TRY TELLING SMALL KLARIC ABOUT THE hours-old cease-fire in Mostar. "We can have peace again," says the dour leader of the local Muslim war council. "But only after the criminals have been punished." He means the Bosnian Croats, once allies, now the bitterest of enemies struggling for control of this battered town in southwestern Bosnia. In a fight where the front lines are often defined by house-to-house combat, it's easy to take things personally. Klaric still hasn't been able to reclaim the body of his mother-in-law. Badly beaten and forced from her home at gunpoint by Croatian troops in early February, the old woman tried to join her family on the eastern side of the Neretva River. On the way, Klaric claims, she collapsed and lay in a coma for days--until someone shot her. There she continues to lie, her corpse a magnet for stray dogs, the only creatures that dare to wander into no man's land.
Truces aren't exactly new to Mostar, the site of fierce fighting since a Croatian siege began last May. During a cease-fire in mid-February at least 17 Muslims died in a hail of mortar shells from Croats on the west side of the Neretva. But Western leaders, buoyed by their apparent success in stilling the big guns around Sarajevo, seemed confident that the latest armistice in Mostar would hold. With considerable prodding from the United Nations, Croatian and Muslim commanders agreed to withdraw all heavy weapons from confrontation points throughout Bosnia, or surrender them to U.N. control, by March 7. No threat of NATO airstrikes hangs over Mostar. Instead, the United States hopes to persuade the warring parties to drop their zero-sum game. The Clinton administration last weekend invited leaders of both sides to Washington to discuss a settlement to merge Bosnian Croat and Muslim territory in a federation that would have strong economic ties with neighboring Croatia.
But can logic prevail over passion? For all their suffering, the Muslims in east Mostar seem to prefer their cellars-where most of the 55,000 civilians have sweated out the 10-month siege-to the Croats, with whom they once peacefully shared this 15th-century city. Pasana Fejzic isn't ready to forgive. After languishing for months in the darkened basement of 82A Marshal Tito Avenue with 30 other people, Fejzic found reason to hope when her husband, Ibrahim, was released from a Croatian prison and found his way to her. "I even got my appetite back," she says. "I couldn't stop smiling." But a mortar shell hit Ibrahim as he stepped outside on Jan. 30-and blew off one of his legs. "His last words were, 'Run away from me, take care of yourself, take care of my children," says Pasana, who found the strength to lift her large husband and carry him to safety, where he died four hours later. Peace? "Maybe I'm selfish, but I really don't care anymore," she says. "I just wish the worst on everyone."
Such views will die hard in Mostar-and elsewhere in Bosnia. Many Muslims say they're angrier at Bosnian Croats, alongside of whom they once fought, than at Bosnian Serbs, who started the war. Croats have their suspicions, too. They've taken a pounding from the Bosnian army infantry over the past few months, despite troop reinforcements of at least 5,000 men sent by Zagreb; withdrawing their heavy weapons would remove their remaining advantage, especially in areas like Mostar where combat has taken place at such close quarters. But with the threat of economic sanctions on Croatia-and intervention on behalf of the Muslims unlikely-mutual accommodation may soon start to look better than a suicide pact.
PHOTO: Peace at hand? A child in Mostar leans against a wall of sandbags as a shield from shells