Young Muslim Tough Guy Has It Mostly His Way

SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina - Nasir Oric's war trophies don't line the wall of his comfortable apartment - one of the few with electricity in this besieged Muslim enclave stuck in the forbidding mountains of eastern Bosnia. They're on a videocassette tape: burned Serb houses and headless Serb men, their bodies crumpled in a pathetic heap.

"We had to use cold weapons that night," Oric explains as scenes of dead men sliced by knives roll over his 21-inch Sony. "This is the house of a Serb named Ratso," he offers as the camera cuts to a burned-out ruin. "He killed two of my men, so we torched it. Tough luck."

Reclining on an overstuffed couch, clothed head to toe in camouflage fatigues, a U.S. Army patch proudly displayed over his heart, Oric gives the impression of a lion in his den. For sure, the Muslim commander is the toughest guy in this town, which the U.N. Security Council has declared a protected "safe area."

Perhaps the time for toughness in Bosnia is nearing an end. The problem, though, is that hundreds of men like Oric who still want to fight dominate all three sides in this 22-month-old war. Nobody controls them; they have access to plenty of weapons and lead many young men. And, if anything, Balkan tradition is on their side.

As the United Nations seeks to make a cease-fire work in Sarajevo under the threat of NATO airstrikes, officials face the issue of how to neutralize men like Oric.

"I won't let these people destroy the peace," British army Lt. Gen. Michael Rose, commander of U.N. forces in Bosnia, said in Sarajevo last weekend, referring to fighters who kept firing after the cease-fire began. "If we find out who they are, we will put their pictures on television and tell the world they are not serving your interests."

But Oric and others like him have other plans - in Sarajevo and elsewhere. For him and his counterparts within Bosnian Serb and Croat paramilitary units, the war has been a godsend. While the vast majority of the 44,000 people crammed into this enclave about 50 miles east of Sarajevo have no fuel, Oric rents out his car - a shiny black Volkswagen Golf. While most people spend their days and nights without electricity, Oric has power 24 hours a day. His generator runs on black-market diesel oil. It's only natural, because he's the biggest dealer in town.

These days Oric's men aren't fighting much. Occasionally they sneak up behind the observation posts established by the Canadian U.N. troops on the borders of the "safe area" and take potshots at the 3,500 well-armed Serbs besieging Srebrenica.

His troops' main task is making a nine-hour trudge, across Serb lines, to the next U.N. "safe area" to the south: Zepa, where the Ukrainian U.N. troops are more amenable to deals than the 150-odd Canadian infantrymen here.

A formidably muscled 27-year-old with a patchy black beard, Oric, a native of Srebrenica, kicked around for several years after graduating from trade school, where he learned metalworking. In 1987, out of work in Belgrade, he joined the Serbian capital's police department and within several months was transferred to the republic's police force, participating in a crackdown on Muslim ethnic Albanians.

"I'm a man of action," he said in a recent interview. "I like adventure."

The highlight of Oric's career came when he served for two years as a personal bodyguard to Serbia's nationalist president, Slobodan Milosevic, the man credited in the West with igniting Yugoslavia's conflagration.

Oric left the Serbian police early in 1992, when Serb nationalist fervor reached its peak. He was back in eastern Bosnia when the war broke out that April.

Last winter, a Serb attack on the Muslim villages of Cerska and Koljevic Polje pushed Oric and his men into Srebrenica. If not for the intercession of U.N. troops, Oric would either be dead, in a prisoner of war camp or living in the hills.

But Oric, who was wounded three times, sees it differently: "The U.N. saved the Serbs from our counterattack. We were ready to take it all back."

Part of Oric's appeal to this refugee-packed town is that he tells displaced Muslims what they want to hear. He will win them back their homes; he will avenge their dead mothers and fathers, raped sisters and cousins.

"As long as I am in Srebrenica," he said, "it will never be Serb. We will protect the hearths of our people. We will never be Palestinians."