IT'S HARD TO FIND anyone in the government-held parts of Sarajevo with an unkind word to say about Bosnia's Catholic Cardinal, Vinko Puljic. Bosnia Muslims, Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Jews alike speak of "their Cardinal" with hometown pride.
"Mgr Puljic will be Pope one days," says Hebib Sulejman Suky, a Muslim and owner of the Ragusa Tavern. "He's young, intelligent, and most importantly," the bearded bar owner laughs, "he's Bosnian."
Despite the loyalty of his admirers, even Puljic's closest circle was surprised when he was named Cardinal a year ago. The decision came unexpectedly because there already exists a Catholic, Croation cardinal in former Yugoslavia, namely Croatia's Cardinal Franjo Kuharic, who, since his country's independence in 1990, has tacitly backed the nationalistic government there. Many observers interpret Puljic's promotion as a stamp of approval from the Church's highest office, a signal that Puljic's engagement for an independent, multicultural Bosnia has the Pope's blessing.
Even before war broke out, the Banja Luka-born Archbishop of Sarajevo was an outspoken proponent of Bosnia's territorial integrity and the possibility for Serbs, Muslims, and Croats to live together in a common state.
Until the outbreak of war in spring 1992, Croats made up to 17 per cent (about 800,000) of the population in Bosnia. Today, well over half of all Bosnian Catholics have been expelled, displaced or evacuated from their homes. Of Bosnia's four Catholic dioceses, the Banja Luka diocese, whose territory has been in Bosnian Serb hands since 1992, has been completely decimated by some of the war's most brutal ethnic cleansing. Two-thirds of the Greater Sarajevo diocese, which is also under Bosnian Serb control, has been thoroughly purged of Muslims and Croats, its churches, chapels and monasteries dynamited to rubble. In Sarajevo, only a third of the city's Catholics remain from a pre-war population of 60,000.
At the Cardinal's parish office in downtown Sarajevo, a steady trickle of old people come and go from the unheated Austro-Hungarian era building, which serves as a pick-up point for humanitarian aid.
"Most of our young people have left for Croatia or western Europe," sighs Puljic, 51, whose good natured, almost boyish smile belies his deep consternation. "Under the right conditions, I'm sure most would come back, but we're not that far yet. The shelling may have stopped, but this isn't peace either."
The Cardinal holds back nothing in his criticism of the Dayton peace accord and the legacy of international diplomacy toward Bosnia. "Every international peace plan to date has sanctioned Bosnia's partition," says Puljic, rubbing his thin hands together to keep warm. A thick armysupply vest protrudes from under his black robes. The Dayton accord, he argues, is no different than the other plans, paying lip service to a single Bosnian state, while effectively handing over half of its territory to the Bosnian Serbs. "The Dayton plan is not based on fairness or justice," he says. "It legitimizes ethnic cleansing and the principle that might makes right. It treats the aggressor and victim as moral equals." With a giant map of 16th century Bosnia behind his desk, Puljic argues that Bosnia's different cultures, nationalities, and religions are its strength and the backbone of Bosnian identity. "It would be a grave injustice to divide Bosnia into national states," he says, shaking his head. "Bosnia could be a viable polity, as long as the majority doesn't have more tights than the minorities. This is an option the international community has never taken seriously."
Soon after the war's outbreak, the Catholic clergy in Bosnia joined the country's political leadership in calling for decisive international military action against the Bosnian Serbs. "It simply doesn't make sense," says Puljic, "that at the height of the war we were sent UN peacekeepers, and now that there is peace we get a properly-armed NATO force. If NATO troops had come earlier, perhaps there would have been fewer casualties, a well as a more just peace."
The most important prerequisite for rebuilding Bosnia's Catholic community -the right of refugees to return to their homes is part of the Dayton agreement.
But under the present conditions, says Puljic, such stipulations are worthless since they lack concrete guarantees for the returnees' safety.
"How can Catholics possibly go back to a place like Banja Luka, where the same people are in power who threw them out, killed their relatives and demolished their churches?" he asks.
Puljic says that an essential component of a lasting peace in Bosnia is the Muslim-Croat federation, the alliance that joins the
mostly-Muslim government and the Bosnian Croats in a common, federal state. But, with the exception of loose military cooperation, the 1994-founded federation exists almost exclusively on paper. The mutual suspicions and animosity that linger from the vicious, year-long 1993-4 CroatMuslim war have undermined the goals of common political institutions, police and army.
International observers agree that responsibility for the federation's dismal progress lies primarily with the Bosnian Croats in West Herzogovina, whose radical nationalist leadership aspires to break away from Bosnia and join Croatia.
During the Croat-Muslim war, Puljic sharply admonished the hardline BosnianCroat leadership, as well as Croatia proper for backing the extremist. Church insiders say that Puljic, with the support of Pope John Paul, prodded Croatia's Cardinal Kuharic to distance himself from the nationalists and finally condemn them publicly with a famous open letter in May 1993.
Today Puljic remains committed to making the federation work. "We have no other choice," he says.
"Croats and Bosniaks(Muslims) have to work together."
Yet, Puljic has been unable to sway the West Herzegovina radicals from their nationalist agenda.
Tensions between Croats and Muslims in central Bosnia and western Herzegovina today are so high that a new round of war could break out any day.
The Croatian community in Bosnia is itself deeply divided, and nationalists have succeeded in radicalizing large parts of the Bosnian Catholic population.