- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 23, 2000

More than four years after the Dayton accords ended the war, a remarkable thing is happening in Bosnia: Minorities are returning to their homes in droves. Over the first four months of this year Bosnians returned to areas where their ethnic group is a minority at a rate nearly quadruple that of last year, including returns to some of the most hard-line areas of the country. However, this dramatic progress on the core aim of Dayton needs urgent support if it is to be sustained and enlarged.As the rate of returns accelerates, NATO forces can reinforce this positive trend by providing security to returnees. Of equal importance, the international community should immediately target assistance to those living in the rubble of their homes. Assisting these hopeful returnees in re-establishing their lives in their prewar homes moves Bosnia toward stability and brings closer the day when the United States and NATO can draw down their troops in Bosnia without the threat of renewed warfare.

The over 12,000 minority returns through April that have taken the international community by surprise this year are the result of Bosnia's growing impatience with their refugee status, waning fear brought about by the absence of fighting, and importantly, a firm stance by the international community regarding the enforcement of property laws. Evictions of those squatting in homes belonging to others are on the rise, both allowing people to reclaim their homes and giving incentive to evictees to return to their own homes. The Office of the High Representative (OHR), the international community's highest authority in Bosnia, has become diligent in dismissing local officials who refuse to enforce the property law.

Return has been highest in those areas where NATO's Stabilization Force (SFOR) has created the most secure environment. Some SFOR contingents, such as those under British, Czech and German command, have been effective in conducting high-profile patrols, arresting indicted war criminals and clamping down on extremist troublemakers. In contrast, the U.S. contingent, along with the French and the Italians, has been much more timid in creating a secure atmosphere for returnees. SFOR commander General Ronald Adams and NATO's new supreme allied commander, General Joseph Ralston, could increase SFOR's constructive impact in Bosnia by adopting the successful practices of the British sector and applying them uniformly throughout Bosnia.

If the United States is interested in withdrawing its small but indispensable contingent of about 4,000 troops from Bosnia, it should pursue the aggressive implementation and progressive interpretation of SFOR's mandate and ensure that overall SFOR troop strength does not decline below 20,000.

Many of those who have returned this year are living amid the ruins of their homes, waiting for international assistance to rebuild both housing and such infrastructure as schools, water, sewage and electrical systems. Yet donor funding appears sufficient only to support reconstruction for 10 percent of these returnees. If more aid is not made available soon, many of the minorities who have returned may give up in frustration, setting back Bosnia's healing and undermining the success of the international mission there.

U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia Thomas Miller has made the welcome announcement that American assistance to Bosnia would be refocused to support minority returns. The Clinton administration must act quickly to remove the bureaucratic hurdles to disbursement of these funds, freeing them for use before the end of the summer construction season. Congress, meanwhile, must resist isolationist pressure to cut future support to Bosnia through the U.S. Agency for International development. A failure to take advantage of the new climate in Bosnia will just prolong the need for aid and a strong military presence, costing more in the long run.

The numbers do not lie; minority returns are peaking just months before November elections in Bosnia are expected to result in substantial gains for political moderates. The opportunity for progress is genuine, but the administration and Congress must move rapidly to support it.

Eric Witte is associate director of the International Crisis Group.

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