BRCKO, Bosnia (Reuters) – In the 1990s, Milorad Maglajcevic fought for Bosnia’s Serbs, whose wartime goal was to clear Muslims from areas they wanted for Serbs alone.
Now he works with ex-adversaries in a factory in a unique region of Bosnia cited as an example of tolerance and economic opportunity.
He reluctantly recalls the bloody past that tore apart Yugoslavia. But nationalist overtones to the campaign leading to Sunday’s local election have cast a spotlight on the ethnic divide in Bosnia — and the special status of the Brcko area.
“We have achieved a certain level of mutual trust and respect,” Mirsad Djapo, Brcko’s Muslim mayor, said of Serbs, Croats and Muslims known as Bosniaks. “We showed that three peoples could live and work together.”
When the war ended in 1995, Bosnia was divided into two halves, one Serb, the other Bosniak and Croat.
But the strategic river port town of Brcko in the northeast vexed negotiators as to which side it should belong, so it was set aside with a U.S. diplomat in charge.
“What Brcko offers on everything from education to courts to police to government and to the legislature are all models of how things could be done in the rest of Bosnia-Herzegovina,” said Raffi Gregorian, the American now overseeing Brcko.
“It does pretty well economically because it is stable.”
The leadership of the largely Serb part of Bosnia has taken an increasingly nationalist tone and hints it could one day attempt to secede from Bosnia. A maze of inefficient bureaucracy stagnates the Muslim-Croat half’s development and worries foreign investors.
In Brcko, where about 42 percent of people are Serbs, 43 Bosniak, and the rest Croats and others, international administrators set a different path focused on reconciliation. Bosniak and Serb police patrol jointly and their children go to school together.
100 PERCENT STRANGE
Brcko police chief Goran Lujic, who once fought for Bosnian Serb forces, said many wondered how it was possible that former enemies now worked together.
“It was something of a miracle,” Lujic said of his multi-ethnic police force. “One year before we were fighting and then we were with guns working together. Yes, it’s 100 percent strange. It is incredible.”
One key lure was money. At the start, police officers earned three times the average wage in the Serb half of Bosnia.
Economic incentive also brings together former fighters at the BIMAL cooking oil factory, which an Austrian group took over in 2002 for one euro ($1.39) in Bosnia’s first privatization. They have invested 35 million and only recently started making a profit.
“Money makes things better,” said spokeswoman Natasa Pucar. “It is hard to control emotions. If you let emotions control you then obviously you are not looking to the future but thinking of the past.”
Bosnian Serb Maglajcevic has worked at BIMAL for five years, checking cooking oil along a largely automated production line. He grows somber and reflective when asked why he fought in the Bosnian war that killed 100,000.
“No one asks the ox if it wants to be killed, but the butcher takes it anyway to be slaughtered,” he said. “No one asked me if I wanted to go to war. I had to leave my home, I had to fight.”
BIMAL factory engineer Edim Bukvarevic fought for the Bosnian Muslim side, and his logic is similar. “It was the only option, maybe. Men go to war.”
In the current election campaign, politicians often seek to play upon deep emotions. But Bukvarevic said he was not buying any of the rhetoric blared from loudspeakers on cars, pasted on posters and playing on television.
“I don’t believe in what we call democracy,” he said, adding that he would not vote.
Even with its relatively strong progress compared with the rest of Bosnia, different ethnic groups go to different cafes, and even if some Muslims and Serbs date, they rarely marry.
“I thought it would be much faster,” said Eleonora Emkic, project manager for the Law Center for Youth Development which tries to bring young people together.
“It is very hard to forget what happened. Also, they don’t have good (political) leaders yet, that causes a problem.”
Brcko Mayor Djapo hopes investment will continue to foster reconciliation. He said the region had attracted 200 million euros of foreign investment over the last four years, and another 100 million euros was expected next year.
“When people saw that this concept provided a better life and perspective for the future, they embraced it,” he said.