Steps are being taken to bring together Bosnia's two forces
by Nick Hawton
TEN years ago, Hamza Visca was involved in hand-to-hand fighting in the blown-out suburbs of Sarajevo. These days he sits behind his desk in the grand army cultural centre in the Bosnian capital and talks happily about his hobbies of pigeon-fancying and following the progress of Arsenal Football Club. it is a sign of how things have changed, and are changing, in Bosnia. "Well, I guess I've always liked pigeons," the 44-year- old brigadier said, smiling under his brown-tinted John Lennon-style glasses. "Whenever I go abroad, I take photographs of them. So far, I've taken pictures of pigeons in 37 capitals. Since the war, it's had a greater significance for me. They remind me of doves, of symbols of peace."
Brigadier Visca, a graduate of the old Yugoslav military academy in Belgrade, is an officer in the Federation Army, one of the two armies left in Bosnia when the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement divided the country into the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Bosnian Serb Republic.
Eight years on, in another, more tangible and dramatic symbol of peace in the country, the first steps are being taken to bring the two armies together. Three months of negotiations have led to an agreement being signed by representatives of Bosnia's Muslims, Croats and Serbs. For the first time, a state defence ministry and defence minister will be established. Brigadier Visca believes that the time is right. "It's not a problem to be part of the same defence structure as people we were fighting just a few years ago. It's good for our children, for us for all of Bosnia-Herzegovina," he said.
The two armies will remain in name, but all soldiers will wear the same uniform, swear the same oath and serve under the same flag. For the first time, command and control will go to the state level.
"We will have democratic control of the Armed Forces. We will have better standards m our army and, at the same time, we will have a government programme for demobilised officers,' the brigadier said.
"We believe that all the people who committed crimes during the war will eventually go to the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague. And then it is necessary to work with new people, with new personnel and to make an army that is under democratic control." The reforms are also aimed at helping the economy. Budget savings will be made by cutting Bosnia's Armed Forces from nearly 20,000 soldiers to 12,000. There will be a 75 per cent reduction in the number of reserves and conscription will be limited. If the reforms are implemented, Bosnia will probably gain membership of Nato's Partnership for Peace, a half way house before eventually joining Nato itself, a significant change for a country that, only eight years ago, was being bombed by Nato.
Fifty miles from Sarajevo, in Bosnian-Serb territory, the winds of change are also blowing, if not at gale force, then at least a breeze. At a Bosnian Serb army camp at Kuslat, in the picturesque hills close to the border with Serbia, Lieutenant-Colonel Mihajlo Vujovic oversees the training of a new generation of recruits who were too young to have fought in the last war. In a small upstairs office. overlooking the camp's basketball court he grabbed my hand and ushered me to one of the black chairs around the table. He was pleased, and perhaps slightly surprised, to find a foreign journalist in his camp.
"The reforms that are currently taking place in the defence structure of Bosnia-Herzegovina are welcome and are happening at the right time," he said. Another graduate of the military academy in Belgrade, he is a large man, a jolly green giant in his army fatigues. A veteran of the Bosnian War, he fought in southwest Bosnia close to the Croatian border, near the city of Dubrovnik.
"I think we need to look to the future and build relations that will guarantee a secure future for all three nationalities," he said. "In the future, I see Bosnia better organised. I see Bosnia in the European Union. I see military structures being a part of Nato.
"We do not think it is time to have one single army in Bosnia. There is still too much trust to build up. But the political and military leadership of Republica Srpska [the Bosnian Serb Republic] has concluded it is in the best interests of the Serbian people to transfer certain powers to the Bosnian state level."
This is new language, all the more remarkable since it is being spoken in a region that witnessed the worst atrocity of the Bosnian War. Just a few miles from the Kuslat base, at least 7,000 Muslims were killed by Bosnian-Serb forces in the summer of 1995. Mass graves relating to the Srebrenica massacre are unearthed every year.
The international community in Bosnia is pleased with the progress made in defence reform, although final agreement is still needed from the country's two parliaments. General William "Kip" Ward, the American outgoing head of Sfor, the Nato-led Stabilisation Force, said: "There is a realisation that as terrible and as horrible as those years were, we must move forward."