Early Battles over Returns
On the morning of Sunday, 21 April 1996, a crowd of several hundred Bosniaks gathered on a bridge over the Usora River to return to their homes in the town of Doboj.1 They had come from SDA-controlled Tešanj and other central Bosnian opštine near Doboj where they had sheltered since the VRS had ethnically cleansed the town. Like many other displaced persons at the end of the war, they were motivated by the misery of crowded apartments and group shelters to return to the homes and familiar places they inhabited before the war. The Dayton Agreement had formalized this right to return, and Bosniak community leaders and party officials in the overcrowded towns of central Bosnia encouraged it. But Dayton also established the IEBL and other structures of ethnoterritorial rule including Republika Srpska, which the SDS and its allies intended to keep exclusively Serb. In just getting to the bridge the Bosniak returnees had crossed over the IEBL, an act viewed by the local Serb ethnocracy as an attack on Republika Srpska. Local RS police, their numbers augmented by demobilized VRS soldiers, and a mob of several hundred angry Serbs arrived to scare off the Bosniak returnees. The police stopped and harassed the returnees as the rival groups exchanged taunts and grew angrier. Determined to return to the town, the Bosniaks pushed ahead but were hit with rocks and bottles from the Serb crowd. Danish IFOR peacekeepers soon arrived and fired warning shots in the air as U.S. helicopters buzzed the crowd, creating a whirlwind of sand and debris that ultimately broke up the standoff.2 Driven by an aversion to violent confrontations like this that might restart the war, IFOR thereafter adopted the policy that it was better to enforce the new ethnoterritorial boundaries than the right to return.