Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Mujahideen Resist Eviction

The planned eviction of mujahideen in northern Bosnia is threatening to turn into a major crisis.
By Janez Kovac

Showing they mean business, the new moderate leadership in the northern town of Maglaj recently sought to remove one of the biggest problems in the region - mujahideen and their families.

The Islamic fundamentalists living in the remote village of Bocinja Donja are being forced to hand their homes over to their original occupants - Bosnian Serbs.

The improved security and political situation in Bosnia has this year led to a significant increase in refugee returns. More than 15,000 have been repatriated in the first six months of 2000, three times more than in the same period last year.

Evictions of those who occupy refugees' homes often provokes anger, tears. Its very mention brought about a crisis in Bocinja.

Locals blocked a main road through the region for three days. Police eventually ended the protest, arresting and later releasing 19 people, including several mujahideen. The real problems, however, are likely to begin when police start evicting the Bocinja residents.

Before the war, Bocinja was home to some 3,000 Bosnian Serbs. After the conflict, it hit the headlines when the Bosnian Muslim leadership allowed a group of foreign and local mujahideens to move into the abandoned Serb houses.

During the war, some of these Islamic fighters fought alongside the

Muslim-led government forces. When the fighting came to an end, some of them married local women and were granted Bosnian citizenship and accommodation, in recognition of their contribution to the war effort.

The scale of their contribution, however, has long been debated.

Bosnians claimed that many foreign mujahideen avoided combat. They suspect they only came here to gather intelligence or train and plot terrorist and criminal activities.

The existence of a mujahideen community in the heart of Europe was a constant worry for western, especially American, diplomats. In 1996 and 1997, they persuaded Bosnian Muslim leader, Alija Izetbegovic, to expel several of those with criminal records.

At least 300 Islamic fighters, their local followers and women and

children, remained in Bocinja, where they lived separate lives untroubled by local police, tax-collectors or any other authorities. Outsiders never set foot in the small community.

Every so often, stories of mujahideen harassing "unbelievers" in local towns appeared in the press. Several were alleged to have been involved in criminal or terrorist activities both in and outside Bosnia. Worst of all, since the end of the war, the Islamists were never properly disarmed. Local police, army, and even UN and NATO-led peacekeepers, were reluctant to search houses in Bocinja.

As a result of Bocinja's bad reputation, the Maglaj region received little international reconstruction aid. Many local firms and industries which survived the war are now close to collapse because of the lack of funds.

The situation started to change after the April 8 local elections, when the leading Bosnian opposition party, the Socialist Democratic Party ,SDP, defeated the ruling Muslim nationalist SDA party in Maglaj.

Soon after taking up his new office, the new SDP mayor of Maglaj, Mehmed Bradaric, said one of his first priorities was to evict mujahideen families from Bocinja to facilitate the return of its former Bosnian Serb residents.

His statement prompted displaced Muslims living in two abandoned Serb villages near Bocinja to set up roadblocks. UN and local police say that mujahideen encouraged the protesters. They are said to have told them that once they are evicted the Maglaj authorities will remove refugees from other villages to prepare the ground for the mass return of the pre-war Bosnian Serb population.

The Maglaj authorities, meanwhile, were facing yet another problem - their own police. With the SDA still in power in the cantonal government and interior ministry, local police were reluctant to intervene in the unfolding Maglaj crisis, even after the municipal authorities proclaimed a state of emergency.

Consequently, a humanitarian and security problem also quickly became a focus for political conflict between SDA and SDP.

The Bocinja deadlock eventually ended after Bosnia's top

international mediator,the High Representative, Wolfgang Petritsch, said he was holding Zenica canton Interior Minister "personally responsible" for a speedy resolution of the crisis. The roadblocks were removed a day later.

Following negotiations between local, cantonal and federal

authorities, it was agreed that local police would start evicting two local Muslim households from Bocinja every day from July 24. "Foreign" mujahideen would be left to the end. Meanwhile, the federal government pledged two million German marks for the reconstruction of abandoned and devastated apartments in Maglaj, to accommodate those from Bocinja who have no where to go.

The one problem with the plan is that no one asked Mujahideen whether they agreed with it. Local analysts fear that some Islamic fighters might choose to take the law into their own hands.

Janez Kovac is a regular IWPR contributor

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