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Sarajevo's Serbs Face a Dual Hostility

July 10, 1995|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Gen. Jovan Divjak, the highest-ranking Serb in the Bosnian government army, remembers the time three years ago when he offered condolences to a Muslim woman whose two sons had just been killed in a Serbian mortar attack.

The normally confident Divjak was struck with trepidation: How could he, a Serb, intrude on this Muslim family's moment of pain even as Serbian separatists in the nearby hills continued to attack?

That his gesture was accepted with grace by the grieving mother tells of Sarajevo's past of tolerance and fraternity. But today, that tradition of tolerance has been severely strained by a war that is polarizing a society once known for its multicultural harmony.

This is especially true for many Serbs who remained loyal to Sarajevo despite the war. They often find themselves the victims of discrimination and hostility from their Muslim neighbors, while they are bitterly hated and resented by those Serbs who left.

An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Serbs have stayed in Sarajevo--population 380,000--while their ethnic brethren wage a brutal and devastating war against this capital and the small portion of Bosnia-Herzegovina still under government control.

They are a testament to the fact that not all Serbs agree with Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, and they are frequently cited by the government as proof that Sarajevo remains a diverse place of welcoming acceptance.

To be sure, a few Serbs can be found in high positions. In addition to Divjak, there are Serbian members of the president's staff and other government ministries. But as the Muslim political party that dominates Bosnia's government consolidates its power, there seems to be less room for non-Muslims in important posts.

And many Serbs in Sarajevo are eyed with suspicion by Muslims who think they may be spies for those Serbs in the hills who daily lob mortar shells and rockets onto the city with deadly accuracy.

"The position of the Serb in Sarajevo is like being between a hammer and an anvil," said Ljubomir Berberovic, a prominent academic who is a Serb. "From one side, we are called traitors. From the other side, many people here look at us as a potential fifth column."

There have been recent reports of arrests of suspected Serbian collaborators in the city. But most Serbs in Sarajevo suffer the same hardships as the rest of the city's inhabitants--and are among those killed during shellings.

Berberovic, rector of the University of Sarajevo before the war, was wounded by a Serbian sniper in April. He is recovering.

The war in Bosnia began in April, 1992, when Serbs rebelled against the Bosnian government's declaration of independence from the dissolving Yugoslav federation, which was dominated by Serbs. The rebels--backed by the mighty Yugoslav army--declared war on Bosnia and surrounded Sarajevo, embarking on the longest siege in modern history.

Throughout much of 1992 and '93, some Serbs in Sarajevo were rounded up by Muslim paramilitary units seeking revenge. A number were killed. That level of violence is no longer the problem, Berberovic said; today the fight is a constitutional and legal one for equal rights and opportunity.

The Muslim-dominated government has gradually purged dozens of Serbs and others who do not belong to the ruling party from senior-level positions at universities, banks and state-run corporations, Berberovic and others said. In some cases, they have not been fired but have been relieved of important duties--usually to be replaced by loyal members of the government's Party of Democratic Action, made up almost completely of Muslims. Even Divjak, the army general, has been largely marginalized in favor of Muslim commanders, diplomats say.

"It was not purely 'ethnic cleansing'--it was 'ethno-political cleansing,' " Berberovic said.

Berberovic is part of a group of Sarajevo Serbs who have formed the Serbian Civic Council, a political movement that hopes to show the world there is an alternative to the Karadzic Serbs. The organization, which opposes an ethnic partitioning of Bosnia, began secret talks in March with Serbs in Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia, and elsewhere to press its agenda for peace.

It is also working in Sarajevo to establish constitutional protections for Serbs, who were not included as a distinct ethnic group in a new constitution drafted last year with the help of the United States for the Muslim-Croat Federation, the entity intended to govern postwar Bosnia. That exclusion, in the opinion of some Serbs, is used to discriminate against Serbs in government-held Bosnia.

Several members of the Serbian Civic Council, while their hopes are high about the organization's potential success at presenting a moderate Serbian voice, concede that they have little real power.

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