CEOL
Bosnia Serb hard-line town struggles to change image

FOCA, Bosnia, Aug 27, 2000 -- (Reuters) The Bosnian Serb hard-line stronghold of Foca, notorious for allegedly harboring suspected war criminals, is trying to change its image by quietly allowing the return of Moslems who lived there before the country's 1992-95 war.

Hundreds of Moslems have returned to villages around Foca in the last few months, living in tent settlements while they wait for help from international donors to rebuild their homes. None has returned to the town itself.

But in mid-August 50-year-old Edhem Hanjalic watched proudly as construction workers completed work on setting up a roof on his devastated house in the center of Foca, where Moslems were the majority before the Bosnian war.

Although his is the first Moslem house in Foca to be rebuilt, Hanjalic still doesn't feel safe enough to spend the night there.

"I intend to come back if conditions for normal life are fulfilled," he said during a ceremony marking the completion of the house.

"I think the conditions are still not there. I consider the situation normal if I can sleep in my house," said Hanjalic, who fled the east Bosnian town with his family early in the war, like most of those who escaped Serb death squads operating in the area.

FIRST MASS RETURN EXPECTED

Hanjalic was the only Moslem house owner who appeared at the ceremony held in Foca to mark German-sponsored efforts to help reconciliation in the town.

The German contingent of the NATO-led SFOR peacekeeping force, which inherited responsibility for the Foca area from French troops in March this year, last month launched a housing reconstruction project for Moslem returnees in the town center.

Hanjalic's house was one among five selected for reconstruction as part of the first phase of the housing program aimed at bringing about 50 Moslem families back.

Hanjalic has also found work locally. A construction entrepreneur, he divides his week between Sarajevo and Foca.

His Serb neighbors quietly gathered around the house, watching the construction work. Brena Pavlovic, 52, said she had nothing against the return of her Moslem neighbors. "We lived fine before the war," she said.

Colonel Hermann-Josef Dresbach, spokesman for the German contingent, said the eventual goal was to bring back a total of 500 Moslems by the end of the year.

Nicola Bacci, an official of the UN refugee agency working in the area, said the reconstruction of five houses represented the first pilot return project inside Foca (whose Serb name is Srbinje), and added that others should follow.

"There have been just some repossessions, which means that some people took the keys to their houses. But this is going to be the first mass return in the town," Bacci said.

DISPLACED SERBS ALSO WANT TO RETURN

Lutvo Sukalo, the Moslem president of the Foca municipal council, is the only Moslem who works in Foca on a daily basis.

He lives in the neighboring town of Ustikolina in the Moslem-Croat federation, which forms post-war Bosnia together with the Serb republic, but comes to work in Foca every day.

Sukalo, who heads the Foca multi-ethnic commission for return, said the return program also includes some 50 Serb families currently living in Foca who have expressed the wish to go back to their homes in Ustikolina.

The heads of these families now stay in a tent settlement in Ustikolina, and Sukalo said that he hoped that international donors would help them rebuild their houses in the area.

"If they vacate 50 houses that they are currently occupying in Foca, more Moslems would be able to come back," he said.

Milja Kovac, 64, a displaced Serb from Ustikolina, said she could not wait to go back to her home.

"I have lived fine with them (Moslems), and I want to go back to my property and live with them again," she said.

Of the 22,000 people currently living in Foca, some 5,500 are Serbs displaced from other parts of the Balkan country.

FOCA NO BLACK SPOT?

Cedo Stankovic, Foca's Serb deputy mayor, expressed satisfaction with the way the return process was proceeding.

"With the reconstruction of these houses, the Foca municipality has definitely showed and proved that it is open, free and safe for return," he told reporters.

He said the fact that no incidents had occurred during the return of Moslems to villages around Foca proved the process to be more successful than in some other parts of the Moslem-Croat federation and the Serb republic.

"We hope that with the return of refugees to the town itself the international community will erase Foca as the black spot from the map of Bosnia," Stankovic said.

George Vlachoiannis, head of the office in Foca of the international agency overseeing the Bosnian peace process, said he hoped a multi-ethnic police force would be formed in the town by the end of the year.

He also hoped that destroyed religious buildings would be rebuilt. All mosques in Foca were destroyed during the conflict.

"I think everybody within the international community must change their minds concerning Foca. In other words, we have this year a multi-national Foca," he said.

Vlachoiannis dismissed rumors that indicted war criminals, including Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic, were hiding in the area.

Bosnian and international media have often reported that Karadzic and other Bosnian Serb war criminal suspects are staying in the Foca region.



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