YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Hopeful Journeys End in Tearful Reunions in Central Bosnia as Refugees Head Home : Balkans: Hundreds of Muslims, Croats rush to take advantage of looser travel restrictions.


ZEPCE, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Fuad Secic stopped Friday for a rest and a drink of water from the swift-flowing Bosna River near the end of a 12-mile walk toward this Croat-held town that is still home to his wife and children. It was the first day of U.N.-supervised visits across the Muslim-Croatian boundaries that divide central Bosnia.

But as a fugitive prisoner of war and a Muslim who had fought against Zepce's Croatian capture, Secic harbored little hope of being allowed into what, until recent days, was enemy territory.

As he caught his breath and chatted with fellow Muslims streaming by the hundreds toward long-lost loved ones, a woman's shriek of shock mixed with euphoria riveted his attention.

His wife, having crossed the armed checkpoint from the other direction, had abandoned her wheelbarrow of food and presents at the first sight of him and broken into a run.

"I'm the happiest man!" he told her and all who would listen, beaming and brushing away the tears from both of their faces.

They came by the hundreds, these displaced Bosnians seeking family reunions, pushing carts and wagons and airport baggage trolleys laden with the first load of belongings for the homes and relatives they hope to return to soon.

The shell-pocked road that threads 70 miles along the savagely contested territory of central Bosnia between Travnik and Maglaj was the scene of tearful reunions and hopeful journeys throughout the day as Muslims and Croats, sick to death of the last year of killing, jumped at the chance to forget it ever happened.

As a first step toward restoring free movement and normal relations between the recently reconciled Croats and Muslims, the rival militias agreed to let as many as 100 people from each side cross each morning through six official checkpoints manned by U.N. troops and police from both sides.

But the stream of separated families was so strong and emotions so fiercely forgiving that authorities on both sides waved through the overflow at the busiest checkpoints rather than turn people away.

Most of those crossing had to return back to the side they came from by the 6 p.m. curfew imposed for the one-day family visits.

But even a glimpse was joyful reprieve from months of separation.

"It went very well, everywhere," said a U.N. spokesman at the Vitez headquarters of the British Coldstream Guards, who are standing watch over the phased reconciliation. "We don't have full figures, but at some checkpoints they exceeded 100."

The ceiling had been suggested by both Muslim and Croatian authorities who feared a chaotic scene if travel restrictions were lifted completely in the patchwork of segregated enclaves that have been created by Muslim-Croatian fighting over the last year. Because almost all of Bosnia's 2 million displaced dream of going home again someday, even if their houses have been looted or burned to the ground by rival gunmen, authorities fear conflicts, if those returning discovered their homes destroyed or occupied by homeless strangers.

But at the sight of determined civilians, such as sisters Sadija Morankic and Subija Malicbegovic, who trekked all morning toward Zepce in hopes of seeing their mother, father or another sister, police and the U.N. monitors turned a blind eye to the agreed-upon limits.

"We've always gotten along with Croats. This past year was just some kind of madness," said 35-year-old Morankic, who fled Zepce with her children when the fighting swept over her home last June. "We don't know when we can go back, but we know we will one day."

Only a few hundred yards ahead on the road, having just passed the Zepce checkpoint, her sister, Paskada Preljedzic, suddenly came into view.

After tears and kisses and news of the rest of the family, now spread from Serb-besieged Tesanj, to Croat-held Zepce to the government stronghold of Zenica, Preljedzic assured her sister that the senseless separations would soon be over.

"The Croats are good people. They didn't want this either," Preljedzic said. "It was just the extremists (in the Bosnian Croat army) that brought us to this."

Blaming the few to forgive the many has been the mental ploy employed by both Muslims and Croats to prod along the peace process that had halted virtually all fighting and ethnic cleansing between the two peoples. Since a March 1 agreement brokered in Washington and a U.N.-imposed deadline six days later for withdrawal of all heavy artillery from the central Bosnian battlefields, the two sides have rushed to take advantage of a chance to come to their senses.

Muslims and Croats, who together account for more than two-thirds of Bosnia's prewar population of 4.4 million, fought side-by-side when Serbian nationalists first rebelled against independence in March, 1992. But they fell to fighting each other for what territory was left after the Serbs conquered 70% of the country.

U.S. and Russian officials continue to hold out hope that the Bosnian Serbs will also join an emerging new federation that has brought peace to the rest of Bosnia; the rebels have rejected all calls for retreat from some conquered territory and have shelled Croatian, Muslim and U.N. positions.

But throughout central Bosnia, which saw some of the most vicious fighting of the 2-year-old war, the momentum for an end to the bloodshed has moved apace with the flood of homesick refugees back to their families, their shattered houses and their land.

Los Angeles Times Articles