Associated Press

April 13, 1997

Bosnians Hope Pope Can Bridge Gap

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) -- But for the old, ailing man from Rome, Renata Badrov would not have come 45 miles and three light years from her Croat enclave of Vitez to give Bosnia a chance.

Like Renata and her teen-age friends, many Bosnians see Pope John Paul II as a symbol who transcends religion. If his 24-hour visit cannot bring back 200,000 lives, they say, at least he can teach forgiveness.

Now 17, Renata last saw Sarajevo five years ago when the city was at peace. Vicious Muslim-Croat fighting that devastated her own hometown, Vitez, made her wonder if she would ever see Sarajevo again. ``It's beat up, but I recognize it,'' she said.

All over the stadium, others echoed her hope that the papal visit might be just the push needed to move Bosnian Muslims and Croats closer together. Their federation, supposed to run half the country, is plagued by mutual suspicion and dysfunction.

Dusper is an out-of-work civil engineer, struggling to ensure a good life for his 8-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter.

Many went for the curiosity of a once-in-a-lifetime event, like getting a look at the Hale-Bopp comet. But nearly everyone mentioned the pope's role throughout the war -- and after.

War changed Sarajevo's old life as multiethnic capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Its skyline remains a tight row of church towers among minarets, but its people now are nearly 80 percent Muslim.

Before the Mass, Pope John Paul II met with all three members of the joint Bosnian presidency -- Muslim, Croat and Serb -- to plead for unity.

The Serbs don't seem to be listening.

The only Bosnian Serb leader who met the Pope -- Momcilo Krajisnik, of the three-man presidency -- recently signed an agreement with Serbia proper that many see as a prelude to de facto Bosnian Serb secession.

As the Pope flew into Sarajevo on Saturday, the Serb capital of Pale, just up the mountain, hardly noticed. The government announced it would charge pilgrims for visas to cross Serb territory, deterring many.

Although tens of thousands attended Sunday's Mass in a stadium built for Sarajevo's glory days as host of the 1984 Winter Olympics, Roman Catholic officials admitted some disappointment with the small number of out-of-town pilgrims. They blamed fears of terrorism, interference by Serbs, and Sunday elections in neighboring, predominantly Roman Catholic Croatia.

Still, plenty of people came. ``I see cars from across Bosnia and abroad,'' said Dragan Mrkic, 32 and a Sarajevo Serb, pumping gas at a 24-hour station. ``I like the feeling.''

Many thousands saw the pontiff roll down Sniper Alley and through narrow downtown streets on arrival Saturday, waving behind the blurry armored glass of his Mercedes popemobile.

At the Cathedral, he confounded nervous security men, walking slowly and stiffly toward a few hundred Bosnians who had waited hours in the cold.

Stanislav Stjepovic, 12 years old with a blond cowlick, glowed long after his papal encounter. ``It's like I started my life all over again,'' he said.

Emotions were most powerful after Sunday Mass, as thousands walked briskly for an hour back to buses and cars. Eyes teared, only partly from the cold.

She came with busloads of other Catholic Croats, who declared themselves ready for peace and cooperation despite resistance at top political levels.

Tensions in Mostar have boiled into violence felt across Bosnia. In February, Croats fired on Muslims trying to visit a cemetery on the western side. One was killed and about 20 were wounded.