Cafe Bosna Special: A Bowl of Refuge With Islamic Spice

These refugees from the war in Bosnia are trying to win it

THE paintings hanging in the Cafe Bosna portray an idyllic version of a life not easily recaptured: The landscapes of Bosnia are green, the villages peaceful, and the people seem in no hurry.

Around the cafe's tables sit men who are seemingly relaxed. The music is upbeat with an Islamic flavor. One might think that Cafe Bosna is just another popular hangout in an ethnically diverse Hamburg neighborhood.

But appearances in this case are deceiving.

Though most cafe regulars are reticent to tell outsiders, many harbor a horror story -- internment in a Serb-run concentration camp; combat in the trenches; relatives disappeared or property destroyed in ethnic-cleansing campaigns.

''My place is a real safe haven for a lot of people,'' says Husein Besic, Cafe Bosna's owner, referring to the Muslim refugees who have come to Germany to escape the warfare that is tearing Bosnia apart and shows no sign of ending soon. There are 25,000 Bosnians in Hamburg alone, Mr. Besic estimates. About half are war refugees, and many came to Germany illegally, he admits.

''A lot of people who come in here are in bad physical and psychological shape because they've suffered so much,'' says Besic. ''Here we can talk about experiences. Talking about it can help people to get over it. Sometimes people just need a shoulder to cry on and afterward they feel better.''

Yet no one talks about forgiving and forgetting. How to fight back, and avenge, preoccupies the cafe's clientele.

''Every day we discuss the war. We can't talk about anything else,'' Besic says. ''Bosnia can never be divided, there can be no ethnic borders.... I'll never accept that situation. Never.''

The war in the Balkans has worsened in recent days. A cease-fire that held throughout much of the winter collapsed after the mainly Muslim Bosnian Army opened an offensive against Bosnian Serb positions. With the fighting escalating again, containing the war within Bosnia seems to be the best the world's major powers can hope for.

At Cafe Bosna, Besic said he does everything possible to help the Sarajevo government's war effort.

Although he didn't openly say so, Besic indicated he is actively trying to procure weapons for the Bosnian Army. There is technically a United Nations-imposed arms embargo on the combatants in Bosnia. But getting arms into the country isn't such a big problem, cafe frequenters indicate.

Although they now make their homes in the West, many at Cafe Bosna hold the European powers responsible for the warfare in their homeland.

''If the European Union had demanded from the start that Bosnia remain integral, then we wouldn't be at the point we're at now,'' says Besic.

For most, the last three years have strengthened their ties to Islam. With ethnic Serbs holding roughly 70 percent of Bosnian land, faith is becoming the main pillar of support of Bosnian cultural identity.

In every painting on Cafe Bosna's walls, a mosque is featured prominently. Faith will sustain their struggle, Besic said.

''There's no turning to fundamentalism. However, faith has become stronger than before,'' he says. ''The Serbs no longer can flatten our villages, because now we have an Army that can defend our homeland.

''This war will only end with the defeat of the Serbs,'' he adds.

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