Thousands of jubilant Muslims and Croats poured into this deserted Sarajevo suburb Wednesday as Serbs gave it up to their enemies’ control.
The crowds appeared unfazed by an overnight attempt by some Croat policemen to thwart the handover and undercut the Muslim-Croat federation that is to govern half of Bosnia, including all of the capital Sarajevo.
The Croats’ challenge to the federation’s authority underscored growing disputes between Muslims and Croats within their federation, formed in March 1994 after a year of fighting.
It also threatened Bosnia’s fragile peace: If the federation cannot function, then the country is likely to disintegrate, with the Serbs merging with Serbia, Croat lands uniting with Croatia, and a small Muslim state struggling to survive between them.
The Muslim-Croat federation was forged under U.S. pressure. Under the terms of the Bosnian peace agreement signed last year, the federation is to govern 51 percent of Bosnian territory and the remainder will be under Bosnian Serb control, with a weak central government handling foreign policy and monetary policy.
Hadzici was the third of the five Serb-held Sarajevo suburbs to come under the control of federation police, who are to take over the entire capital by March 19. Almost all of its Serb residents fled before the handover, their own fears of reprisal from war-time enemies fanned by Bosnian Serb leaders who incited them to leave.
Thousands who fled Hadzici or were expelled when the Serbs took it in 1992 clogged the main road into the suburb Wednesday, eager to see even the hulks of their homes. Most houses had been stripped by departing Serbs loath to leave anything valuable behind. Some still smoldered after being set ablaze overnight.
“It is strange, very strange to be here again after these four years,” said Husein Dupovac, one of the federation policemen who was born in Hadzici and lived there until Serbs expelled him in 1992.
He said his family is planning to return even though their house was destroyed.
Only about 150 people, most of them elderly, stayed in Hadzici; they were left without electricity, water and heating.
“My wife and I decided to stay here,” said Djuro Puljic, a 70-year old Serb. “We realized that if there is any humanity left in this world, there is nothing we should be afraid of.”
Puljic, who fought as a Yugoslav partisan in World War II at age 12, said the 43 months of Bosnian bloodshed were worse.
“I have seen it all for the last four years. Slaughtering, looting, torching and raping,” he muttered as tears rolled down his cheeks. “We are old and haven’t done anything to anybody.”
Just half an hour before the hand-over became official, the threat of NATO guns forced out a band of Croat policemen opposed to the Muslim-Croat alliance.