MILAN and Mehila Bozic were once as vital to the well-being of Tuzla as the salt mines and chemical plants of this Bosnian government-held industrial center.
Mr. Bozic, a Christian Orthodox Serb, and his Muslim wife were among the 40 percent of Tuzla's married couples whose partners came from different ethnic groups before Tuzla changed.
These interethnic marriages were long the glue of the Muslim-dominated city's social fabric. They ensured that, in Bosnia's last polls in 1990, Tuzla elected a multiethnic party of pro-reform socialists, while nationalists won most everywhere else.
When Serb separatists began their racial purification conquests in 1992, many Tuzla Serbs, particularly those in mixed marriages, joined the Muslim-led Bosnian Army to defend their multiethnic coexistence.
And when Croat extremists staged their failed bid last year to overrun their own piece of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Tuzla's Croats remained loyal to the Bosnian government.
But after 30 months of war, what many called the ``Tuzla miracle'' now appears doomed by the bleak prospects for peace, and there is a growth in the intolerance and self-interested ethnic politics that swept most other parts of Bosnia long ago.
``We see no future for people like us in this area,'' says Mr. Bozic, as he and his wife sip coffees in a crowded cafe. ``We just want to leave.''
More than 20,000 of the Tuzla region's prewar population of 130,000 residents have already left, most of them Serbs. Many have secretly crossed the front lines. Others have joined Muslim and Croat neighbors emigrating via Croatia.
Simultaneously, thousands of Muslims from the countryside have migrated to Tuzla in search of work. Most are poor, illiterate peasants among whom Muslim nationalism runs rampant.
The result has been a huge demographic shift. Muslims, who constituted 50 percent of the district's prewar population, are now an estimated 80 percent. Croats have gone from 12 percent to 15 percent, while Serbs have dropped from 16 percent to about 7 percent.
Residents say that many people leave because they can no longer cope with the hardships of war, which grew especially dire last winter when Tuzla's only supply route from Croatia's coast was blocked by Muslim-Croat fighting in central Bosnia.
But a majority go because they no longer believe the old Tuzla can be preserved, residents say.
Boban Ilic, a Serb married to a Croat and a member of the executive board of Tuzla's Association of Mixed Marriages, says about 30 percent of interethnic couples have joined the exodus.
``Tuzla is not the same,'' says Mr. Ilic, the coach of Tuzla's basketball team that won the 1989 European championships. ``The rural immigration has changed the structure of the population.
``Tuzla's Muslims have a European orientation. Those coming from the villages are nationalists,'' Ilic continues.
Tuzla is also awash with tens of thousands of Muslim refugees, who have brought with them anti-Serb hatreds bred by the killings, rapes, and other abuses their communities have suffered.
Caslav Jevremovic, the president of the Serbian Community of Tuzla says, ``We are worried. Things are more difficult.''
Serbs, as well as secular Muslims and Croats, have been further alienated by the United States-sponsored formation in April of Bosnia's Muslim-Croat federation.
``The federation is based on ethnicity and not on citizenship, and it can't be a basis for democracy,'' complains Zlatko Dukic, the Muslim president of Tuzla's Social Democratic Party, an ally of the city's ruling socialists.
With the federation based on the ethnic divisions they so firmly oppose, many Tuzla Serbs now refuse to join the Bosnian Army and have been prosecuted by the Muslim-led central government.
They include Bozic, who was sentenced to a year in jail earlier this month. He served 17 days before being released pending an appeal of his conviction after his wife paid a bribe.
``My mother is on the other side. I can't fight against them,'' he explains. ``If I stay in Tuzla, [the Bosnian Army] will put me back in jail. If I go to the other side [Bosnian Serb], they will put me in their army. But my wife's family is here, so I won't shoot at this side.''
There is a consensus that Tuzla's socialists have struggled hard to protect non-Muslims and persuade them to stay, even distributing arms to reassure Serbs in isolated villages. But their future is now threatened by Muslim nationalists of Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic's Party of Democratic Action (SDA).
Tuzla merged with 16 other municipalities this month into the first of the cantons that will make up the Muslim-Croat federation.
Because it dominated the other municipalities, the SDA took control of the cantonal government, allotting the Croatian Democratic Union three of 15 ministries and keeping the rest itself. It appointed no Serbs.
The cantonal government is now poised to assume most of the functions of Tuzla's multiethnic socialist administration. In doing so, it will deprive the remaining Serbs of the only political security they feel they have.
The SDA, however, displays scant sensitivity to this.
``The federation ... is a federation of Bosnijaks [Muslims], Croats and others, who include the Serbs,'' says Izet Hadzic, the cantonal president and SDA chief. ``A Serb can participate in government, but he would represent the others.''
Rise of strident Islam
In what many see as a more ominous development, the increase in the SDA's power has been accompanied by a growth in the influence in the Tuzla area of conservative Islamic clerics. They have begun decrying mixed marriages and calling for a ban on alcohol.
Such pronunciations have outraged many citizens, fueling fears over Islamic extremism and the desires of many to leave.