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SUNDAY REPORT

Symbol of Hope in a Land of Hate

The mayor of Drvar was brutally beaten for attempting to return Bosnian Serb refugees to their former homes in the Croat-controlled town.

October 04, 1998|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DRVAR, Bosnia-Herzegovina — It takes an eternity for Mile Marceta, the mayor of Drvar, to walk down a flight of stairs.

He grasps the railing with his left hand, a metal crutch in his right. One stair at a time, baby steps, he lowers his stiff and wounded body.

Ever since an angry mob pulled him from City Hall, beat him to a pulp and left him for dead, Marceta moves slowly--but with a determination that makes him a hero to some, a major nuisance to others, as he wages a quixotic campaign to return Bosnian Serb refugees to their homes in Croat-controlled Drvar.

On this day, the Serbian mayor is traveling to Drvar--prone in the back seat of a Land Rover to ease the painful jolts on the bumpy road--to meet with the most powerful American military man in Europe, NATO chief Gen. Wesley Clark. Marceta expects to enlist Clark, NATO and anyone else who will listen in his crusade.

A 56-year-old former traveling salesman with barely a high school education, Marceta pursues his goal like an obsession, even after beatings, killings, arsons and riots.

He is a man of "considerable courage," Clark says.

Nearly three years after Bosnia ended a ferocious war, Marceta is one of a handful of Bosnians who embody the chance for real change in a country struggling to rebuild itself. They are men and women who are trying to make a difference by bucking the system and fighting against the nationalism and ethnic prejudice that were used to stoke the war.

Their challenge to the status quo puts them at risk and opens them to attack, but they persist. Along with Marceta, there is a Muslim reporter writing from a ringside seat at Serbian atrocities; a Croatian priest resisting Muslim fundamentalism; a Bosnian Serb woman helping to repair the damaged psyches of women of all ethnicities; and a Muslim judge who promotes the rule of law, regardless of whom it makes uncomfortable. Sometimes their roles seem small, but if they and people like them fail, so will U.S.-led Western efforts to secure lasting peace in Bosnia.

Marceta and thousands of Serbs, who had constituted 97% of Drvar's population before the war, were driven from the city by Croatian and Muslim armies pressing the final offensive of the war in the autumn of 1995. The city was occupied by Bosnian Croat soldiers, hard-liners and refugees.

Marceta never accepted his expulsion. Just weeks after the war ended, with the lines of ethnic division seemingly cemented forever and tempers still inflamed, he hopped into his red Lada and drove back into Muslim-Croat-controlled territory.

"I immediately joined the battle to return," he said, "and I will fight this as long as I can breathe."

2 Million People Displaced by War

A thickset man with graying hair who tends to wear the same loud tie and polyester plaid jacket several days in a row, Marceta shows a resilience that is rare in the fatalistic mentality of the Balkans.

More than 2 million people were displaced by the war in Bosnia, nearly half the country's population. The United Nations designated 1998 the "year of returns," yet only small numbers of people have been able to cross ethnic lines to go back to hometowns where they are now in the minority.

It remains the single greatest problem in postwar Bosnia.

Marceta's response was to organize a political party dedicated solely to leading Serbs home to Drvar. His actions pose a direct challenge to the hard-line dream of ethnic purity--on both the Croatian and Serbian sides.

Bosnian Croat nationalists do not want Serbs to return because Drvar, in far western Bosnia, was a strategic step toward their goal of keeping this part of the country largely for themselves and eventually uniting with Croatia proper. Bosnian Serb nationalists do not want Serbs leaving for Drvar because they want to build the Bosnian Serb population in their half of the country, after having rid it of most Muslims and Croats.

Besides, Serbs and Croats living together is certainly not what the nationalists waged a war for.

Under attack from both sides, Marceta managed to get himself elected mayor of Drvar last year, thanks to election rules that permit refugees to cast absentee ballots in their prewar home cities.

Ignoring warnings and threats, and even as Serb-owned homes were being routinely set afire, he marched into Drvar and convened the City Council, taking what he saw as the first step in reversing the "ethnic cleansing" of his hometown.

An estimated 2,000 Serbs, gingerly and with trepidation, followed him back to Drvar.

His plan was working. International experts credited Marceta with almost single-handedly directing the most successful return of refugees across ethnic lines anywhere in Bosnia.

In fact, it was working too well.

When a handful of Serbs moved into their homes in the center of Drvar last spring, effectively displacing a unit of Bosnian Croat soldiers, hard-line Croatian nationalists decided they'd had enough.

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