BRATUNAC, Bosnia —— When Refiq Begic travels to this impoverished town to chair meetings of its municipal assembly, he stays only briefly and rarely ventures outside his office building. Begic, a Muslim expelled from his home by Bosnian Serb soldiers and police eight years ago, says he still feels unwelcome and unsafe amid the local ethnic Serb populace.
Across the street is the schoolyard where Begic said he and hundreds of other Muslim men were detained and tortured for a week in May 1992. His memory of that is still fresh, and he steers clear of the school and a site behind it where he said he saw more than 100 of his neighbors killed that month.
But inside the municipal building, he cannot avoid meeting several prominent ethnic Serbs who he says took part in detentions and expulsions of Muslims during the war. One of them, Miodrag Josipovic, is the town's mayor and has an office down the hall; a second, Miladin Simac, has recently attended assembly meetings; another, Miroslav Deronjic, is an assembly member.
“It's really hard for me” to be here, says Begic, 33, chain smoking as he recounted witnessing war crimes. “Everything is going slowly, really slowly.”
The Bosnian Serb Republic, created by the U.S.-brokered Dayton peace accords that ended the Bosnian war, is now five years old and the prevailing atmosphere is at best a bitter peace.
The shooting has stopped in Begic's town and others in the republic, but the nationalist ideology endures. War criminals remain on the loose; no one has been detained for the killings Begic recounted. Rock-throwing breaks out regularly, people from different ethnic groups rarely speak, and it is with trepidation when they do.
Creating normal government and life here is “like trying to build a house where ashes are still burning,” laments Celhia de Lavarene, the top U.N. official in Bratunac.
Under the Dayton deal, this part of Bosnia became the Serb Republic and the rest became a federation of Muslims and Croats. The deal provided that with U.S. and other NATO ground troops supplying security across Bosnia, refugees would return home and war criminals from all three ethnic groups would be brought to book. Foreign aid would rebuild the economy. Over time, the republic and federation, linked in a national government in Sarajevo, would come to trust each other.
But today, continuing enmity keeps 22,000 NATO troops on patrol in Bosnia, with no departure in sight. Jacques Klein, the top U.N. official in the country, warned that instability would be chronic and violence might erupt again if they went home.
In Bratunac, a drab town on the Drina River where the republic's nationalism may be at its most strident, only a few dozen Muslim families have visited their prewar homes. After a spate of attacks on returnees, only six have felt safe enough to stay.
Elsewhere in the Serb zone, the atmosphere is less fearful. In total, 35,063 Muslims and 3,170 Croats have returned since the end of the war, mostly in the last two years, but that is just a fraction of those who were driven from their homes during three years of war.
Concerted pressure by Western officials and the withholding of economic aid from communities that bar minority returns has not vanquished the dreams of many political leaders here for Serb unity on ethnically pure territory.
The popularity of the Serbian Democratic Party, whose former head, Radovan Karadzic, is a fugitive on charges of genocide by an international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, has increased. According to recent Western polls, the party—known by its Serbian initials as the SDS—could double its seats in the republic's parliament in Bosnia-wide elections next weekend and capture the post of president for the first time since 1997.
The predictions caused dismay among foreign diplomats here. “Those who claim the SDS has changed are blowing smoke,” said Thomas J. Miller, the U.S. ambassador here. “This is a party that is anti-Dayton.”
But such is the standing of the party that Bosnia's Western overseers recently rejected a proposal by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Richard C. Holbrooke, to ban it from the election; they worry, in part, that some of its followers would respond with violence.
It's not only the SDS that draws dismay. Oliver Burch, the top local representative of the organization that oversees the Dayton accords, said: “Every Serb party here is not actively working to implement Dayton. We have to swim in the muddy waters we find ourselves in.”
Thus, the dream of residents for a genuine accounting of the killing of tens of thousands of civilians and the jailing of those who pulled the triggers has proved difficult.
