Guns Holstered, Bosnians Warm Up to One Another

When Mike Shaffer was called to break up an illegal police checkpoint, he expected the usual: stony-faced officers harassing a civilian driver from the "other" ethnic group. But what he saw delighted him: Two Serbs and three Muslims - all cops - chatting merrily, eating purple grapes and the spicy sausage dish chiawappi in an impromptu picnic atop the Serbs' blue Volkswagen Golf.

"It's the best thing I've seen in five months," says Mr. Shaffer, a retired Denver cop who's part of a UN police group.

Bosnia has settled uneasily into a rigid ethnic partition, but when Muslims, Croats, and Serbs meet informally, relations are often warm. Police officers, doctors, and business people, left to their own devices, are finding that ties to their colleagues from the "other" ethnic group are as binding as the ones forcing them into ghettos of their own ethnicity.

The road where the policemen held their picnic is the one that separates the Muslim-dominated capital of the country, Sarajevo, from the Serb-held stronghold, Pale. It is a symbol of the rigid ethnic partition dividing Bosnia's Serbs from the Muslims and Croats - the parties who fought a bitter war until the Dayton accords brought peace to the region last November.

But the spontaneous picnic is symbolic, too. It is the kind of event the US and other nations involved in Bosnia hope will become a regular occurrence. Keep the guns silent long enough, the international community's rationale goes, and the individual ties that bind will become strong enough to hold Bosnia together.

Indeed, in the absence of gunfire, guard duty for the policemen - who usually stand at opposite sides of a mountain tunnel that divides the Serb and Muslim-Croat fiefdom - has become downright boring.

Their checkpoints see little activity because the border they guard is one that Serbs and Muslims are often too scared to cross. So, after nine months of Dayton-declared truce, the cops patrolling this mountain road have simply gone to join their colleagues just a few hundred feet away to pass the time.

For Shaffer, the show of spontaneous friendship between members of two police forces is not only a cause for optimism, but it makes professional sense.

"These are cops. Serb cops, Muslim cops, it doesn't make much of a difference," he says.

"I think there are many people on both sides who would like to meet," says Mladen, one of the Bosnian Serb policemen patrolling the Pale road. "I think we could get on with the peace here if we just arrest the war criminals."

Mladen says that Serb and Muslim policemen have actually been getting snacks and drinks together at The Lido, a cafe in the Bosnian Serb town of Pale for the past couple weeks. The policemen all agree that relations between them have gotten less stiff since tension-filled elections passed last month.

United by slow pace of life

In the western Sarajevo suburb of Dobrinje, which is split in two by the boundary line which divides the Serb-held Republika Srpska from the Muslim-Croat Federation, the corner where the two sides meet is lined up with Serb taxi drivers on one side, and Muslim and Croat taxi drivers on the other. They gossip together while waiting for fares.

Policemen in the town's two forces have an easy relationship, offering directions to lost drivers, and sharing information.

While tensions in divided Dobrinje still often flare up at night, during the day, Serbs who need bread often find it is safe and easy to walk across to the better stocked Muslim side to do grocery shopping.

Doctors see a greater cause

An official with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Sarajevo says Serb and Muslim doctors are also willing to cooperate to rebuild Bosnia's broken down health care infrastructure, but are being inhibited by their own politicians.

"The Bosnian Serb minister of health has been extremely willing to cooperate with his Muslim counterpart, but he says that he fears he will be fired soon by the Bosnian Serb political leadership," says the WHO official, who asked not to be identified.

The example illustrates what many here see on the ground: Bosnia's politicians, who are supposed to be leading the effort to reconcile the nation's ethnic groups, may be obstructing it.

Left to their own devices, many ordinary people and professionals might welcome more interaction with their colleagues and friends, and are chafing at the artificial limits placed on them by partition.

When there's money to be made...

Bosnia's organized crime rackets are already well known for overlooking ethnicity in order to make money. In the southwestern Bosnian city of Mostar, the Croatian police and the Muslim police are affiliated with mafias that have made Mostar the stolen-car capital of Europe. Stolen cars from Germany make it past paid-off customs officials in Croatia, into the Bosnian Croat side of Mostar, and then into the Bosnian Muslim side of Bosnia, where they are sold.

Drugs and illegal arms have gotten into Bosnia through the same route, with Croatian and Bosnian Muslim mobs reported to have organized a solid system of cooperation.

Some Bosnian entrepreneurs say they ignore the ethnic partition because it has no place in business, and they are constantly looking at how to expand their market.

'I am a businessman first'

"I am in the business of banking," explains Ibrahim Dedic, the president of Promdei Banks, one of the largest banking groups in Bosnia. "I have banks in Sarajevo, Bihac, Tuzla, Mostar, and affiliations with banks all over the world. I will do sound business with anyone, I don't care who they are are. When I am in Russia, I speak Russian. When I am in New York, I speak English. Here, I don't care if you are Serb or Muslim or Bulgarian or Czech. I am a businessman first, a professional."

Back on the mountainside road, the Muslim and Serb policemen drive off in their identical Volkswagen Golfs back to their respective capitals at the end of shift. They plan to chat again the next time they are on duty.

With young children at home, the same beat, the same language, and tight pocketbooks, the young men say they have more in common than the blue of the Serbs uniforms, and the green of the Muslim uniform, would indicate.

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