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Battlefronts of peace

Mostar, Eastern Slavonia are fragile eggs in Dayton's basket

Jasna came to seminary in Croatia as a means of survival. Her home in the divided city of Mostar was under daily seige two years ago, and she and her husband made a desperate plan for escape because their mixed marriage could not survive the nightly ethnic cleansing they witnessed. He went to Finland. She could find no place to go with their young son Tibor.

"Sometimes at night," she said, "we would see the trucks waiting in the streets for the children and families. Even when it was hot, I would shut the windows-to block out the sound of crying."

Friends in the church made it possible for her to attend Evangelical Theological Seminary in Osijek, located in the eastern pocket of Croatia far from the troubles in Mostar. She brought her now 4--year--old son with her. He stays with other students or friends while she attends classes and cleans in the dining hall to work off tuition. From time to time she makes plans with her husband, who remains in Finland, for their return home. But two years later Mostar is divided and dangerous still.

Talks to solve the long--standing dispute between Croats and Muslims in Mostar broke down last week, throwing Bosnia's Sept. 14 elections into question and raising the possibility that the European Union would abandon its 2--year--old supervision of Mostar. NATO patrols would replace it. Under the Dayton accords the Muslims and Croats must form a federation, but Croats in Mostar are refusing to abide by the results of local elections they narrowly lost to a Muslim--led coalition.

The place of Jasna's refuge, likewise, has problems of its own. Osijek is in the heart of Eastern Slavonia, another hot spot in the former Yugoslavia that threatens to undo the fragile peace. Last spring the U.N. appointed Jacques Klein, a retired U.S. general, to serve as administrator in the region, which is part of Croatia but was overrun by Serbs during the war.

In 1991 Eastern Slavonia was the site of the first major battle of the Croatian--Serb war. Local Serbs, supported by the Yugoslav army, challenged Croatia's declaration of independence, and the ensuing battles wracked the city of Vukovar on the Danube. Despite the peace accord, which returns Eastern Slavonia completely to the Croatian government in Zagreb, Serbs have kept the upper hand in this area, which is a strategic West--East transportation route between Hungary and Bosnia and the Serb Republic. When Madeleine Albright, the American ambassador to the U.N., toured here last March, her motorcade was stoned by Serb protestors who shouted "fascist" and worse.

Mr. Klein came with the mandate to do everything from demilitarizing the region to rebuilding a harbor to deciding which alphabet would be used on roadsigns (three-Latin, Arabic, and Cyrillic-are currently used).

With its one--year mandate half over, the U.N. mission is in trouble. Last week Secretary General Boutros Boutros--Ghali asked the U.N. Security Council to provide $10 million to keep it financially afloat. Municipal employees have not been paid in weeks, and Mr. Boutros--Ghali reported increasing demonstrations in front of the mission's headquarters in Vukovar. Mr. Boutros--Ghali told the council, "It would be a tragedy" if the mission failed "for want of a relatively small amount of resources."

Scant resources go hand in glove with ethnic tension to prolong the conflict, here and in places like Mostar. The U.N., wrestling with its own financial troubles, left the Croatian government to pay for its 5,000 peacekeepers and temporary administration in Eastern Slavonia. Croatia, like all the other governments of the former Yugoslavia, suffers both the financial ruins of war and the impediments of a state--run economy, a holdover of communism.

When administrator Mr. Klein expelled the Serb militia from the Djeletovci oil fields, for example, revenue for the oil that had gone to the Serb Republic was then supposed to rebuild Eastern Slavonia. But he allowed Croatia's state--owned oil company to take over the oil fields, and consequently the revenues have disappeared into the bureaucracy. Zagreb claims it has no oil receipts to pay its U.N.--related bills.

Economic stagnation affects churches that persevered through the war as well. The Baptist church in Pozega, west of Osijek but still in Eastern Slavonia, survived the front lines of fighting between Croats and Serbs. The church grew, in fact, as a result of its humanitarian work, and with the peace settlement members felt confident about moving to a larger building. They raised nearly half of the roughly $60,000 purchase price for the property, in spite of the fact that most of the people in the church don't have jobs. But the donor who promised to make up the difference has lost his own income, jeopardizing the deal. There are no banks to step in with ready capital, and the Baptist Union of Croatia would like to help out but is itself cash poor.

But far--flung ministries like Evangelical Theological Seminary remain vibrant, if small. Nearly a third of its 110 students this year are, at least informally, refugees like Jasna. Local churches and Western support, combined with a frugal campus lifestyle, make it possible for them to attend. Students from other former Soviet--bloc countries also come for ministerial training. Seminary leaders formed a war--relief work in 1991 called Agape that now exends to 103 cities in Croatia and Bosnia. Their witness to the community-distributing 1,200 meals daily just in Osijek last year along with used clothing and medical care-is a balm to areas openly seething with tendencies toward renewed war.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.