The Godfather of Bihac

Tucked away in the northwest of Bosnia lies a rural landscape of verdant rolling hills and golden fields of wheat. If one were to remove the minarets which pop up from behind the hills regularly, it could easily be mistaken for the Sussex downs in the south of England. The region is known as the Bihac pocket, centered as it is on the city of Bihac. The ruddy-faced workers who farm the land intensively there in preparation for a miserable winter seem jolly peasants straight from central casting. They have plenty of food, and, should they need them, medical supplies.

Their urban relatives who live on the periphery of the Bihac pocket are somewhat less fortunate. The town of Bosanska Krupa, for example, which is divided by the River Una has become the scene of permanent sniper war between the Serbs on the east bank and the Muslims on the west. The industrial district of the town of Bihac itself has been largely obliterated by Serb shells, while the road between the central town of Cazin and Bihac is too dangerous to travel. Despite this, the Bihac pocket is without question the safest Muslim-controlled region in all of Bosnia-Herzegovina. One town, Velika Kladusa, home to the giant food-processing concern Agrokomerc, has been completely spared any fighting.

At first this seems odd, since the pocket is a fat wedge some forty miles in width blocking travel between part of the Serb-controlled Krajina in Croatia to the west and the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Banja Luka to the east. But for a variety of reasons, the local Serbs, of whom ten and a half thousand out of twelve thousand quietly left Bihac in June last year, have not waged serious war against the region.

The curiously static atmosphere is hard to imagine while Sarajevo is being strangled to the south. Over Turkish coffee in the midday sun with a group of professional people, educated at Harvard, Cambridge, and the Sorbonne, a professor of philosophy came closest to a description. “Are you acquainted with the Beckett play Waiting for Godot?” he asked. “Well, he’s already been here and left, and we’re waiting to see if he comes back.” Nothing is what it seems in Bihac.

The city of Bihac is protected by hills and plateaus to the south and east. According to a senior member of the French battalion, which patrols the entire region under the auspices of the UN, the Serbs would have great difficulty keeping their supply lines open to the city if they attempted to take it. Instead they have concentrated on disabling the military potential of the Muslims in Bihac. The most spectacular example of this occurred last May when the retreating Yugoslav People’s Army blew up the complex system of underground runways of Bihac’s airport, which at a cost of $50 million was the most sophisticated military airbase in all of the former Yugoslavia.

The character and history of Bihac’s Muslim population have …

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