Bosnian Serbs Spurn Reconciliation

Renewed ethnic tensions in Banja Luka threaten reconciliation in Republika Srpska

Bosnian Serbs Spurn Reconciliation

Renewed ethnic tensions in Banja Luka threaten reconciliation in Republika Srpska

Six years after the Dayton peace accord, it seems the Bosnian Serb leadership has finally been persuaded or strong-armed into accepting basics of democracy, peaceful co-existence and tolerance.

The trouble is that some of those who followed them through the war years have trouble accepting this.

This was evident on June 18, when a rescheduled ceremony to mark the start of a project to rebuild the Ferhadija, once Bosnia's oldest and most beautiful mosque, again fell victim to ethnic violence.

Television footage and photos of policemen covered with blood and demonstrators being dispersed by water cannons and tear gas, were broadcast and published around the world. The scenes left many people wondering whether reconciliation in Bosnia will ever be possible.

At the initial ceremony on May 7, demonstrators overwhelmed poorly-organised local police and stoned and beat up scores of Muslim worshippers. One of them died of his injuries a few days later.

At the second event, police, NATO sharp-hooters deployed atop nearby buildings and scores of journalists expecting trouble surrounded the mosque site, as rain bucketed down. It all made for an eerie scene. "It gave me the creeps," said a reporter from one of the local TV stations.

However this time, local police were much better prepared. Over two thousand of them, equipped with anti-riot gear, water-cannons and tear-gas canisters, sealed off the area.

Just as the ceremony started, around 2,000 demonstrators moved against the police. Scuffles ensued, leaving 15 officers injured. About a hundred demonstrators - many of them equally roughed up - were arrested. Despite the crowd trouble, the foundation stone was laid.

Mehmed Hrnic, a 70-year old Muslim resident of Banja Luka, was among those who were attacked in the first incident. A few days later, he was beaten up in broad daylight by a local Bosnian Serb "patriot".

"I am not afraid to die, but I am much too old to experience all that

twice," he said, referring to his decision to skip the rescheduled Ferhadija mosque reconstruction ceremony.

Renewed ethnic violence in Banja Luka, six years after the end of war, once again raises questions over the feasibility of reconciliation.

Optimists underline that the two thousand demonstrators, when set against the town's quarter of a million population, are not a true reflection of public opinion. They also point out that in both incidents, the protesters were mostly made up from refugees, war veterans and die-hard extremists.

These optimists argue that the Banja Luka incidents are no worse than some of the riots recently experience in "normal" Western countries.

They say Bosnia has achieved much in a relatively short period of time, citing cultural, economic, business, and even political cooperation between different parts of the country.

Pessimists stress, however, that many pre-war Banja Luka inhabitants who didn't directly participate in the recent violence, criticised the Bosnian Serb police for defending the Muslims and beating back the rioters.

But the optimists counter that the behaviour of key members of the Bosnian Serb leadership offered some hope for the future.

Mirko Sarovic and Dragan Cavic, president and vice-president of Republika Srpska, and senior members of the notorious Serb Democratic Party, SDS, participated in both Ferhadija mosque ceremonies.

In one of his addresses to the citizens of Banja Luka, Cavic stressed that "Republika Srpska will resolutely protect the values of a democratic society, including the right to a free expression of religion".

Whether such sentiments represent a genuine shift in attitude or merely a response to international pressure is unclear, however.

After the May 7 violence, international agencies and Western governments threatened to impose economic sanctions on Republika Srpska unless the perpetrators were brought to justice and a new ceremony was organised.

Following these warnings, Cavic stated that the Republika Srpska leadership would not tolerate a repeat of the May 7 trouble as this would threaten the entity's future.

Whether the likes of Cavic are committed to ethnic toleration will be put to the test in the coming months, as new rebuilding ceremonies are planned for numerous mosques and Catholic churches destroyed during the war.

In the meantime, 50 Bosnian Serb policemen provide round-the-clock protection of the Ferhadija mosque site.

Gordana Katana is a Banja Luka correspondent for Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje

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