PITY Dr Zlatko Lagumdzija - graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles; former president of the Bosnia-Herzegovina League of Communists; and today vice-president of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Dressed in T-shirt and jeans, he turned up in a car park outside the scruffy Bosnian village of Kiseljak last week along with a small, mustachioed, perspiring man, to beg a lift from the United Nations. Would the UN soldiers please drive him back to his capital of Sarajevo, Dr Lagumdzija asked, along with his chief of police? And could they take his new satellite telephone with them, too?

'Impossible,' a UN official snapped back at Dr Lagumdzija. His safety could not be guaranteed by the UN. The Serbs would even steal the telephone. So one of the most important men in all Bosnia, along with his head of constabulary, hitched a ride back through the 'liberated' valleys of their rump state to find somewhere to spend the night. The nearest hamlet, Vitez, was discreetly excluded from his itinerary - Vitez is Croat and Dr Lagumdzija is a Muslim - so he drove to the beautiful old town of Travnik, with its 18th-century minarets and Islamic colleges, sandbagged away at the foot of mount Vlasic.

Yet the moment he drove up to the Hotel Orient he was confronted by a Bosnian Croat sentry with a sniper-scope and a Croat army private on the reception desk who announced with indifference that there would be no room at the inn for a vice-president of Bosnia-Herzegovina unless he received permission to spend the night at the hotel from the local chief of police.

Travnik is the birthplace of Ivo Andric, author of that finest of all Bosnian novels, Bridge over the Drina, and now home to dozens of Arab 'humanitarian affairs' officers whose declarations in Arabic script are plastered beside the Sulejmanija mosque.

'Nice place, isn't it?' Dr Lagumdzija asked with a mirthless smile as a police captain formally gave permission for him to be given a room key. 'We could liberate all our cities if only we had the weapons. Instead of wasting millions on these useless UN forces, why doesn't the West spend the same money on buying guns for us? Then we could free our towns and cities and lift the siege of Sarajevo.'

Sarajevo. How distant, how symbolic, that name seemed here in this damp old Turkish town, where armed Croats clearly outnumbered armed Bosnian Muslims. Dr Lagumdzija wanted to liberate his capital, even though he didn't have a country. Sarajevo, after all, is essential to the myth of Bosnia, just as 'liberated' Bosnia is essential to the credibility of Sarajevo. Its siege, its suffering, its martyrdom is intended to be the symbol of resistance against Serbian aggression - the capital that refuses to die, the focus of world sympathy.

Only when you cross the front lines into this dangerous little Ruritania do you understand both the cruel truth and the unforgivable cynicism that lie behind these cliches.

First, the truth. The men and women of Sarajevo - Muslims, Croats and Serbs - are very, very brave. They walk to work - they do actually stroll along in the sunshine - as artillery shells howl through the sky above them, crashing into buildings and streets.

'On your right is where the bread queue tragedy occurred,' a young Muslim student explained to me in the manner of a macabre tourist guide. 'Over there on the pavement you will see what is left of the VW hit by a shell when another tragedy killed 16 people.'

Tragedy. As if the shellfire were an act of God. There are trails of blood through the hospitals, bullets hissing down every north-south street, yet the citizens of Sarajevo jog rather than run past the intersections where steel containers offer scant protection from the snipers.

Sarajevo lends itself to a kind of grim romanticism, attractive to journalists as well as to Bosnian patriots, so that while every bombardment is catalogued by correspondents, the equally vicious Serbian destruction of towns far to the east like Jajce, with its hordes of refugees amid Roman ruins and a 15th-century castle, remains largely unrecorded.

Sarajevo is also a city that demands historical parallels. Sarajevo can take it. There is a 'war theatre', an exhibition of 'war art', a group of local journalists who still produce a newspaper from a collapsed building - obituary photographs fill two pages every day - and a lack of cemetery space so pressing that up to 6,000 of Sarajevo's dead are thought to be buried in back yards and basements.

