Brcko becomes 'neutral' Bosnian district

By Louis-Marie Tattevin


(AFP) - The proclamation of the "Brcko district of Bosnia and Hercegovina" on February 28 sees the international community take a further step in attempting to ease ethnic tensions and give substance to the Dayton peace accords.

The northeastern town of Brcko is the last territorial conundrum to be resolved in the wake of the 1992-95 conflict that saw hundreds of thousands of Bosnians killed or driven from their homes and into exile.

Strategically placed on the Sava river between Bosnia and its northern neighbor Croatia, Brcko stands guard over the thin sliver of territory that links the two halves of the Serb entity in Bosnia, the Republika Srpska.

Its pre-war population of 87,000 was more than 70 percent Muslim or Croat, but the Serbs regard control of the "Brcko corridor" as vital to the continued existence of their separatist republic.

Having delayed their ruling for as long as possible, the arbitration tribunal formed to determine the town's future finally grasped the nettle in March 1999 and decreed that it would be attributed neither to the Republika Srpska nor to the Croat-Muslim Federation but would become a "district" attached to both.

The tribunal headed by U.S. judge Roberts Owen said Brcko would have a transitional administration and an autonomous, multi-ethnic assembly and come under the sovereignty of the Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina, whose central institutions for the moment are an empty shell.

Apart from giving rise to jokes about the rival entities now holding 102 percent of Bosnian territory between them, the ruling has left largely unanswered the question of how the different communities are to be protected in the event of further unrest.

In preparation for the change of status, to be officially declared by Brcko supervisor Robert Farrand, the NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) ordered seven armed units from the two rival entities to disband. This was completed at the end of last year, with the destruction of their armaments.

But tensions are running high in each of the three main areas of what observers see as a microcosm of the international community's task in Bosnia.

The town is effectively divided into three areas by the predominant ethnic groups: Croats in Ravne/Brcko, Muslims in Brka and Serbs in Brcko town and the immediately surrounding areas.

The town police force has been integrated on paper, but remains largely under the control of the Serbs who discourage the return of refugees and are bent on cementing the results of "ethnic cleansing".

With its strategic road, rail and river links, Brcko was one of the first targets of the Serb-led Yugoslav army in April 1992 as it joined forces with local Serbs opposed to Bosnia's independence.

It was also the scene of some of the worst war crimes, as the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague acknowledged last December by handing Goran Jelisic, the self-styled "Bosnian Serb Adolf," a 40-year prison sentence for crimes carried out at the Luka prison camp in Brcko.

Earlier this month the Brcko Serbs -- many of them also refugees from other areas of Bosnia -- demonstrated against moves to expel them from the residences that they currently occupy in order to hand them back to their original owners.

Implementation of the new arrangements for Brcko will remain problematic, in the view of the experts, unless the problems of housing and employment are resolved satisfactorily.

Without jobs and homes, few refugees are likely to return and Brcko could suffer the fate of the eastern Slavonian town of Vukovar, which has remained severely under-populated despite being restored to Croatian sovereignty.

Original article