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Serbs and Muslims Settle a Score: Yugoslavia 2, Bosnia 0

THE WORLD

August 22, 2002|ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The vicious war between Serbs and Muslims in this country ended seven years ago, but the scars are so deep that it has been all but impossible for people on the two sides to see each other as human.

But on Wednesday, in an encouraging sign of normalization, the national soccer team of predominantly Serbian Yugoslavia and the Muslim-dominated Bosnian national team played their first match, here in this war-damaged capital.

In a region where soccer is, in the words of both Serbs and Muslims, "the most important unimportant thing," it was far more than a sporting event.

The game was a marker of a slow but real evolution in the way people from the two countries see each other--and a reminder of how far they have to go.

Though the match--won by Yugoslavia, 2-0--was relatively peaceful, the experience of the war permeated the event.

Fans shouted the names of wartime leaders, waved the wartime flags and shouted religious slogans. Still, the deadly potency of such language seemed truly diminished.

"This is finally just football now; the war is over," said Vahidin Hodzic, 29, a Bosnian Muslim veteran of the war. He was one of many people who seemed to want to put the past behind him, as he bounced a friend's 7-year-old son on his knee.

For some Serbian fans too, it was important that the fight was on the soccer field and not in the streets. "I'm very glad this game can happen; it's the first time a [Yugoslav] national team has come here. Nobody can benefit from war," said Natko Sudzuka, 22, a Bosnian Serb waiter from Sarajevo who attended the game.

"Certainly there is a special charge to this game. But the past is the past; now it's a game," said Admir Tukic, 22, a Bosnian Muslim student of mechanical engineering. "The war will always haunt us. My uncle was killed, I lost many friends, but the same thing happened to many Serbs too.

"Still," Tukic added, "there will always be individuals who make trouble."

And that was the case at Wednesday's game. A small group of Bosnian Muslims lingered afterward, throwing rocks at police who were protecting the Yugoslav team's fans. The Muslims smashed the windshield of one car and trashed another car bearing Yugoslav license plates.

To be sure, the violence would have been more damaging had there not been about 200 uniformed police and undercover officers, assiduously keeping the two groups of fans apart. That is the case at many European soccer games.

Violence, however, is an undercurrent here in Bosnia, which remains a country more in name than in soul. The 3 1/2-year war began in 1992 after Bosnia, a republic in the former Yugoslav federation, declared independence. The new country was made up of Muslims and ethnic Croats and Serbs.

Many Bosnian Serbs violently opposed independence. Backed by the Yugoslav army and paramilitary groups, they fought to block the move. They expelled almost all non-Serbs from the territories they controlled and massacred Muslim men and boys. The fighting claimed an estimated 200,000 lives, most of them Muslim, making it the most deadly conflict in Europe since World War II.

The U.S.-brokered deal that ended the war--known as the Dayton, Ohio, accords--divided Bosnia into two parts: the Muslim-Croat Federation and a Serbian entity known as Republika Srpska. Although in theory all people are entitled to reclaim the homes and land they had before the war, many areas on both sides remain segregated. Indeed, to this day most Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina do not see the country as their homeland.

For Muslim soccer fans, the greatest insult at Wednesday's game was not the Yugoslav team's victory or even its presence. It was that the Bosnian Serbs who attended cheered for Yugoslavia rather than for the national squad, made up almost entirely of Muslims and Croats.

"It wouldn't be so bad if fans from the Republika Srpska weren't fans of Yugoslavia instead of being fans of Bosnia," said Kenan Seta, 22, a Muslim. "Our police will try to make sure nothing bad happens to them, but I'm sure if we went to Belgrade [the Yugoslav capital], I don't think one of us would come back alive."

For Bosnian Serbs, the greatest insult was the roar of catcalls and boos from Muslims when the Yugoslav national anthem was played at the game's outset. "We were all born under that anthem," said Mladen Gardovic, a Serbian native of Sarajevo. "The anthem, the country [Yugoslavia] gave them everything."

Soon after Muslims booed the Yugoslav anthem, Bosnian Serbs responded by chanting the names of some of the figures who had been most brutal toward Muslims: Ratko Mladic, the Serbian general accused by the United Nations' International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia of ordering the 1995 slaughter of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica; Zeljko "Arkan" Raznatovic, a late paramilitary leader known for his cruelty; and Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serbs' wartime president.

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