The Sandzak Dilemma

Sandzak's future looks grim whatever the outcome of the escalating conflict between Serbia and Montenegro. The outbound buses are booked solid.

The Sandzak Dilemma

Sandzak's future looks grim whatever the outcome of the escalating conflict between Serbia and Montenegro. The outbound buses are booked solid.

The official in the Novi Pazar passport office is a busy man. He says he receives more than 100 applications a day.

Muslims from Sandzak are leaving in droves for Turkey and Germany, fearful of being embroiled in Serbia's escalating conflict with Montenegro.

The political leaders of this predominantly Muslim region, straddling the two Yugoslav republics, believe their community could end up as "collateral damage".

Rasim Ljajic, the second most powerful Muslim politician in the region, says war would be disastrous for Sandzak, " It will lead to the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the partition of Sandzak. The war will be waged here and the experiences of civil and religious conflict in former Yugoslavia have been terrible so far."

For the time being, though, Muslim leaders are urging their 250,000-strong community to stay. Sulejman Ugljanin, a prominent Sandzak political figure, says relations between the region's various ethnic groups remain calm despite attempts by leaders in Belgrade and Podgorica to stoke tensions.

"The residents of Sandzak should stay together with their families, neighbours and fellow citizens to demonstrate their solidarity and allegiance to Sandzak, " he said

Sandzak's geographic location could hardly be more precarious. Internally divided, it also borders Kosovo, Albania and Bosnia - and has been affected by all the recent Yugoslav wars.

More than 100,000 local Muslims - who view Bosnia as their mother country and describe themselves as Bosniaks - have fled Sandzak over the last ten years of conflicts.

The emigration began at the outbreak of the Bosnian war in 1992 when the Yugoslav Army together with Serbian paramilitaries and police expelled Muslims living along the Bosnian border. The move aimed to stop both weapons smuggling and the flow of Sandzak men crossing the frontier to fight in Bosnian units.

There was a second exodus a year ago at the start of the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia. Many Sandzak Muslims fled to Bosnia, desperate to escape military draft and confrontations with federal troops based in the region.

The latest wave of refugees are fleeing new conflict brewing in northern Montenegro. It is widely believed that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic may send his paramilitary units to the region. His Montenegrin counterpart and rival, Milo Djukanovic, meanwhile, is creating his own security forces, made up mainly of Muslims from the area.

The war of nerves have been heightened by Belgrade's decision to seal off the border with Montenegro. "They are hoping to cause social unrest and civil war, " said Nusret Kalac, the mayor of the predominantly Muslim municipality of Rozaje in northern Montenegro. Tensions are greatest here. The Yugoslav Army and the Montenegrin police occupy two neighbouring hotels in the town. An uneasy stand-off exists.

"Once incident could spark a war in Montenegro, " said one Rozaje resident. Local leader Harum Hadzic said residents " are expecting war, but hoping for peace."

But Muslims in the region fear Sandzak will be partitioned whether the two Yugoslav republics part company by force or by peaceful means.

For this reason they are anxious to preserve the Yugoslav federation. So much so that despite their identification with Bosnia, they disapprove of Sarajevo's backing for Montenegrin independence.

Podgorica has refused to grant the region's demands for special political status. This has led to severe practical problems. Recently, for example, Montenegrin police prevented Muslim leaders from attending a meeting in Novi Pazar, the main town in the Serbian part of the Sandzak.

One of region's main spiritual leaders, Mufti Muamer Effendi Zukorilic, insists no patriotic Muslims could support the secession of Montenegro. "It's unacceptable for us," he said.

Faced with the real prospect of being caught up in a new war between the Serbia and Montenegro and witnessing the partition of their territory, some Sandzak Muslims are frantically trying to defuse the tensions. Others though have lost hope.

The immediate impact is clear. The bus operator in Novi Pazar says tickets for the buses bound for international destinations have been sold out in advance for the next three weeks.

Miroslav Filipovic is a correspondent for Danas in Kraljevo.

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