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Peace Gets a Chance In Sarajevo Conclave

In shattered Holiday Inn, a band of Balkan thinkers seeks common ground

Much of what the world has seen in the former Yugoslavia, especially Bosnia-Herzegovina, has been graphic images of violence.

Not so visible in this corner of the Balkans are the thinkers, those who try to make sense of societies ripped apart by fear, hate, and pride.

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On June 9, a group of intellectuals from Belgrade who oppose the Serbian regime and meet regularly to debate politics, culture, and history traveled to Sarajevo, Bosnia's capital, for the first time since the war began 4-1/2 years ago to meet their Croatian and Bosnian counterparts.

In the sweltering dining room of the partly destroyed Holiday Inn, the writers, historians, sociologists, and academics from the former Yugoslavia's three capitals gathered to discuss how they can work to counter nationalism and ethnic partition in their now bitterly divided countries.

Though diplomats worry that ethnic partition is becoming entrenched in Bosnia, the Sarajevo gathering symbolized that the war has failed to erode completely intellectual and moral common ground.

Those from Belgrade and Zagreb, Croatia, were whisked into Bosnia with little publicity - out of fear for their safety - to the one-day event entitled Apres-Guerre (After War). It was organized by the European Mozart Foundation, which brings together musicians from Eastern and Western Europe.

In casual discussions the two-dozen participants debated the role of the "opposition thinker" during the war. Participants exploded at times, however, over tensions left unresolved from the war, including who suffered the most, and who is responsible for the aggression.

Croatians talked of the bombardment of their capital, while Sarajevo participants grew quiet, recalling their own city's four-year siege.

"Sarajevo is not as damaged as one would imagine. The journalists always insist on all the destroyed buildings," commented one member of the Belgrade group. The comment shocked those who could see the skyscrapers across the street that had been turned into metal carcasses by shelling.

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Those from Zagreb and Belgrade could not even agree on the facts of the war. "We have no common history. There is no common mental agreement on what happened in the past.... And we cannot agree on who is responsible for the war," said Drago Roksandic, a University of Zagreb history professor.

"Why don't we have a clear statement of what is needed to prevent future war? What should be done, by us, in Zagreb, Belgrade, Bosnia to fight for multiculturalism?" protested Gravo Grahovac, a retired Yugoslav diplomat now living in Sarajevo.

"We need an antifascist movement, a culture and politics of antifascism, and we need it badly," added Aleksa Djilas, a Belgrade sociologist.

Michael Ignatieff, the Canadian historian who moderated the dialogue, insisted that local intellectuals had played a constructive role in countering the forces of nationalism in their countries.

"They made a constant, noisy buzz of anxiety and concern.... They gave the pictures of the war meaning," Mr. Ignatieff said.

In the end, the group made only one decision - to meet again.

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