Subject: WP: Bosnians Assure E. Timorese Life Will Improve

Washington Post Thursday, June 22, 2000

Bosnians Assure E. Timorese Life Will Improve

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran Washington Post Foreign Service

DILI, East Timor – When it comes to dealing with the growing number of East Timorese who have become impatient with the pace of reconstruction here, all it takes is a few words from police officer Nikica Tomic to quell the crowd. "I am from Bosnia-Herzegovina," he says. "I have seen burned houses. I have seen families without food. I understand your problems."

Almost immediately, the tenor of the confrontation changes. Instead of airing their grievances, the East Timorese pepper Tomic with questions: What is it like there? How long did it take to rebuild?

He tries to put the best spin on things. "It may be hard now, but every day, and every year, will be better," he says, urging patience.

Coming from someone whose country was ravaged by a civil war that killed more than 100,000 people between 1992 and 1995, it is a statement that few others here can make. And it mollifies the crowd.

Tomic is one of a dozen Bosnian police officers who are part of the U.N. peacekeeping operation in East Timor, which is struggling to recover from a wave of violence after the half-island territory voted for independence from Indonesia last year. Although about 24,000 peacekeepers are still in Bosnia enforcing an accord among the country's three main ethnic groups, the Bosnian government decided to send the policemen here to share their experiences with the East Timorese – and with other U.N. police officers.

For the past five years, officers in Bosnia have been supervised by U.N. "police monitors," who have tried to ensure that the country's Muslims, Croats and Serbs are treated equally. Now, as the U.N. officers in East Timor begin to train a local police force, the Bosnians find themselves on the other side.

"We know what it is like to be in the their position," said Sgt. Samir Muslic, the commander of the Bosnian contingent. "We are very sympathetic."

Muslic, a Muslim, worked as a special forces officer in Sarajevo during the more than three years the city was engulfed by fighting. "I can understand what the people here have gone through much better than the people from the United States or New Zealand or Great Britain," he said.

Tomic, a Croat, said peacekeepers and police monitors in Bosnia rarely explained their role in the battle-scarred Balkan nation. "We didn't know what they were there to do," said Tomic, who walks the beat in Dili clad in a powder blue U.N. baseball cap and a rumpled gray uniform. "We didn't know if they were against us or for us."

Now, Tomic said, he takes pains to explain to people here just what his job is. "Sometimes it takes a long time," he said, "but it is important they know what we are doing."

Officially, Bosnia today is divided into two parts, the Muslim-Croat federation and the Bosnian Serb Republic, which is almost exclusively Serbian. Practically, each ethnic group operates with great autonomy. Four of the officers in East Timor are from the Serb Republic, while the other eight are from the Muslim-Croat federation.

Back home, officers from the two regions do not patrol together, but in East Timor they are working side-by-side for the first time, riding in the same Land Rovers and sleeping in the same house.

"A few years ago, we were shooting at each other," said Almir Piric, a patrol officer from the city of Tuzla who is stationed in a village about 60 miles from Dili. "Now we eat and drink together. It is no problem."

When people ask the policemen where they are from, "We don't say we are Serb or we are Muslim or we are Croat," said Piric, a Croat. "We say that we are Bosnians."

U.N. official Sergio Vieira de Mello, who is effectively East Timor's leader until general elections are held next year, said he hopes the Bosnian contingent will help demonstrate to people in East Timor that warring parties can reconcile. The United Nations wants the tens of thousands of people who voted against separation from Indonesia, many of whom have since fled to refugee in Indonesian-controlled western Timor, to be able to return peacefully if they want.

"They can show a lesson of tolerance," de Mello said. "We need that here."

More than 200 police officers in Bosnia applied for the one-year East Timor assignment, Muslic said. The applicants were given 12 exams, which included tests of English proficiency and knowledge of human rights laws, he said. Eventually the group was weeded down to a dozen.

The contingent made headlines when it left Bosnia in April. But since arriving in East Timor, its members have worked alongside 1,200 police officers from 36 other countries, with little fanfare. They direct traffic, investigate thefts and search for illegal weapons at roadblocks.

Despite the war in Bosnia, which caused frequent shortages of food and gasoline as well as disruptions to electricity and phone service, the officers said working in East Timor is the toughest challenge they have faced. There is an array of tropical, mosquito-borne ailments to avoid. And then there is the temperature.

"It's too hot here," Muslic said. "We're used to the snow and ice. Sarajevo in the winter is paradise compared to this."

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