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In Bosnia, ethnic cleansing scars are difficult to heal

women August 31, 1997
Web posted at: 9:51 p.m. EDT (0151 GMT)

BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (CNN) -- Duda Dervisic insists that the only way she'll ever leave Banja Luka is in a coffin. For this Bosnian Muslim, it is the only place she calls home. But few former Muslim residents of the city share her sentiments. Years of ethnic cleansing have created scars that time perhaps may never completely heal.

Once there were 20,000 Muslims in Banja Luka, the second largest city in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Today, there are perhaps 4,000. Many were killed during the Bosnian civil war, under the campaign of forced expulsion carried out by Bosnian Serb forces. The rest fled to other parts of Bosnia or went into exile abroad. The war transformed Banja Luka into a Bosnian Serb stronghold, with ethnic Muslims and Croats a distinct minority.

Now, Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic says anyone is welcome to live in Republika Srbska, whose territory covers roughly half of Bosnia-Herzegovina. But many Muslims and Croats are suspicious of Plavsic's change of heart. They say it may be a ploy to gain Western support, as Plavsic steps up her power struggle with her predecessor Radovan Karadzic, who has been charged with war crimes but remains free.

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Critics of Plavsic say all the mosques in Banja Luka have been blown up, torn down, and erased from official records -- including the city's historic 400-year-old mosque that was once featured prominently on postcards of Banja Luka.

Hamizalia Kapetanovic, a Muslim community leader, says, "We've been asking for two years to be able to put fences around our religious sites, we've been asking for protection of our cemetery, and they pretend not to hear us."

There may be another reason that the Bosnian Serb government is inviting Muslims back. Banja Luka's economy, now in a shambles, was fueled in large part by Muslim-run businesses and services before the war -- from bakeries to shops that repair automobiles or TVs.

Some Serbs seeking a return to Banja Luka's former prosperity say, as one man told CNN, that ethnic cleansing was a "stupid" campaign, one that ended up harming everyone.

A few of the Muslims who have returned to Banja Luka say they are cautiously optimistic. Bakir Skorub, a mechanic, says he made his peace with the Serbs, repaired their military vehicles when they asked him to, and gets along with the city's rulers. "A lot of people are coming back," he says, "and I think a lot more will."

For her part, Duda Dervisic -- determined to stay in Banja Luka come what may -- says, "We all want to live together like before. Serb, Croat, Muslim -- it doesn't matter. The important thing is to be a good person."

CNN's Richard Blystone contributed to this report.

 
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