RADE VULETIC was so repulsed by Bosnia's ethnic war that he moved his family to a no man's land between Sarajevo's Serb-held suburb of Ilidza and the Croat-controlled town of Kiseljak. Bounded by rival armies, the Serb family waited for peace in a huge home they had begun building before the conflict erupted.
Two prominent Serb friends who had remained in Sarajevo recently came to Mr. Vuletic's home in the ''neutral'' territory to discuss salvaging the city's multiethnic heritage. Their talks led to a secret initiative between moderate Serbs and the Muslim-led Bosnian government to avert a mass exodus from Serb areas of Sarajevo that the Bosnia peace plan awards to the new Muslim-Croat federation.
''There are so many people like me. They are smart - they didn't want the war,'' Vuletic, founder of a large construction firm, says in disclosing the initiative to the Monitor and Washington Post. ''They are just waiting for a better time.''
The secret initiative appears to offer the first hope that Serbs might obtain the security from retribution they say they must have to stay in the Serb-held suburbs when the city is reunified in mid-March.
A flight by the estimated 70,000 Serbs from the suburbs seized by Serb rebels when the war erupted in 1992 could prove a serious threat to the long-term success of the US-brokered peace plan. Such an exodus would likely trigger the departure of about 40,000 Serbs still living inside the Muslim-dominated city as they would be a politically weak minority under the rule of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the party of Bosnian Muslim nationalism.
Without a multiethnic Sarajevo, there would be little hope for eventual Bosnian economic and social reintegration, which is critical to averting future strife among its Muslims, Serbs, and Croats.
''Only if we stay will Sarajevo be able to be reunited, and then Bosnia will be reunited,'' asserts Savo Vlaski, the vice president of the Serbian Civic Council (SCC), which represents moderate Sarajevo Serbs who refused to join their extremist brethren in the fight for an ethnically pure, independent Serb state.
It was Dr. Vlaski, a prominent dentist, and Brane Mahmunovic, Vuletic's closest friend, who met with Vuletic at the end of last month. After the pair returned to Sarajevo, they and other SCC members formulated a three-phase strategy. They then met with Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic and won his support for the first step, an amnesty proposal announced last week.
Vlaski says the SCC is seeking some changes to the amnesty plan before it is finally approved, including broader coverage for people who voluntarily enlisted in the Bosnian Serb army. That would provide protection from prosecution for everyone other than war criminals, he says.
The SCC has sought support for the changes from US diplomats; Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister who is overseeing the peace accord's civilian provisions; and Mr. Izetbegovic.
Izetbegovic ''has convinced us that he wants the law, but neither we nor the other side want just an oral promise,'' Vlaski says.
In a second phase, the SCC wants more protection for the Serb-held suburbs by peacekeepers of the 60,000-member NATO Implementation Force (IFOR). It is also seeking changes in the Bosnia peace plan that would give full law-enforcement powers to an international police force deploying in the suburbs. At present, the force may only monitor criminal acts and human rights violations.
Finally, the SCC believes that the Serb-held suburbs should be run by transitional administrations of prominent Serbs, Muslims, and Croats until national elections are held within nine months.
Mirko Pejanovic, the SCC president, says he believes the three-step plan would alleviate the fears felt by Serbs in the suburbs of persecution and vengeance by their foes. At the same time, he welcomes the departure of Serb refugees who took over homes from which Muslims and Croats were expelled when the war began.''Our estimate is that people who lived here before the war will stay here,'' says Mr. Pejanovic, speaker of the federation parliament.
But the secret initiative faces some potentially serious obstacles. Radical Serb leaders desperate to maintain their power could make good on threats of provoking a mass exodus and the burning of homes in the Serb-held suburbs of Ilidza, Vogosca, Iiija, Grbavica, and Hadzici.
The prospects of such a calamity loom large in the emotion-fraught aftermath of the Dec. 14 signing of the peace plan. But local Serb leaders, many of whom are anxious to keep their properties, appear ready to find a compromise in talks with Mr. Bildt and other Bosnian federation officials.
''We are looking for a mechanism that would ... allow these people to stay here,'' says Maksim Stanisic, the mayor of Ilidza. He says many Serbs who have been leaving Ilidza with their possessions have been depositing their cargoes in the self-styled Serbian Republic and returning to await an outcome to the negotiations.
The initiative could also be thwarted by the Bosnian Muslim party as SDA hard-liners are anxious to avenge the Serb siege of Sarajevo. SDA officials reportedly plan to sweep all Serb police and administrators in the Serb-held suburbs out of their jobs and replace them with Muslims. Such an act would guarantee a mass Serb flight and end any chance of restoring the city's centuries-old multiethnic traditions.
A third obstacle could be a lack of backing from the international community, especially the United States. American support is crucial, say moderate Serb leaders, in obtaining IFOR's agreement to boost its presence in the Serb-held suburbs. Until now, IFOR commanders have been interpreting their rules of engagement very narrowly and been unwilling to assume tasks they believe could lead to ''mission creep.''
''I have so many friends who think the way I do,'' says Vuletic. ''But [IFOR] has to give us more protection in order to reassure these people that they will not be maltreated or forced to leave.''