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SOCIETY-BALKANS: Brcko – An Example for the Rest of Bosnia

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BRCKO, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Dec 22 2005 (IPS) - Like hundreds of towns and villages, ten years after the war ended in Bosnia, Brcko bears some visible scars of the bloody conflicts, like the clock tower of the railway and bus station, wounded by artillery, with no hands to show the time.

But this does not mean that time stopped for the 35,000 people of Brcko, who seem to be contented and busy with their lives – in contrast with much of the rest of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

“This is the place most of the others (from the rest of Bosnia) would like to live,” Mirjana Janic, a 34-year-old Serb, told IPS. “Above all, our incomes are really decent, rebuilding one’s house is financed by the DC (District Council) and everything else functions as it should,” she added.

Janic has a degree in economics and works for a private construction firm, owned by a Brcko Bosniak Muslim who returned here after the war ended.

Unlike other parts of Bosnia, where a monthly income of 300 dollars is a dream for many, teachers have salaries up to 1,500 dollars, judges more than 2,000, computer experts even more. Janic would not say how much she earned, but did admit: “several times more than in the rest of the country”.

Private business here is thriving, with trade making a significant contribution, as Croatia is just across the Sava River, and Serbia is some 200 kilometres to the east. On weekends, people come from the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia or Macedonia for shopping.

The famous “Arizona” market, the largest open-air shopping mall in the Balkans, draws almost 10,000 people each day. On weekends, the number is several times higher.

The market’s name comes from the battalion of U.S. troops who kept peace in the area for years after the war ended in 1995.

The Arizona is the only place in former Yugoslavia where flags of former warring sides – Serbia, Bosnia or Croatia – are being sold in the same shops, with people being only interested in buying and not fighting over them.

The goods are coming from all over the former united country, as well as from abroad. The talk here is merely about prices and almost never about what happened in the recent past.

But for Ismet Dedeic, 55, who owns a construction firm and part of the business that runs “Arizona”, the return from Germany to his native town of Brcko in 1995 was a disaster.

“I wasn’t here during the war (begun in 1992) and could not believe what I saw with my own eyes. Everything around me was simply destroyed,” he says.

Brcko, once the biggest port town in Bosnia, on the banks of the Sava and populated with Muslim majority, is situated along the major road that connected Serbia proper in the east with Serb-controlled areas of western Bosnia at the time when war raged.

To keep the vital supply and logistics connection safe, Bosnian Serbs, aided by notorious Belgrade paramilitary warlord Zeljko Raznatovic Arkan, shelled the town and subsequently evicted some 30,000 Muslims. Atrocities against non-Serbs became a daily routine, with some 20 detention camps existing around Brcko.

When the internationally sponsored negotiations on peace began in 1995 in the U.S. city of Dayton, Ohio, Brcko became a stumbling block. Former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, negotiating in the name of Bosnian Serbs, finally bowed under pressures of U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke to leave the town out of the final settlement. Previously, he wanted a solution that would give Brcko to the Serb part of Bosnia.

The decision was made to solve the Brcko problem later, with the introduction of a U.S. experiment: neither Bosniak nor Serb or Croat, but a separate district with different laws, rules and daily life: the “District of Brcko”.

The DC of Brcko, as it is known now, was the brainchild of U.S. diplomat Roberts Owen and is now run by a supervisor designed by the State Department.

And it remains a unique yet successful experiment today, with its own budget of more than 150 million dollars annually, unimaginable for the rest of Bosnia.

It has rules that recognise no ethnic roots, and completely integrated police, judiciary and education systems. The silent formula for this is two Serbs, two Muslims and one Croat wherever possible, representing the existing proportions in the general population.

This formula seems impossible elsewhere in Bosnia, where one ethnicity still tends to dominate over others.

Brcko has its own parliament and local decision-making council.

“Such a thing does not exist anywhere in Bosnia,” Milan Tomic, president of Assembly of Brcko, told IPS. “This should become a model for all multi-ethnic communities in the country”.

Tomic, a Serb, takes pride in the fact that children attend integrated schools, also unimaginable in other parts of the country.

“The return (of refugees) to Brcko is the highest in Bosnia,” says Mayor Mirsad Djapo, a Muslim. “The Council provides the returnees with 15,000 dollars for house repairs and people are happy to come back.”

Jobs are not scarce in Brcko, unlike the rest of Bosnia, and economic security here makes life pretty good, agree Djapo and Tomic.

“We’d like it to stay that way,” vendor Salih Smajlovic at the Arizona market told IPS. “When you have work to do and can plan your future, there’s no place for other things in your mind. They say that money makes the world go round, but here it helps start a new life with a future ahead. And that is not a small thing in this poor country.”

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