Although experts say most of Bosnia's war crimes occurred inside the Serb Republic's territory, its U.N.-trained police force has yet to arrest its first Serb suspect and has helped detain only one Bosnian Muslim. It has only been with NATO's help that the international war crimes tribunal has arrested or convicted 24 other republic residents. Another 17 were publicly indicted but remain at large.
Dozens more who stand accused by witnesses in court documents and other government files of participation in rapes, mass murder, and other war crimes still play prominent roles in the republic, Western officials say.
A recent report by the International Crisis Group, a privately funded research organization, alleges that at least 13 people it contends took part in war crimes are currently employed in Serb Republic police forces, while another 24 hold government office, including several mayoral posts.
“The influence of potential war criminals at the municipal and [republic] level is an open secret among international officials,” the group said in the report. “The issue is often avoided, since it exposes contradictions between the international community's commitment to justice and the rule of law, on the one hand, and the temptations of political expedience, on the other.”
Army Lt. General Michael L. Dodson, the commander of NATO's troops in Bosnia, said in an interview that “this is not like Germany after the war. The Nazis are not all gone.”
In Bratunac and the neighboring town of Srebrenica, where more than 7,500 Muslims were killed by Serbs in July 1995, Western officials and NATO troops seeking the safe return of displaced people often find themselves negotiating with people suspected of war crimes, the officials said.
The effort has largely been futile in this town, where Karadzic's picture still hangs from the window of the Faroan Bar across from the municipal building.
Last week, a Muslim woman attempting to reach her home here was beaten, according to Begic; on May 11, 50 women who lost family members in the Srebrenica massacre were injured in a hail of stones when they attempted to say prayers for the dead at the Bratunac school.
Sometimes Americans are the targets: A U.S. military officer's home in the nearby city of Zvornik was attacked with six armor-piercing rocket-propelled grenades this summer.
Dragan Jeftic, a Bosnian Serb who resigned as Srebrenica's deputy mayor last week over Western plans to erect a memorial to the massacre victims, blamed Muslims for being unwilling to come back. But he also said, “You have to realize that the SDS is a huge force here. It has huge power. It has huge influence” with the ethnic Serb population, most of whom are refugees from Sarajevo and other Muslim-dominated towns.
Refiq Begic said that when he meets Josipovic, the Bratunac mayor, he often cannot forget seeing him in a police uniform at the entrance to the schoolyard where Begic was detained and the executions took place. He also said he saw Josipovic on a truck escorting survivors to a prison in the Bosnian Serb capital of Pale several days later.
In 1998, two Bosnian Serbs pointed guns at his head inside the municipal building and threatened to kill him if he returned, Begic said. But he accepted an appointment by Western officials as the assembly's president to prove that “their crimes did not win” in Bratunac.
For his part, Josipovic said that although he was the Bratunac police chief in 1994, he was just a regular soldier in 1992 and did not take part in war crimes.
“At the moment, we must follow the Dayton accord,” Josipovic said. But in the next breath he indicated that he’d be willing to break it. If the Serbian province of Kosovo in Yugoslavia, now under U.N. administration, gains formal independence, that will prove that “borders can be changed” and “the Serbian question can be resolved once and for all” by combining the Bosnian Serb Republic with neighboring Serbia, the dominant republic of Yugoslavia, he said. Under the Dayton accords, they must remain separate.
Josipovic said he agrees with Muslims that “we must speak openly about what happened during the war, because if we try to cover the tracks, we will have another eruption of nationalism.” But he resents assertions that Serbs here were “responsible for everything. The problem is that everyone was cleansing everybody,” he said, referring to “ethnic cleansing,” the forced removal of members of rival ethnic groups from their homes.
Kada Hotic, a Muslim from Srebrenica who lost her husband, son and two brothers in the 1995 massacre, said she is frustrated at still having no answers five years later about what happened and who did it.
“All those people who hold office in those places . . . are prospering from the glory of those events,” said Hotic, who helps run a group based in Sarajevo called the Mothers of Srebrenica and Zepa Enclaves. “It is because of people like that, we cannot come back. They are still fighting to keep what they got after they killed so many people. They don’t want to let go, and the international community doesn’t know what to do.”