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ELECTIONS IN THE BALKANS

Painful Memories, Fear Come Flooding Back for Nomadic Voters

Balloting: Despite relatively calm elections, thousands learn they have a long way to go to escape an awful past.

September 15, 1996|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VRELA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The Bosnian Serb police officer parked outside the polling place in this tiny village looked painfully familiar to Nermin Kurtovic, a Muslim refugee who returned here Saturday to vote.

Kurtovic caught the officer's gaze for an instant, then quickly turned away. In a hushed voice, he signaled to his wife, whose eyes fixed on the policeman in horror.

"He is the one who broke my ribs," Kurtovic, 28, whispered, trying not to attract attention. "I remember him well. I will never forget that face."

It was nearly four years ago when the two men met, as the Bosnian Muslim soldier was being taken prisoner by an advancing army of separatist Serbs. During months of internment, Kurtovic says, he was beaten by his captors, the cruelest of whom now patrols the streets of his hometown.

"I told you not to look!" a frantic Kurtovic snapped under his breath as his wife stared at the squad car.

Election day in Bosnia-Herzegovina was supposed to be about a better future. But as thousands of nomadic voters across the shattered country learned Saturday, they still have a long way to travel to escape their awful past.

Here in northern Bosnia, at a polling station along a rutted road on the outskirts of the industrial city of Teslic, the lesson was told again and again. Although balloting was peaceful, if somewhat disorganized, the hope that voters said motivated them to turn out for the country's first postwar elections was often overshadowed by fear, anger and desperation.

"It is pure willpower that dragged us here," said Raza Razic, a teary Muslim woman struggling to navigate her disabled husband in a wheelchair. "We had to take sedatives before we came, but it still isn't easy. We want to move back to our homes, but we don't know if we ever will."

More than 700 displaced Muslims who once lived in Teslic before the village was "ethnically cleansed" spent the better part of the day exercising their right to vote in the place they still consider home but that has been almost entirely Serbian for four years.

The refugee voters were loaded onto crowded buses, made to wait up to five hours at military checkpoints and herded to specially designated polling places far removed from the city center. Once there, they had mostly Serbian candidates to choose from--Teslic is in the Serbian half of the country--but that didn't seem to matter to some.

"I don't care if I have to vote for a bear for president so long as it helps me get my house back," one woman said.

*

But the view from the dilapidated youth center that housed two of the polling stations was of cornfields and a burned-out automobile, not the houses and flower gardens almost everyone craved to see. Kurtovic, a bricklayer who now lives in a Muslim village a few miles down the road, said he gets a better glimpse of his old home from a hilltop there.

"It is not right that we have to vote here," Kurtovic said, his white sneakers sinking in the roadside mud after a brief afternoon rainstorm. "We should be able to vote closer to our homes."

Last year's Dayton, Ohio, peace accord gave Kurtovic and the others the freedom to vote anywhere in Teslic, but as a practical matter that was impossible. Not only were Bosnian Serb police patrolling a two-mile route into town, but U.N. police, international election officials and North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led troops supported the decision to segregate balloting.

No one, it seems, had much faith in the civic-mindedness of either side.

When a dozen young Muslim men at a nearby checkpoint took to the road on foot after waiting more than two hours for a bus to take them to their polling station, they were hastily rounded up by NATO-led troops and U.N. police who feared they might provoke a clash with local Serbs.

"Come back!" a U.N. police officer commanded.

"It is our only way to go home!" replied Elmir Huseinbasic, a 21-year-old student from Zenica who led the failed excursion.

For those Serbs and Muslims who did manage a face-to-face meeting, the encounters were as disenchanting as they were enlightening. In an early morning reunion at the youth center polling station, two former neighbors shook hands warmly, but after a reporter began asking questions, they parted barely on speaking terms.

Nenad Ivanic, a Bosnian Serb bricklayer who lost his left leg in the war, greeted his onetime neighbor, Adem Lugonjic, a Muslim, with an invitation to join him for coffee.

"You can come any time," Ivanic announced genuinely, pointing toward his rebuilt house on a rolling hilltop. "You can be my guest."

"I would like that," said Lugonjic, a carpenter with a friendly smile stretching beneath deep, worried eyes. His old house is just over the hilltop, he explained, but he had not seen it since fleeing Teslic at the start of the war.

Would Ivanic object if his friend moved back to the neighborhood?

"What should I say? Him as a neighbor?" Ivanic struggled with his words. "I would like him to come to my house every day and visit."

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