Serb Pupils Stoke Up Bosnian Tensions

Demonstrations by Serb schoolchildren have renewed fears of serious violence in Bosnia in the run-up to elections

Serb Pupils Stoke Up Bosnian Tensions

Demonstrations by Serb schoolchildren have renewed fears of serious violence in Bosnia in the run-up to elections

Some 2,000 Serb schoolchildren in the northeast town of Brcko demonstrated for four days last week, demanding they be taught separately from Muslim and Croat pupils.

The incident served to highlight increasing political and ethnic tensions in the build-up to general elections in Bosnia early next month.

Homes belonging to Muslim refugees were damaged during the protests. Several policemen were injured trying to keep the demonstration under control.

Many local and foreign officials dismissed the pupils' demand as unacceptable. They said the protests had a political character and were probably linked to the November 11 poll.

The protests were originally sparked by the murder of Vojka Pavlovic, a Serbian girl, on October 16. On the same day, some 300 Muslim students marched through town in a peaceful protest against the beating of a Muslim pupil at a local secondary school.

The Serb students accused the Muslims of Pavlovic's murder even though Brcko district's chief of police, Dusko Kokanovic, said there were no indications that the killer was Muslim.

The Serb pupils said they would not return to their classes unless they were taught separately from fellow Croat and Muslim students.

Ethnic rivalries are a sensitive issue in the Brcko district. After the 1995 Dayton peace agreement ended the war, Bosnia was divided into two entities. But ownership of the town remained unresolved, as both former warring factions laid claims to it.

The Muslim-Croat side said that the majority of the town's population was Muslim, and that returning the town to them would be some compensation for the killing of several thousand of their ethnic kin. It's also important to them because of its proximity to central Europe.

But last March, the international community decided Brcko should become a neutral district, which belongs neither to the Muslim-Croat federation nor to Republika Srpska, RS. Supervision of the town was left to multinational authorities.

The district is one of the few places in Bosnia where Muslims now live side by side again with Serbs - a situation some politicians don't like.

The Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Bosnia says it is these politicians - "the extreme nationalists" - of the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, who are behind the protests. And the links are clear as it was Radovan Karadzic, indicted of war crimes by The Hague, who headed this party during the war.

The parties in the RS blame each other for the events in Brcko.

Mirko Blagojevic, the leader of the Radical party, claimed the SDS and the Socialist Party of Republika Srpska, which is a branch of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's party, are using the protests of the secondary school students to gain "cheap political points" in the run-up to the elections.

However, representatives of the international community have avoided blaming specific parties and say the incidents are caused by "groups whose aim is to cause confusion".

Either way, these events have had a negative impact on the political climate in the town and the psychological well-being of the returning refugees. Last year there were hopes that it was possible to create a multi-ethnic climate in the town, and that Brcko could be a symbol of a future Bosnia.

"I really believed that we could again live together in peace," said Adnana Dzafic, 38, a Muslim who recently returned to her home in Brcko, but is considering leaving again.

"We returned to our house, invested money to rebuild it, the children started school and my husband went back to work, but now I am too frightened to allow my children to play in the yard, let alone go to school," said Dzafic, whose windows were smashed for a second time during the demonstrations.

"I am shocked by the children's level of hatred towards everything that is not Serbian," said Suad Delic, 43, another Muslim who recently returned to his pre-war home.

"I know that you shouldn't draw conclusions from some badly behaved teenagers, but after everything that has happened here, it's hard not to be apprehensive and wonder what will happen next."

At the moment, the town is peaceful although the underlying problems have not been resolved. The district assembly, which was protected from the schoolchildren by a police cordon, decided to suspend classes in several schools until a group of experts work out a new way to organize schooling in the town.

But the fragile truce is far from resolving the situation which could boil over into a new and perhaps bigger conflict.

Nermina Durmic-Kahrovic is a regular IWPR contributor

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