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Ethnic Discord : Peaceful Island for Serbs, Croats : As Yugoslavia's war rages around it, Bosnia-Herzegovina clings to brotherhood.

February 11, 1992|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SARAJEVO, Yugoslavia — In this mountain-rimmed city best remembered as the launch pad for World War I, Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats today live together in peace and perplexity.

In the 78 years since a Serbian nationalist assassinated Austria's crown prince and plunged Europe into a conflagration, the diverse peoples of Bosnia-Herzegovina claim to have learned a lesson about ethnic extremes.

Here, in the most integrated and complicated of Balkan republics, the three main nationalities feel they have made a success of the Yugoslav experiment where others failed.

Couples such as Azra and Ismet Pesic wave off politicians' dire warnings of an impending explosion of conflict. In the gaudy green-and-yellow apartment house that the Bosnian Muslims share with Serbian and Croatian families, residents seem amused by reports they are about to be consumed by war.

"We're just common people going about our business. There's no problem here, except among the higher-ups," insists Azra, who commiserates over thick Turkish coffee with Serbian neighbors from across the hall.

"My youngest is about to be called for his army service, but he knows better than to fight in such a stupid war," says the salesclerk and mother of two. "My sons will never raise a gun against someone just because he's a Serb or a Croat or a Muslim or a Jew. As their mother, I am sure of this."

Tens of thousands of Serbian-led federal troops are deployed at potential flash points throughout Bosnia, with aircraft and heavy artillery positioned to back them up. But the peoples of Bosnia, having pulled back from several glances into the abyss of civil war, contend they can foil outside attempts to set them against each other.

"We have already experienced several peaks--crisis points at which everyone said Bosnia would explode, but it didn't," observes Kemal Kurspahic, editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje. "I wouldn't be so bold as to say the threat is over. There are still new fires being set under the Bosnian pot.

"But I think this republic is the best example that we in this part of the world--call it Yugoslavia if you want, although that name is somewhat outdated--that we not only can, but must, live in peace. When you live this close together, you cannot shoot at your neighbor without the bullet ricocheting into your own home."

The Serb-Croat war that has claimed more than 10,000 lives has not spread to Bosnia, Kurspahic says, because the ethnic balance prevents any one group from dominating and abusing the others.

No single nationality claims a majority in Bosnia, where about 44% are Bosnian Muslims, 32% Serbs and 18% Croats. Many prefer to call themselves Yugoslavs, either because of mixed origin or loyalty to the dying idea of forging a single Balkan identity.

While a fever of divisiveness and nationalism absorbs Serbs and Croats in their respective republics, most here seem to recognize that ethnic borders cannot be drawn.

"We have 650,000 people from mixed marriages in this republic. This will be the army that protects us," says Interior Minister Alija Delimustafic, who is responsible for police and security in the republic of 4.5 million.

Despite the professions of brotherhood and the fact of thorough integration in urban areas like Sarajevo, there is palpable fear in rural areas of the republic and in the corridors of power in this capital city.

"The citizens of this republic are armed," warns Foreign Minister Haris Silajdzic, referring to reports that 2 million civilians here keep guns. "It is a sad fact that small groups of militants might be able to spark conflict, because the vast majority genuinely do not want war."

Silajdzic worries that his republic is perceived by Belgrade and Zagreb as a potential solution to the Serb-Croat war, which is more a fight for control of territory than one based on ethnic hatred. If Serbia and Croatia carve up Bosnia between them, they could sate both appetites and call quits to their war. But such a solution would ignore the fate of the Muslims, and Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, a Muslim, has warned Serbs and Croats that it could be attempted only at their own peril.

The greatest threat to peace in Bosnia has been the Serbian community's vow to revolt if the republic wins foreign recognition as an independent state. Serbian Democratic Party leader Radovan Karadzic warned last year that any attempt to sever the republic from Yugoslavia and Serbia would immediately trigger war.

But Muslim and Croatian officials jointly declared the republic sovereign in December, after the European Community made clear it was about to recognize the breakup of the Yugoslav federation as created in 1918. Despite the threatened Serbian uprising, a nervous peace has survived.

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