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Postwar Bosnia Still Battling Ethnic Hatreds

Five years after Dayton pact, unity remains a dream. Critics say nation cannot survive without foreign troops and aid.


BRCKO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — In the battle to win Bosnia's peace, thousands of NATO troops join legions of foreign bureaucrats with a multibillion-dollar arsenal of tanks, helicopters and aid money. There is also a simpler weapon: the black felt pen.

In many Bosnian schools, it is not enough to teach history, art and grammar to the nation's Croatian, Serbian and Muslim children; they're also taught to hate those from other ethnic groups. So last year, the country's foreign administrators ordered that all ethnically offensive words in textbooks be blacked out.

A commission issued a 24-page list of phrases, paragraphs and even whole pages. Teachers were instructed to find them in every textbook and make sure students couldn't read the words anymore.

In a grammar text for Serbian seventh-graders, a lesson on the passive voice appeared under the heading "Tribute in Blood," above a brief excerpt from the 1945 novel "Bridge Over the Drina," by Ivo Andric, a Bosnian Croat and winner of the Nobel Prize in literature.

It describes the medieval torture and massacre of Serbs by Muslim Turkish invaders who, according to the tale, kidnapped children ages 10 to 15 in wicker baskets strapped to horses. Teachers were told to rip out the two-page lesson.

Beneath a picture of a boy with an amputated leg, a caption in a textbook for Croats refers to an attack by "grand Serbian aggressors." The phrase was supposed to be blacked out--though some teachers had trouble following instructions.

"In many instances, instead of using black markers they used yellow highlighters," said Claude Kieffer, who sets education policy for Bosnia-Herzegovina's foreign-run administration.

It is easier to censor words than change minds, a basic truth central to the overwhelming problems that Bosnia still faces five years after its war ended with an accord reached in Dayton, Ohio, on Nov. 21, 1995.

Years of complaints that the Dayton accord isn't working have given way to arguments that it never will. Critics say Western governments allowed opponents to dig in and get control of local economies, keeping hard-line nationalism alive.

Although wounds have begun to heal, ethnic hatreds are still raw, and a united Bosnia is still just a dream waiting in the wings for the nightmare to pass.

Haris Silajdzic, one of Bosnia's wartime prime ministers, argues that "Dayton has been abandoned" by the West, just as Bosnians were forsaken to "ethnic cleansing" and genocide during more than three years of a war triggered by the 1992 decision by Muslims and Croats to declare independence from the Serb-dominated Yugoslav federation.

"Following the line of least resistance has wasted the chances Dayton created," Silajdzic said in an interview.

The Dayton accord was a flawed compromise forced by a brutal stalemate on Bosnia's battlefields and by the pit-bull diplomacy of U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke, now the American ambassador to the United Nations.

With the eventual added persuasion of North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing, Serbs agreed to accept Bosnia as an independent but divided country: 49% of the territory went to a Serb-controlled substate called Republika Srpska.

Bosnia's relative majority of Muslims settled for a federation with the Croats in the other 51%, with the promise that "ethnic cleansing" would be halted and that more than 1.4 million refugees could go back to prewar homes in areas where they were an ethnic minority.

But five years later, only 9% of minority refugees have returned, and hard-line nationalists in all three ethnic groups continue to obstruct efforts to re-integrate Bosnia's people and institutions.

Despite a more aggressive effort to return refugees, most Bosnian Croats, Muslims and Serbs still live in almost ethnically pure areas, with three separate systems running schools, phone networks, power grids and other services.

Bosnia officially has two local armies, one in each of the substates. But the Croatian troops are so poorly integrated into the federation's military that they are really a third army, U.S. analyst James Lyon said in an interview in Sarajevo, Bosnia's capital.

The NATO-led peacekeeping mission, which includes several thousand U.S. troops, is a fourth force--all that is keeping soldiers in the other three armies from one another's throats.

The nation-building experiment in Bosnia has cost nearly $6 billion in foreign aid, excluding the enormous bill for the peacekeeping troops. Critics such as Lyon say the payoff is minimal so far. But Dayton's defenders, including Bosnia's foreign bureaucrats, accuse critics like him of being too negative, of seeing a glass that's half empty instead of half full.

"I'm willing to say the glass is full to the brim," said Lyon, who heads the International Crisis Group, an independent watchdog in Sarajevo. "The problem is there are holes in the bottom and the water leaks out as fast as we can pour it in."

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