Chilly reception awaits pope in Serb stronghold

Sunday, June 22, 2003

BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- "Free your hearts of rancor and vendetta," Pope John Paul II implored Bosnians late last year.

Still embittered by war, this ethnically divided country is struggling to practice what the pope preached. John Paul's visit today to this Bosnian Serb stronghold, where wartime hard-liners remain in charge, is a venture into a lion's den of Balkan strife.

"Pope Go Home," declare leaflets circulated by resentful Christian Orthodox Serbs, who accuse the 83-year-old pontiff of coming to offer political support rather than spiritual encouragement to the region's Roman Catholic Croats.

Yet most Bosnians are too preoccupied with their own problems to pay much attention. Eight years after the country's 1992-95 war, which killed 250,000 people and drove another 1.8 million from their homes, efforts to build an enduring multiethnic society are stumbling.

About half of the refugees have returned, only to discover it's easier to recover their homes than to find the jobs they need to afford to stay.

A mere trickle of Muslims and Croats came back to Banja Luka, the administrative center of Bosnia's Serb mini-state. The Bosnian Serb parliament is run by the hard-liners who were in power during a war that prompted ethnic minorities to flee in terror. Its speaker, Dragan Kalinic, is godfather to a grandson of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, the world's No. 1 war crimes fugitive.

Slogans forbidden

Underscoring how ethnic tensions still simmer, local authorities have forbidden people from displaying flags or wearing clothing with provocative ethnic slogans or symbols while John Paul is in town. Those who defy the order face immediate arrest.

"It's better for us to be separate to avoid possible future conflicts," said Rodoljub Djokic, 62, a Serb retiree whose prewar Muslim neighbors have stayed away.

"It can't be worse than it is now. How could it be worse?" he said.

Because Banja Luka was never under siege, it is free of the scars of battle visible across so much of Bosnia. But hearts and minds bear wounds that haven't healed, and daily life is a struggle even for the Serbs who dominate the Bosnia's second-largest city.

Unemployment is at least 60 percent in a war-wrecked economy where many people end up scraping together $2,500 for a bribe just to get a job paying a paltry $200 a month. A recent nationwide survey found that most young people want to leave.

"I would love to leave Bosnia, but I have nowhere to go," said Dragana Martic, a 22-year-old economics student.

The pope's 101st foreign pilgrimage is aimed mainly at the Catholic Croats, who once numbered 30,000 in Banja Luka. Today, only about 2,000 have returned, along with a small number of Muslims. The U.N. refugee agency and other international organizations have pressed Bosnian Serbs to do more to create a climate where returnees feel welcome.

Banja Luka's Roman Catholic bishop, Monsignor Franjo Komarica, flashed some frustration when asked about the slow return of his scattered flock.

"Many people have died of sorrow waiting to return," he said.

"You can kill a person not just physically but when you take away his rights. Kicking someone out of his home is not a freedom -- it's a crime."

The pope will deliver a Mass and beatify a Croat theologian at the Petricevac monastery, blown up by Serb saboteurs in 1995. Komarica hopes the pope, who first visited Bosnia in 1997 with a trip to Sarajevo, will bring a fresh message of peace and reconciliation.

But some Serbs have sought to deflect attention away from the monastery bombing toward a more distant war crime: the 1942 Croat massacre of 2,300 Serbs in the nearby village of Drakulic. A priest from Petricevac led Croat fascists to the village, where their victims included 500 women and children killed with hatchets and knives.

"A lot of people are angry," conceded Jadranka Tadic, 22, sitting in the shade of a fig tree next to a monument to the slaughter with the inscription: "They weren't stopped by the crying of infants in their cradles, the screams of the mothers or the silence of the elderly."

Hoping to speed Bosnia's healing, the pope planned to lunch with religious leaders from the three major ethnic groups.

Security, always tight for a papal visit, will be unusually heavy.

More than 4,000 police officers and numerous troops from the NATO-led force still keeping the peace in Bosnia will be deployed. Police have welded shut manhole covers, searched the homes of seven hard-liners and confiscated their weapons, and imposed a daylong ban on alcohol sales.

"We're all in God's hands," Komarica said, shrugging off the precautions. "We've had far more dramatic days than this -- and we're all still here."

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