Ethnic Discord : Quieter Bosnia Pocket Hopes for Compromise : The Bihac region has so far been spared the scourge of ethnic cleansing. Residents believe a diplomatic solution is possible.


BIHAC, Bosnia-Herzegovina — On the first evening in three months that the war stopped long enough for a sunset bicycle ride, Salih and Seherzade Samardzic decided in a wistful chat over their handlebars that they could accept peace at any price.

"People want only to live. Everything else is secondary," said Salih Samardzic, 34, a carpet layer who has been out of work for over a year. "Whatever the politicians decide, the people will find some way to come together. No one is interested in politics anymore. We just want to get on with our lives."

His wife nodded morosely, remembering the younger brother she has lost to this war and the hardships of trying to provide for two children without income, reliable foreign food aid or much skill in tending her victory garden.

"Look at my hands!" she lamented, holding up calloused palms reddened from picking vegetables and cutting hay for the winter. "If only this war would end, things would go back to normal and I could go back to my office job."

The Samardzics and many others in the "Bihac pocket" believe the Sarajevo government should give in to a compromise on Bosnia's defining principle that Serbs, Croats and Muslims must continue to live together.

Their renegade views have been formed by unique circumstances in this luckiest of six U.N.-designated safe areas, the only relatively intact corner of Bosnia where the scourge of ethnic cleansing has yet to reach.

Serbian forces surround the Bihac pocket and lob a few shells at the city most days, but the war's greatest damage has been to the economy and prosperity of the 300,000 people of the region, most of whom are Muslim Slavs.

Unlike their Bosnian colleagues trapped in hellish artillery barrages in Sarajevo and the other declared safe areas, those in the Bihac pocket tend to think there is some merit in any negotiated solution that holds out the promise of restoring a normal life.

Weary of wartime disruption and largely unfamiliar with how much worse it has been for other Muslims, many in the Bihac region believe that the Serbian and Croatian forces wreaking havoc elsewhere should be given a chance to show they would abide by a diplomatic solution.

"There has to be some agreement. There has to be peace. Foreign countries should help us defend ourselves against aggression but they don't, so we have to try something else," said Zemina Mesic, a 46-year-old refugee from the town of Orasac, just a few miles to the south but beyond the rebel Serb front lines.

Mesic's husband and son were taken to prison by invading Serbian gunmen more than a year ago, and she has had no word about their fate. Still, in the relative and somewhat deceptive security of Bihac, she has concluded that her family will be reunited only if the government capitulates to an ethnic division.

Her 21-year-old daughter, Azra, agrees that partitioning of Bosnia along the lines proposed by the triumphant Serbs is probably the only formula that could ever bring peace.

"If they were able to divide it up, there wouldn't be anything more to fight over," says the young woman who supports her mother and 15-year-old brother on the few dollars she earns each month working as a cafe cook.

Because Serbs and Croats remain mingled among the majority Muslims in the Bihac region, many here find it hard to believe that intercommunal relations could be so poisonous elsewhere and indulge in the belief that ethnic borders would soon disappear.

"The war could end and everyone could be reunited," Azra Mesic says, then seems to think better of her wishful expectations. "That's what I think, but, heavens, what do I know?"

U.N. military observers here confirm that the population seems largely fatigued with a conflict that has ravaged most of the rest of the country and taken its toll on buildings and bodies even in this less frequent target.

But the foreign U.N. soldiers fear that the people of the pocket may be naive in believing they can escape being swallowed by the self-styled and ever-expanding Bosnian Serb state.

"Look at Srebrenica," one officer replied when asked if the people of Bihac had any hope of security if the Serbs who surround them are accorded independence. "Srebrenica has been declared a safe area, and no one there is any threat to the Serbs, yet look at the terror they rain on those poor people every day."

The richly forested triangle of territory that extends from Bihac to the Croatian border is flanked by Bosnian Serb forces to the east and south and by Croatian Serb rebels along the republic border. If the Bosnian Serbs gain independence, they are expected to link up with the Serb-conquered areas of Croatia, solidifying the ring of Serb-held territory around Bihac.

Western mediators pushing the ethnic partitioning idea in hopes of forging peace by appeasing Serbian and Croatian victors portray the plan to divide Bosnia as realignment of the republic into a three-canton state.

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