Before Kosovo, there was Bosnia

The Press-Enterprise (Riverside, CA)
June 20, 1999, Sunday

Before Kosovo, there was Bosnia

Mark Petix, The Press-Enterprise

Serbs, Croats and Muslims have shared a common language for 1,000 years, but they have been long divided by ethnic hatred and the passionate and often bloody politics of nationalism.

In 1989, Slobodan Milosevic, president of Yugoslavia’s Serb Republic, sent troops to reassert control in the ethnic Albanian province of Kosovo.  Fearing the same fate, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.  Bosnia followed in 1992.  The Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army then sent thousands of troops to Croatia and Bosnia to support Serb rebellions.

With its mixed population of Serbs, Muslims and Croats, Bosnia soon became the primary battleground, bearing the full weight of fighting and ethnic cleansing that were stopped only by NATO intervention.

Almost five years after the Dayton Peace Agreement ended the war in Bosnia, Sgt. Mike Torres, 23, of Riverside is part of an effort to preserve Bosnias fragile peace.

The Army reservist is spending nine months in Bosnia with a detachment of the 301st Psychological Operations Command, a San Diego-based airborne unit taking part in the Peace Stabilization Force known as SFOR.

Torres and Psyops are in Bosnia to offer friendship, reconciliation and hope for something better in a country divided by hate.

TODAY: A visit to the Bosnian Serb Republika Srpska and the military stronghold of Han Pijesak, where the U.S. Army is regarded as an occupation force.

Han Pijesak (HAHN pee-YAY-zak) is a mountain town 15 miles west of Yugoslavia.  Before the war, Muslims made up 40 percent of the population in the opstina, or municipality, of Han Pijesak.  Today, there are none.  Serbs account for 99 percent of the areas 3,020 residents.

*   Han Pijesak was a military stronghold during the war, headquarters of the Bosnian Serb Army and a radical support base for Ratko Mladic, a key architect of Bosnias ethnic cleansing.  He has been indicted, but not yet arrested, for alleged war crimes.

*   Timber and tourism, the primary sources of income before the war, are at a standstill.  Unemployment is at least 50 percent.

Residents raise vegetables and livestock to survive.

MONDAY: The depth of anti-American sentiment in the Serb Republika Srpska is clear in Vlasenica, where Torres and the 301st Psyops spend an uneasy day.

TUESDAY: The mountaintop city of Vares is the antidote to the Republika Srpska.  Torres and Psyops receive a warm welcome from children in this corner of the Muslim/Croat Federation.

WEDNESDAY: Turalici is a rare refugee success story in Bosnia.

Torres and Psyops visit a 300-year-old Muslim village literally erased during the war but now rebuilding.

THURSDAY: Kids day at the U.S. Armys Camp Demi, where Torres and Psyops are based, is an experiment in fun.  A hundred Muslim and Serb children mix naturally, offering hope for a lasting peace in Bosnia.

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