YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Sarajevo's Serbs Weigh Flight or Life Under Muslim Rule : Peace: Their roots in area go back centuries. But uncertainty about future and hatred of government may lead to exile.


BLAZUJ, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Svjetlo Pejic kissed the army cap draped on his son's tombstone and dusted snow from the orange and blue plastic flowers that adorned the graves of his ancestors and his ancestors' ancestors.

If the Serbs who live in these villages surrounding Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, are not given proper guarantees, Pejic said, worry showing on his grizzled face, then he will be forced to leave.

"And I will take my son with me," he said of the youth killed in fighting a year ago. "And I will take as many of the rest of them as I can manage," he added, waving his hand toward the black granite headstones of dead relatives.

"And I will light a candle for them."

A few Serbs have already begun to leave the Sarajevo suburbs that will revert to Bosnian government control under a comprehensive peace treaty signed by the three Balkan presidents in Paris on Thursday. Women hauling luggage were seen Saturday in the streets of the largest Serbian suburb, Ilidza. Many others say they plan to leave, and they will take the coffins of their loved and buried ones with them.

Two days after the treaty signing and after Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic reassured the Serbs of Sarajevo that they will be safe, it remains unclear whether there will be a mass exodus from Ilidza, Grbavica and other Serb-held suburbs, as has been threatened by residents who say they cannot live under the authority of their enemy.

What is evident, however, is that the Serbs here are receiving little clear guidance from leaders who they feel have all but abandoned them, and little clear encouragement from the government destined soon to rule over them.

The handling of the Serbs of Sarajevo will test the new Bosnia's tolerance and challenge the spread of peace. It remains one of the most potentially explosive issues in the peace plan.

"My family has been here 600 years, since before the Turks," said Pejic, who had peddled on his bare-bones bicycle to the cemetery in Blazuj near Sarajevo. "Where else would I go?"

Like many Serbs, he measured his family tree in centuries as a way to show ties to the land dating from before the 1463 occupation by the Ottoman Empire--the arrival of "the Turks," considered a pejorative term by Serbian radicals who still use it to refer to Bosnian Muslims.

It is perhaps that sense of historical focus that inspires many of the Serbs in this region to contemplate digging up their relatives' graves. And they fear desecration of the tombs.

"There is a tradition among the Serbs that when we are forced to leave, then we may take our dead with us. So [exhuming the dead] is not so strange," said Jovo Koljanin, director of the huge Ilidza municipal cemetery where the graves of as many as 8,000 Serbs, Muslims and Croats are arrayed across a sweeping field and the nearby hillsides.

Koljanin said that, contrary to reports from the Ilidza mayor's office, no graves have been unearthed at this point.

A man who would give only his first name, Dragan, joined Pejic at the Blazuj graveyard. His thoughts went beyond the hysteria that has gripped some Serbs, who fear revenge from Muslims and other Sarajevans who lived through 44 months of siege by Serbian gunmen.

"This war was stupid--all wars are stupid," said Dragan, an angry and emotional man in a tattered suit.

Now, he said: "A lot of people are preparing to leave, but it's those with connections. It's always a money game. Look at me, you can see I'm not well-connected. I don't know where I'm going to go."


But here too the rumors and uncertainty abound. Dragan and Pejic said they had heard that for every year a man served in the Bosnian Serb army, he will be committed to three years of prison. Some Serbs firmly believe women in government-held Sarajevo are required to wear Islamic veils and that the drinking of alcohol is prohibited. Neither is true.

"Karadzic took the brain of the people and manipulated it," said Miro Lazovic, a Serb member of the Bosnian government presidential council, adding that the only way to unify Sarajevo is for Karadzic to leave Bosnia. Karadzic has been indicted for alleged war crimes, and under the peace treaty he is barred from holding political office. But he continues in power.

The Bosnian government has not helped matters, refusing to announce a general amnesty--even though the peace accord provides for a limited one--and suggesting at one point that all men who served in the rebel Serb army would be punished or expelled.

Some Serbs, for their part, were convinced Saturday that there had been a two-year postponement of the transfer of the suburbs to government control. U.N. officials denied it.

Los Angeles Times Articles