As if self-conscious of their own presence, the workmen issue terse shouts as the sharp cracks of their hammers pierce the eerie stillness of this weed-infested ghost town.
Few words are spoken as saws and cement mixers grind away. The workers are Bosnian Muslims returning home after being expelled by Bosnian Serbs in 1992, during one of their first large-scale "ethnic cleansing" campaigns.
In a month-long terror spree, masked paramilitaries raped Bosnian Muslim women and either killed the men or imprisoned them in camps. Televised images of emaciated prisoners behind barbed-wire fences shocked viewers around the world. Every house in the town was stripped and dynamited.
Today, about 900 refugees have moved back to Kozarac, into homes rebuilt with European Union funding.
"This is our house. We have nowhere else," says Farudin Kapetanovic, who spent time in the notorious Trnopolje prison camp down the road. He still has nightmares about the experience. "So many were killed. It's like every second neighbor I had is now gone," he says.
"The war is over, and things will be better soon," he continues, his face streaked with sweat and dust, his hands sunburned. "We're coming back."
The right of all Bosnian refugees, regardless of ethnicity, to reclaim their homes is a key element of the 1995 Dayton peace accord. But in the nearly five years since the agreement was signed, only a sporadic trickle of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats have returned to the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb sector within Bosnia. Yet minority returns are now on the rise.
Every week, three or four new homes go up here. The ongoing reconstruction of 500 houses will cost the EU more than $10 million, but projects like this are only the first step in a cycle of return.
Kozarac refugees, most of whom are living in Bosnian Muslim-controlled towns nearby, must pledge to live in their rebuilt houses. Their repatriation opens up their current accommodations, many of which were occupied by Bosnian Serbs before the war.
While Kozarac is a success story, life here is far from normal. The newly reconstructed houses with their red-tile roofs stand out among the skeleton-like ruins that line street after street.
The destruction of Kozarac, once a prosperous little town of 25,000, was carried out deliberately, much of it by local Serbs, with the intention of leaving it unfit for human habitation.
"It's all a bit different now, but it's good," says Azra Kapetanovic, Farudin's cousin. "We've had to start a new life, start everything from scratch. It's difficult because no one in the family works." She and her family live on her father-in-law's $100 a month pension.
Ms. Kapetanovic's seven-year-old daughter attends a separate school from Bosnian Serb children. "It's a divided city now," she says. "The Serbs have their part, and we have ours."
As Kapetanovic stands in her garden, the prerecorded call of the muezzin echoes across the surrounding foothills. During the war, Bosnian Serbs destroyed mosques on their territory, blotting out the last reminders of the long Ottoman Turkish rule.
Down on the main road, three bare-chested men - one the local priest - take a water break. "We don't mind the Muslims there," says Petar Tekic, a refugee from Livno, a town now under Bosnian Croat control. "But if I try to go back, I'm sure to have my throat slit," he says.
Unlike other towns in Bosnian Serb territory, where returning Bosnian Muslims have met with harassment and attacks, Kozarac has been quiet for the past 10 months. When reconstruction began two years ago, building sites were bombed and one person was killed. But the heavy presence of NATO-led SFOR troops and persistent international pressure have cowed local authorities.
"There are three factors that made this work," says Milburn Line, an international official working on refugee returns. "The SFOR presence, international community investment, and the determination of the people of Kozarac."
But what will happen once the international community leaves Bosnia?
"These police are the same people, the exact same people who were wearing military uniforms in the war," says Mr. Kapetanovic. The UN intends to introduce Bosnian Muslims into the local force as soon as possible.
Yet 4-1/2 years into the peace process, even optimist admit that the scattered return of refugees is woefully inadequate. Kozarac is a hopeful illustration of the slow and laborious progress in healing the wounds of postwar Bosnia.
But at this rate, many worry that the international community's patience will run out before Bosnia is healthy enough to stand on its own.
*A story on rebuilding efforts in Kosovo ran in our May 9 issue.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society