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Bosnian Swap Meet May Be a Peace Model

Balkans: Former foes mingle freely as capitalism takes root in a muddy field.

September 22, 1996|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DUBRAVE, Bosnia-Herzegovina — It was a lesson in free-market economics that might make the most seasoned capitalist proud.

Onetime enemy soldiers Ahmet Colic and Milenko Vukovic sat shoulder to shoulder atop a flatbed truck parked at a muddy roadside market here. Their legs dangled from huge sacks of Canadian sugar stacked four deep and four wide. Colic hadn't moved a bag all day, and he was getting antsy.

Vukovic, joining his newfound friend for a smoke, suggested upping the price. At least then, he advised, you'll make more money when you snag a customer.

"I actually may have to lower the price to get someone interested," Colic told an attentive Vukovic. "If you have goods in your truck too long, sometimes it is better just to get back your investment and forget the profit. It can even happen that you have to sell below cost so you can invest in selling something else."

With the war over in Bosnia-Herzegovina, thousands of entrepreneurs are being born in the most unlikely places as out-of-work soldiers try their hand at an oft-forgotten byproduct of last year's Dayton, Ohio, peace accord: In addition to silencing its heavy weaponry, the pact has opened the way for a fledgling capitalist economy in a once-Communist country and given a new voice to gutsy free-marketeers.

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The grass-roots transformation is still modest by any measure, but it is sinking its thirsty roots most everywhere. Rickety curbside kiosks, makeshift frontyard cafes and living-room video shops have sprung up across the map. Boys with spray bottles and squeegees stake out traffic signals, scrubbing motorists' windows when the light is red and collecting payment when it turns green. Private merchants smile and say "Thank you" and even make special orders, all in the name of good business.

Nowhere is the burst of entrepreneurial spirit more authentic--and the lessons more profound for all of Bosnia--than at a grungy swap meet here in northeast Bosnia, where Croatian, Muslim and Serbian territories converge in a trampled cornfield along Route Arizona, the name the military gave to Bosnian Highway 18-1, the main logistics road to the U.S. air base in Tuzla.

"It is a unique place, because all three factions are coming together in one place," said Army Capt. Jim Billings, whose unit operates a nearby American checkpoint.

Trznica Arizona, or Arizona Market, is open to anyone willing to sweat a little and hustle a lot, paying no heed to the ethnic distinctions that fueled 43 months of war and still engulf the country's political landscape. In all but the rare exception, ethnic rivalry is checked at the barbed-wire fence raised by U.S. Army engineers to keep the ever-expanding commerce from spilling onto the congested highway.

"Trade. Trade. Trade," said Nedzad Dautovic, 25, a Muslim with a thick wad of German marks in his pocket who was loading 110-pound sacks of sugar into the trunk of a Serbian car. "That's what this is all about. Nothing else will bring us together again."

Buy a German car, a Yugoslav tractor or a truckload of Macedonian grapes. Hungarian cooking oil comes by the bottle or the case. There are Turkish extension cords, Korean fishing rods and Dutch chewing gum. Soon there will be a strip joint.

It is big news in Bosnia when Serbian, Muslim and Croatian politicians deem anything important enough for them to sit around the same table. Such multiethnic gatherings are daily happenings among the thousands of traders and shoppers who have been coming here in droves since early summer but who first laid claim to the black-market outpost last winter when arriving U.S. troops set up the heavily fortified checkpoint down the road.

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Old neighbors, now living separately because of "ethnic cleansing" on all sides, walk the same garbage-strewn field in search of a bargain or to make a quick sale. A dozen restaurants and food stands, some no more than canvas tarps and empty flour sacks draped over flimsy wooden frames, cater to anyone with a buck. In all, 80 vendors have set up shop permanently, with scores of others coming and going as time and money permit.

Barely a year ago, former soldiers Colic and Vukovic were fighting just beyond a minefield south of the market, in a thick patch of trees that straddled the front line where combat took a heavy toll on both sides. They can point to the spot from their perch on Colic's truck.

Now Colic, 28, a Muslim, and Vukovic, 36, a Serb, exchange tips on running a new business, and even pitch in to help when one or the other is busy. They don't pretend to be soul mates, but they eat and drink together--and, for the sake of sustaining their two families, try as much as possible to concentrate on the future, not the past.

"We all have to survive somehow," said Vukovic, whose black leather jacket is torn at the sleeves. "That means you do what you have to do."

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