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Europe

Bosnians Remain Armed as Fears of Further War Endure

Fearing a new conflict, many Bosnians are doggedly holding on to weapons left over from the country's 1992-1995 war, despite efforts by foreign and local authorities to seize them.

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Bosnians have come to expect a new outbreak of war every 50 years or so

"Yes, I have a Kalashnikov and it's illegal, but every time they take one of them, I find another one," said Bosnian Serb Pajo, who has already had three of the assault rifles confiscated on different occasions.

"In this region having a weapon means having security, because this is a kind of place where you always have to fear other people," said sociologist Ivan Sijakovic, explaining why Bosnians want to hang on to their weapons despite 10 years of internationally monitored peace in the former Yugoslav republic.

"People's attachment to their guns here comes from the belief that if they rid themselves of their weapons, they will be attacked again and will not be able to defend themselves," he added.

The war of the early 1990s that claimed up to 200,000 lives and left about 2.2 million people homeless was the latest of centuries of conflicts in Bosnia, where people have learned to expect wars to break out every 50 years or so.

"There are illegally held weapons throughout the world but I think that the Balkans, as a result of its recent history, has more weapons in the general community than many other parts of Europe," British Brigadier Mark Elcomb, the commander of EU peacekeepers in northern Bosnia, told AFP.

Most of the weapons, some of which date back to World War II, were not handed over despite an existing amnesty for people who choose to give them up to authorities.

Huge numbers of weapons uncovered but many remain

IRA-Waffenlager

Thousands of weapons have been recovered; just as many remain hidden.

Since 1998, peacekeepers have collected about 52,000 small arms, 38,500 land mines, over 225,000 hand grenades, about 15.5 million rounds of ammunition, 33,000 kilograms (72,750 pounds) of explosives, over 60,000 other military items such as mortars -- and even a couple of tanks.

But according to research by the United Nations Development Program last year, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Bosnia's Serb, Muslim and Croat communities still hold a huge arsenal of weapons, both legal and illegal, the UNDP study found. Bosnia's population of about 3.8 million possesses 353,000 legally registered weapons, mostly pistols and hunting rifles, but rough estimates say civilians possess another 500,000 illegal weapons originating from the last war.

There had even been calls on authorities to permit the ownership of weapons meant for warfare, with some people saying they were disappointed to find that machine guns and other heavy weapons cannot be legalized.

Experience hinders efforts to form a lasting peace

Erinnerung an die Massaker von Srebrenica

The region is unlikely to forget its brutal past in a hurry.

Despite the conviction in the international community that Bosnia's peace is sustainable, it seems that hundreds of thousands of locals still cling to the old Communist saying: "Live as if we will have peace for the next 100 years, but be ready as if tomorrow we will have to fight a war."

"I am afraid that a majority of people still believe that previous wars have only calmed down temporarily and that they did not end yet, meaning that there will be more occasions of getting even and revenge," said Sijakovic.

"The 20th century witnessed three huge conflicts here, of which the latest left the bloodiest trail, and I am afraid that Bosnian politicians are not doing anything to help people reconcile. On the contrary," said military analyst Ostoja Barasin.

During World Wars I and II, former Yugoslavia including its ex-republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina suffered greatly, with hundreds of thousands of people losing their lives.

The legacy of these and earlier wars in the Balkans was often blamed for the inter-ethnic hatred that erupted in the 1990s.

"Communities were badly hurt ... by the (most recent) war and it takes a long time to rebuild trust ... there would be a desire on the part of individuals to provide a degree of protection for the family," Brigadier Elcomb said. "But, at some stage trust (between Bosnian Serbs, Muslims and Croats) must exist," he added.

For the military analyst Barasin, however, the future is not so clear: "I fear that the process of reconciliation has not even started yet."

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