AS she stoops to unearth potatoes from the rich loam of the remote valley where her family has lived for generations, Marija keeps a constant watch for the police.
``A few days ago, they picked up some people here. I saw the police van arrive, and I dashed into the forest. I hid there until they left,'' the middle-aged Bosnian Croat peasant recounts on condition she be identified by a pseudonym.
``My home is here. My parents' graves are here. They can take me away, but I will come back again if my health allows,'' she promises, her weather-worn jaw locked in grim resolve.
Marija is among about 600 Croats who have for months been living as fugitives, hiding at home or with friends in the sooty steel and mining backwater of Vares and the isolated hamlets of its spectacular mountain environs.
Their only wrong has been to return without the permission of local Muslim authorities to the properties they abandoned when Vares fell last November to the Muslim-led Bosnian Army during Bosnia-Herzegovina's Muslim-Croat war.
Those arrested for returning ``illegally'' are deported back to Kiseljak, the Croat-controlled district to which most of Vares' 11,000-strong Croat majority was compelled to flee by retreating Bosnian Croatian fighters.
At least 50 Croats have been deported since the secret returns began in February with the US-sponsored Muslim-Croat peace accords, says Fr. Mato Topic, Vares' Roman Catholic pastor.
Cracks in the federation
What is happening in Vares illustrates one of the main problems undermining the United States-brokered Washington Accords that ended the Muslim-Croat war and led in April to the formation of their new federation.
While the accords called for the return of the tens of thousands of people uprooted by the conflict, local political resistance has prevented mass returns.
Because of that and other problems, including the Clinton administration's failure to make good on promises of political and economic counsel, the federation exists on paper only.
Marija first made her way home in July. But she was discovered after three weeks and deported back to Kiseljak with a cousin, who the police carried kicking and yelling from her home.
Tired of refugee life and driven by her fierce attachment to her land, Marija returned again last week, taking two days to trek and hitchhike the 25 miles from Kiseljak, where she had stayed in her sister's home.
``I can't live in someone else's house. We had food, but none of it was mine, and I could not last any longer. I just wanted to come home,'' she says.
Most of the returnees who have avoided arrest live desperate lives. They remain confined to their homes, unable to collect international food aid, work, or sell their produce, send their children to school, or avail themselves of social services.
``I have been going crazy,'' says Anka. She remains secretly in Vares since arriving in July on a seven-day pass to visit her husband, who has permission to stay in the town.
``I refused to go back. My husband is here. This is where I belong,'' says Anka, with hands clenched.
``The police want to deport me to Kiseljak. They have come twice. They look for me at our weekend house. They question neighbors. Each time they come, I go into hiding,'' she adds. ``It's like I'm under house arrest. I feel like a foreigner. I'm not free to walk around town.''
Local authorities refused repeated requests by the Monitor for interviews to explain their refugee-repatriation policy.
Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic met his Croatian counterpart, President Franjo Tudjman, the paramount chief of Bosnia's Croats, in Zagreb on Sept. 13 and 14 for talks to set the Washington Accords back on track.
They reaffirmed that all displaced should be allowed to go home. They also agreed that the ethnic power barons ruling towns like Vares be replaced by Sept. 30 by local councils whose makeups reflect as much as possible the results of the 1990 multiparty elections.
While senior politicians and many ordinary people recognize the need for Bosnia's Muslims and Croats to reunite against the Bosnian Serbs, however, many local leaders seem more intent on maintaining the ethnic divisions on which their power depends.
Such appears to be the case in Vares, whose Muslim leaders are now indulging in the same racist Balkan politics of which their people have been the greatest victims.
``There is little interest here for the efficient implementation of the Washington Accords,'' says Enver Fetisevic, a Muslim leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), former communists who defeated Vares's ethnic parties in the 1990 elections.
When the Muslim-Croat war erupted in mid-1993, the SDP was forced from power in Vares by local members of the Croatian Defense Council, the Bosnian Croat militia known as the HVO.
Even so, Vares remained an island of peace until that October, when HVO hard-liners from Kiseljak arrived, ousted the local HVO, and began terrorizing the district's 3,500 Muslims. On Oct. 23, they massacred more than 30 Muslims in the village of Stupni Do, giving the Bosnian Army the excuse it needed to move on Vares.
After the takeover, power passed to Mirvana Hadzimurtezic, the local leader of Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic's Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA). She allowed some 6,500 Muslim displaced from elsewhere in Bosnia to move into abandoned Croat homes.
As long as the new Muslim demographics can be preserved, the SDA can maintain its lock on the district, where it won only 19 percent of the 1990 election votes, says SDP leader Resad Zutic.
Should the Croat majority return, Ms. Hadzimurtevic would have to restore to power the SDP, which has tapped Mr. Zutic as her replacement.
Hence, Hadzimurtezic's policy to maintain the demographics by refusing to allow Croat displaced to return and expelling those who have returned without the permission of her government, Zutic says.
``There are now more Muslim refugees in Vares than Muslim residents. The SDA is playing this game so as not to change this new balance,'' asserts Zutic, who is a Muslim.
Senad Becic, who is Vares's chief Islamic cleric and is widely seen as a moving force behind the local SDA policies, denies that the party is trying to preserve the district's new ethnic makeup.
Mr. Becic says that the same number of Croats can return to Vares as the same numbers of Muslims expelled by the HVO are allowed back to Kiseljak and the nearby Croat-controlled town of Dastansko.
``I will support the departure of Muslims living in Croatian apartments, but only if they have a place to go,'' Becic says.
SDA opponents, however, decry the plan as fraudulent, saying it was instituted with full knowledge that Muslims are being stopped by local Croat leaders from returning to Kiseljak and Dastansko.
``This is a position that blocks the repatriation process because neither side wants these returns,'' Zutic says.
``So some people come back illegally. They are forced to hide. They don't have the status of citizens here. As a result, they can't get jobs or humanitarian aid cards,'' Zutic says.
Many people agree that only the return of the Croats and a political leadership change will allow the federation to function in Vares. And despite the present problems, there is cautious optimism that both conditions will be met.
The Roman Catholic priest, Fr. Topic, says, ``There is no alternative but to live together with the Muslims.''
But until that sentiment is shared by Vares's mayor and her subordinates, the ``illegal'' returnees must remain in hiding.
``I'm afraid they will send me back,'' Marija says. ``But I hope God will let me stay.''