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Grass-Roots Groups Knit Bosnia Together Again

Fingers blur as a half-dozen women knit furiously in a dim workshop near the center of this war-ravaged town. The sweaters piling up on a nearby table will, they hope, earn them enough money to survive in the country's ruined economy.

But what distinguishes the women is not so much their industry as their determination to come together despite the invisible wall they say has divided their town since war in Bosnia ended 20 months ago.

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"I'm a Croat, she's a Muslim, and we're like this," says Anka Lagatar, pressing her thumbs together and turning to Tahira Kirlic, the woman next to her. The other women nod.

"We've been living this way for centuries," says Ms. Kirlic.

The fighting that drove Gornji Vakuf apart might have given these women cause to think differently. Ms. Lagatar lost her husband. Others lost sisters, fathers, nephews. But each day they meet near the line that separates their communities. They knit and try to set an example for the town.

"It's important that we come together ... so that we can forgive each other and get over the war," Lagatar says.

So far, Bosnia shows few signs of getting over the war. Despite the 1995 Dayton accord, the country remains divided into three enclaves: one Serb, one Croat, and one Muslim. The nationalists who started the war remain in power. Few of the 1.3 million who lived on the "wrong" side have been able to go home.

But in places like Gornji Vakuf, humanitarian organizations are helping locals take the first steps toward rebuilding. The women's group, which international volunteers helped start in 1995, is one of a small but growing number of programs throughout Bosnia trying to restore trust between ordinary people. In contrast to the celebrated "head-banging" of the diplomatic circuit, these programs work quietly to build peace from the ground up.

"The real chance for change is with the ordinary person," says John Crownover, an American volunteer in Serb-controlled Bosnia.

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The tensions in Gornji Vakuf, once an ethnically mixed town of 25,000, suggest the immensity of the task. In 1993, thousands died as neighbor fought neighbor for control. Today, the two sides have different phone systems, governments, and schools. The Croats renamed their side Uskoplje. No marker indicates the line of division, but everyone knows the streets they cannot cross.

The women's group meets in a former cafe on one of these streets. With 140 members, it brings women together, helping them earn money by improving their skills and finding markets for their work. It's not the only project in town. Farther down the street, a cheerful tumult fills a youth center that draws children and teenagers from both sides.

"In the beginning, people said, 'Why are you doing that? We can't live together,' " says Jasminka Drino-Krlic, who runs the center. "I don't hear that anymore."

Sixty miles north, in Serb-controlled Bosnia, Mr. Crownover and the Vermont-based Conflict Resolution Catalysts work in a very different community. Before the war, Banja Luka was a Serb city with a large minority of Muslims and Croats. Ethnic cleansing drove out most of the non-Serbs. Crownover and other volunteers run a community center in the only mixed neighborhood left. Using the center's computers, Pavo Karalic, a teenage Serb, reaches out over an internet chat line to Muslims who once lived on his street. He also found a Muslim girlfriend in Sarajevo. "Young people don't care for politics," he says. "They just want no more war."

Success comes hard for these projects. Many Bosnians risk the disapproval of their own kind by mixing with the wrong side. Nor does everyone agree on the value of these projects. They will receive little of the $1 billion spent on reconstruction this year.

But the women of Gornji Vakuf have no doubt about the importance of their work. "The women here are very strong," says Kirlic.

"They are the bearers of the family. When a woman crosses the line, the men will follow."

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