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Ways That Warring Neighbors Can Live Together

Croats, Muslims, and Common Needs

The 56 governments on the Bosnian Peace Implementation Council met recently in London to breathe life into the sagging peace process. They departed after plenty of platitudes - about the importance of bringing home refugees and protecting minorities - but with few clear ideas how such things can be achieved.

The central dilemma for the international community is how to keep alive the dream of a multiethnic Bosnia without forcing it on three ethnic groups (Croats, Muslims, and Serbs) that want breathing space after a three-way war.

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The current strategy is to stake everything on the central institutions that emerged from the Sept. 14 elections. This is starting to look like wishful thinking. Two of Bosnia's three co-presidents are committed to separatism, and the three wrangled through nine sessions before agreeing on a cabinet. Bosnia's parliament has yet to meet.

The international community cannot give up on these emerging institutions, but it should also understand their limitations. Quite simply, it is time to explore other ways of reaching Bosnians who want to preserve a multiethnic country.

This could start in towns like Mostar, Vitez, Brcko, Doboj, Travnik, and Gornji Vakuf, which were cut in half by the former frontline. The ethnic communities on either side are linked by their very proximity, and by common interests. This offers sympathetic outsiders a point of entry.

In Gornji Vakuf, which I visited this summer, Muslims and Croats blasted at each other across the main street until the US-negotiated ceasefire took hold in the spring of 1994. The two are supposed to be allies in the Muslim-Croat Federation, but in Gornji Vakuf they remain so suspicious of each other that the Croats raised their church steeple so that its bells could compete with the call to prayer by the muezzin on the Muslim side.

Integration without trumpets

Nevertheless, the Croats and Muslims of Gornji Vakuf share concerns like garbage disposal, damaged houses, street lighting, and even traffic circles. Drawing on common needs, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has designed a series of projects that are quietly promoting integration without trumpeting the fact.

UMCOR started by giving a modest grant of $10,000 that allowed Croat and Muslim women to meet and knit. The Croat women produced socks and the Muslims made sweaters, which they sold jointly to UN peacekeepers. UMCOR has since exploited its credibility to win agreement to rebuild the secondary school (on the Croat side) and a cultural center (on the Muslim side), both of which will serve both sides. Once the children start crossing over, the invisible line that divides Gornji Vakuf should disappear for good.

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Low-profile community projects of this kind have important lessons to teach larger donors like the World Bank, which are finding - to their chagrin - that the lure of economic aid is often not enough to bridge ethnic divisions. The US has offered to train land-mine removers, help rebuild a national Bosnian police force, and provide training for the Muslim-Croat Federation Army. These programs were conditioned on interethnic cooperation. For this reason, none are yet working.

Housing without integration

Housing is particularly instructive. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) requires that its housing grants in the federation be for the "joint use" of Croats and Bosniacs (as Muslims who want a unified, multiethnic country refer to themselves), but USAID also insists that the money be funneled through local political leaders. This has allowed Gornji Vakuf's two mayors to deny housing aid to returning refugees from the other side. As a result, while USAID's funds have helped repair an equal number of houses on each side, they have not promoted reintegration.

A different approach has been taken by a team of international volunteers working in Gornji Vakuf under the UN. With the help of Croat and Bosniac teachers, they draw up a list of houses to be repaired, which is then approved by the two mayors. The mayors have agreed the beneficiaries will help each other with labor in exchange for aid by the volunteers. Twenty-eight houses had been repaired by August, proving that interethnic cooperation can produce concrete benefits.

This program works because it coopts local politicians who call the shots in Gornji Vakuf, much as in any small American town. The difference is that Bosnia's municipal politicians have yet to submit to a ballot, and are unrepresentative. Most were appointed during the war by the three ethnic parties and can be just as irresponsible as their colleagues at the state level in Sarajevo.

But they are also parents, teachers, and homeowners, and this circumstance can be exploited by the volunteers and UMCOR as they build up personal relationships. In contrast, many larger donors tend to arrive out of the blue, armed with their own aid guidelines, and try to impose integration. This is invariably rebuffed, because it challenges the mayors' political agenda and forces them to act as nationalist politicians.

UMCOR's brand of community peacebuilding produces integration by stealth. But it requires an extraordinary effort and attention to minutiae, which can be hard to justify for agencies like the World Bank that deal in huge amounts of money. This is precisely why nongovernmental organizations are indispensable to the future of Bosnia. A second problem is that, however stimulating they may be, lone experiments in individual towns can have little bearing on a national program of reconstruction. Such programs have to have a larger relevance, outside the immediate community.

But their appeal is surely undeniable at a time when donors are struggling to arrest the slow disintegration of Bosnia without imposing solutions that might backfire. It might also help to have our eye on other prizes outside Bosnia. If we can get it right in split communities like Gornji Vakuf, why not in Belfast, Mogadishu, and Beirut?

Iain Guest is a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace in Washington.

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