As NATO transferred command of the nine-year-old peace-keeping mission in Bosnia to the European Union on Thursday, it handed a tough challenge to the nascent EU force while turning the spotlight on the troubling issues still unresolved in this fragile nation.
A U.S.-brokered peace accord ended Bosnia's 1992-95 war between its Muslim Bosnians, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats.
But the country is still crippled with problems -- from regional ethnic conflicts, terrorism, high-profile war-crime suspects on the run to the widespread availability of conventional arms and the flourishing organized crime presence.
The new European Union force, called EUFOR, steps into the shoes of NATO’s departing Stabilization Force (SFOR) and will need to maintain peace while the country's other innumerable problems are addressed.
Hoping for the best
“I’m always grateful to see NATO soldiers when I visit my hometown of Foca,” said Eshef, a strong Bosnian in his mid-thirties who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
He was holding a photograph of the house he once owned, but still does not feel safe going back to. “I believe the EU can do the same job,” he said, but added, “I hope.”
As with many people here, Eshef has not forgotten Europe’s over-hasty and ineffective foreign policy in the early 1990s when it failed to intervene and stop a war which left him and about two million people homeless while claiming the lives of more than 200,000 others.
Since the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord, the town of Foca belongs to the so-called Serbian Republic.
But, Muslims, like Eshef, who once made up the majority of the city's population, are unwelcome.
There is no school for Muslim children. Even the name was changed to Srbinje. Eshef looked at his daughter and sighed, “Maybe it’s only of psychological importance that any international troops are still around.”
Living war-time museum
In everyday life there seems to be less tension between Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosnians, and Orthodox Serbs than there was a few years ago.
But, walking through Bosnia is still like visiting a war-time museum. It is impossible to take a step without running into a minefield in collective memory, most of it bad.
Sarajevo’s completely destroyed “twin-towers,” which once were one of the war’s icons in worldwide television news coverage, have been rebuilt and renovated. But countless walls in the capital and all over the country remain covered with the marks of three years of shelling and combat between former friends and neighbors.
Today, the remains of a tourist café, originally built for the winter Olympics in 1984 on Mount Trebevic high above Sarajevo, tell of unspeakable horror.
Inside, it is obvious that people were once hung and shot there. The prison in Foca is also remembered by everyone as the place where hundreds of Muslim men were tortured and killed, while their wives were raped in a gym right in the town’s center.
Tragic stories are repeated across Bosnia. Too many families have lost loved-ones, on all sides, and too many here were involved in a brutal war to make for a comfortable peace.
EUFOR steps in
“Spontaneous or coordinated clashes still can by no means be ruled out,“ said Lt. Col. Helmut Eberhardt, EUFOR's German chief of staff. Nevertheless, Eberhardt believes EUFOR is prepared for what will be by far the biggest and likely the most challenging peacekeeping operation undertaken to date by the European Union.
Eighty percent of soldiers in the new force are there already under SFOR command. They simply swapped insignia on their caps, uniforms and vehicles to EUFOR.
The handover was marked by NATO, EU and Bosnian officials at a ceremony at Camp Butmir just outside Sarajevo.
However, NATO is not leaving Bosnia completely. A small headquarters will remain in Sarajevo, as will U.S. troops at a separate base. Their main mission, however, will be to help speed up Bosnia’s own stagnant defense reform, actively hunt indicted war criminals, and counter terrorism.
As a clear signal to Bosnia’s population, EUFOR will have the same number of troops during the former SFOR mission -- approximately 7,000 from what was once a contingent of 60,000 in 1995.
But the next troop reduction is only a matter of time, a not very well kept secret that seems to worry Eberhardt who is on his third tour of duty to the hilly countryside of Bosnia. “There is a critical limit, and we have come very close by now,” said Eberhardt.
Still need the basics of a stable society
EUFOR and the other institutions at work in Bosnia still have a lot more to do. The country is already becoming a hub for illegal trade of drugs, weapons and for human trafficking.
Bosnia is littered with still more than a million landmines. Not a week goes by without someone stepping on an explosive leading to death or terrible mutilation.
The most pressing task however is to rid Bosnia of its war criminals.
Many here express irritation that the world’s strongest military is leaving without having arrested the former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander Ratko Mladic.
Both are accused of being responsible for the worst massacre Europe has seen since World War II in Srebrenica, when over 7,000 Muslim men were killed.
There is also a fear among EUFOR officials about the growing influence of radical Islam in the region, that that Bosnia is a “hide-away and logistical base for radical Islamistic groups,” according to a EUFOR spokesman.
Over 100 new mosques have been built since the end of the war in Bosnian towns and villages - most of the money coming from Saudi Arabia. Bosnia’s most influential imam claims the country is too poor to discriminate as to who or where the money comes from.
Healing will continue
At one of the last refugee camps in central Bosnia that will be closed down after the New Year, many of the 50 families, including Eshef his and his wife and children, still don't know where they will turn once it closes.
While just a few years ago the general mood in Bosnia was of optimism, all that seems to have stopped, and in fact, the mood has reached a new low.
Officials say that EUFOR comes into Bosnia highly motivated to achieve success.
It is fitting that the codename of the mission is “Althea,” the ancient Greek goddess of healing. There will be a lot of healing needed in the days ahead.