed from the lines that have seen bitter fighting for the better part of a year ranged from two Muslim T-55 tanks to a Croat howitzer manufactured in 1942.
The accord is modeled on an agreement concluded between warring Serb and Muslim factions around Sarajevo on Feb. 9. But unlike the Sarajevo agreement, the central Bosnia accord does not have the backing of NATO air power to enforce the truce. Instead, the UN is relying on the good will of both sides to comply.
``I remember well when cease-fires were signed,'' says Senela, a Muslim refugee from Mostar in southern Bosnia who now lives in Muslim-controlled Travnik, 12 miles west of Vitez. ``We all knew we would have to go back in our basements again soon because they just meant more war and more shelling. ``But this [cease-fire] is different,'' Senela adds, ``I feel like this is it, like this is the end of the war.''
The difference this time appears to be United States involvement. Rather than threatening Croatia with sanctions to end its policy in Bosnia, the US has offered Croatia incentives to convince its proxy Bosnian Croat self-proclaimed state in Bosnia to mend its alliance with Bosnian Muslims.
The scheme envisages a Muslim and Croat ``federation'' with a powerful central government on just over half of Bosnia's territory. The federation, in turn, is to merge in a looser economic union with Croatia proper.
The US has offered Croatia's war-drained economy massive reconstruction loans, possible membership in Partnership for Peace, and associate membership in the European Union.
``The difference this time is that the leaders really want to stop,'' Senela says. ``They made the war end just as quickly as they started it.''