FOCA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — During the 3-1/2 year Bosnian war in the 1990s, Foca was one of the darkest stains on the map of atrocities.
Serb Orthodox nationalists who set up a rape camp for Muslim women in the town's sports hall, tortured Muslim men and destroyed its ancient mosques renamed it "Srbinje," which means "the place of the Serbs."
Now this semi-modern city, with its socialist-era high rises on the Drina River, is back under its old name, led by a dynamic Serb mayor who has a vision of knitting divided Bosnia and its 3.5 million people together again.
Standing in the way, however, are the Serb nationalist leaders in Banja Luka, in northwest Bosnia, and the United States, Bosnia's main protector since the war ended in 1995.
Zdravko Krsmanovic, 51, has reached out to Muslims, who once were a plurality in Foca, by establishing close ties to Gorazde, a mainly Muslim town just downstream that Serbs bombarded mercilessly but never conquered.
Today, sports teams from the two towns compete, and there are constant exchanges and visits. With encouragement from Gorazde mayor Muhamed Ramovic, Krsmanovic is trying to win back the thousands of Bosniaks, as Bosnian Muslims like to be called, who were expelled in the Serbs' ethnic cleansing.
"When I see a Gorazde man fall in love with a Foca woman, I see that all things are possible," Krsmanovic told McClatchy.
Now in his second term, the Foca mayor wants the two cities to merge, erasing the demarcation between the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska in the north and east of Bosnia and the Muslim-Croat entity in the center that was enshrined by the 1995 U.S.-led Dayton peace conference.
Krsmanovic also wants the state to grant new powers to the municipalities.
"Bosnia-Herzegovina is my own country . . . it has wonderful, resources, potential and people," Krsmanovic said, but its real strength is at the municipality level. "As Europe is a continent of regions, we should be a country of municipalities."
Krsmanovic has thrown his hat in the ring for parliamentary elections in October and hopes he can lead the opposition parties into a coalition to oust Prime Minister Milorad Dodik.
Once a darling of the international community, Dodik has called with Russian encouragement for dissolving Bosnia-Herzegovina and establishing Republika Srpska as an independent state.
The U.S. seems to cower in the face of Dodik and the Serb nationalists, said Krsmanovic.
The mayor, whom Vice President Joe Biden singled out during a visit to Sarajevo last May, said the U.S. hasn't followed through on the expectations that Biden raised.
"The United States should take up its responsibility. Bosnia is like a baby born at Dayton," he said, referring to the peace accord that ended the war. "You have no right to kill the baby. It should be allowed to grow strong."
In 2006, when a countrywide constitutional reform failed by a few votes, the U.S. "lacked the courage to impose it," he said. "If it had been imposed, this country would have been ahead of Serbia and Croatia. Now we are regressing."
The U.S. "should make their attitude crystal clear — that they are on the side of those Bosnians who want to keep this country whole," he said. "It's their baby."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he said, should realize that a successful Bosnia would be a message to the Islamic world "that the U.S. is not against Islam."
"If I say that as a Serb and get my votes here, what is Mrs. Clinton afraid of?"
A day before he met an American reporter, Krsmanovic opened an office in Laktasi, Prime Minister Dodik's hometown, across the street from Dodik's home.
"Dodik started his career there. I call it the seat of the dictator," Krsmanovic said. "I put up a flag right opposite his home, so that he'll know when he wakes up that he is going to jail. "
"We have a prison in Foca," Krsmanovic said. "I am preparing a big cell for top politicians, a VIP cell."
Krsmanovic said he was proud of a newspaper headline that said he'd "stuck a finger in Dodik's eye" and accused Dodik of misappropriating public funds and fear mongering.
"If you show you are not afraid of someone, people will not be afraid," he said. "People are used to being afraid."
Dodik has denounced Krsmanovic as a "traitor" to the Serbs, tried and failed to get him ousted as mayor, but was able to engineer Krsmanovic's ouster from the Serb Socialist party.
Krsmanovic responded by setting up a New Socialist party.
"I have courage . . . I have charisma . . . I've never lost an election," he told McClatchy. "I am not a classic politician. I believe it is possible to make spectacular changes in a short period of time."
Does he fear for his life?
"If you kill one Krsmanovic, there will be another," he responded. "All dictators like Dodik, who rob the people, will wind up" disgraced and behind bars.
Mayor Ramovic of Gorazde thinks the world of his Foca counterpart, who's a frequent visitor. "He may be more popular here than in Foca," he told McClatchy.
Could Krsmanovic unseat Dodik?
"I'd love it," Ramovic said, but Krsmanovic's party is still being formed, and "he doesn't have enough experience to win."
Krsmanovic is "full of energy and strength, is concrete and pragmatic and always says what he thinks," he said, but he might want to tone it down.
His statements, Ramovic said, are "courageous" but "too strong."
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