Thu, Oct 02, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Former Yugoslav enemies unite to help UN rebuild conflict-ravaged East Timor

AP , DILI, EAST TIMOR

Four years after they fought each other in a bloody civil war, police and soldiers from all over the former Yugoslavia are now working together to rebuild another county torn apart by conflict.

And the former enemies are finding that working -- and playing together -- on this tropical island thousands of kilometers from their homeland is helping to heal old wounds.

"We have a regular little Yugoslavia right here in East Timor," said Irhad Campara, a Muslim police officer from Bosnia who had gathered with Slovene, Serb and Croat policemen for a nightly card game at Dili's City Cafe.

Some of the cops wore their favorite red T-shirts with the image of Marshal Josip Broz Tito, the post-World War II strongman who is now a shared symbol of a nostalgic time when Yugoslavia was peaceful and prosperous under his doctrine of "Brotherhood and Unity."

Tito died in 1980, and Yugoslavia fell apart a decade later amid vicious ethnic fighting in Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia's province of Kosovo in which nearly 250,000 people died. NATO intervened in 1999, bombing Serbia and facilitating the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic, now on trial at a UN war crimes tribunal for fomenting the wars.

Today, for the first time, the former combatants are part of a UN peacekeeping mission, serving as policemen and military observers in East Timor, which gained independence last year after a bloody 24-year war against Indonesian occupation.

The UN, which has administered the territory for two-and-a-half years, still provides about 3,200 troops and 600 police in advisory roles to the world's newest country.

Although initially guarded with one another, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs and Bosnians quickly developed strong bonds and now say they feel united in friendship and their mission.

"When I got here, I had no tropical kit," said Captain Slavimir Nikolic, an officer from Serbia based in the isolated enclave of Oecussi. "A Croatian colleague immediately came to my aid and gave me his mosquito netting, bug repellants and all the other equipment I needed."

Although the potential for renewed violence in their own part of the world remains an international concern, with thousands of NATO troops still in the region, the governments of Bosnia, Serbia-Montenegro, Macedonia and Croatia are considering sending soldiers to serve as blue helmets in Liberia, Iraq, and other troublespots.

"Its time to put the lunacy of the [Balkan] wars behind us," Nikolic said. "I can't describe how proud I am to be wearing the blue beret and working together with other professionals to help bring peace to East Timor."

Policing the aftermath of a war is a new experience for most peacekeepers in Timor, but for those from the former Yugoslavia it is a bitterly familiar routine.

"Unfortunately, we understand their situation better than almost any other UN cops because we went through conflicts like this," said Drasko Djeric, a Bosnian Serb policeman.

Their task now is to provide on-the-job training for the Timorese police force, which is gradually assuming control of security in the country of 750,000. This means everything from traffic control and crime-fighting to dealing with civil disturbances like the riots that shook the Dili last year.

Nikolic himself is part of a group of military observers whose task is to monitor the security situation in the country and along the border with Indonesia.

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