The Serbs promised to make Sarajevo 'worse than Beirut' and the Bosnians chose to believe that they had done so, along with much of the press. It is not true. Sarajevo is smaller than Beirut, the concentration of fire thus greater, but even the largest of the shells are only half the calibre of the monstrous 240mm artillery pieces that bombarded the Lebanese capital in 1989. Sarajevo's average daily death toll of 25 is the same as wartime Beirut's. Israel's air attacks on the Lebanese capital in 1982 would kill 250 civilians in a day; Sarajevo has never been air-raided - at least, not yet. But Beirut was the capital of a country that, although artificially created, had existed for four decades. Sarajevo's status, though theoretically accepted, is still undecided.

Only when you visit the presidency do you learn that just six of Bosnia's 22 ministers are in Sarajevo. Only when you ask how many foreign diplomats are assigned to Sarajevo - how many embassies have been opened here since Bosnian independence was declared - do you realise the extent of the world's betrayal. Of the 55 nations that have formally recognised the independent Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, 54 have failed to send a single representative to Sarajevo.

Only the Libyans opened an embassy here. It took a shell through the roof; the ambassador was last seen walking forlornly through the streets carrying a framed portrait of Colonel Gaddafi. No one in the outside world is going to draw a sword for Sarajevo.

The nonchalance as well as the courage of its inhabitants must be related to the city's history, its cosmopolitanism - an overpublicised if genuine quality - and its spirit of coexistence between Muslim, Croat and Serb. Wander through the frightening, bullet-cracking streets of old Sarajevo and you can see what this mutuality of culture and religion once meant. The Orthodox and Catholic cathedrals, the synagogue and the 16th-century Gazi Husrey Bey mosque huddle together within 400 yards of each other. A Serbian shell-hole through the mosque's 135ft minaret, future guidebooks will inform us, is worthy of note. So are the locked doors of the Serbian Orthodox church. So is the diminishing Jewish community.

During the Nazi occupation in the Second World War, the city's Muslims tried to shelter Sarajevo's Jews, descendants of the Sephardic community exiled from Spain in 1492 who in 1581 founded a settlement in Sarajevo. When the Serbs began their siege last April, perhaps 700 Jews remained - survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants.

The Serbs are now helping to complete Hitler's work, albeit less savagely. Last week they allowed 150 Jews to leave the city by bus, almost a quarter of the entire community. And why should they stay?

Even the old Jewish cemetery is now part of the front line. The Serbs - so Sarajevo's defenders have told the city's Jewish leader, Ivan Ceresnjes - have dug their trenches through Jewish graves.

Now it may be the Serbs' turn to leave. 'I love my city, but I must go,' my Serb driver announced quietly one evening. 'The Muslims are accusing us of helping the Serbian gun crews. They are saying that we use our telephones to give them map co-ordinates.' Sarajevo's local telephone lines are still working. 'The Muslims are taking telephones away from many Serbs, asking them why they bother to stay. I want to burn my home and my shop so they cannot have them. Then go.'

His sad, shaming soliloquy is by no means unique. 'I feel vulnerable as a Serb even though I am saving Muslim lives,' a doctor at the state hospital admitted as a boy hobbled past her with one leg amputated above the knee. 'Some of the Muslim girls here are joining the right-wing Croats in the HOS (Croat Defence Forces). They are against Serbs. They hate me. They are putting up posters which insult us.' How well must the old rulers of Yugoslavia have planted the seeds of ethnic suspicion, even here in Sarajevo.

When the Serbs shelled the city library, incinerating its thousands of books, the destruction was accounted a cultural tragedy. Sifting through the ashes, I found a scorched filing cabinet entirely filled with reference cards to books in Esperanto. Could there have been a more moving indication, among the embers, of Sarajevo's desire to speak across frontiers?

Yet there are other, forgotten books in Sarajevo that carry a different message. Take, for example, a small volume published by the Serb-controlled Yugoslav International Politics state publishing house in Belgrade in 1985, The Muslims of Yugoslavia. Ostensibly a historical survey of Yugoslavia's Islamic community, it emphasised the collaboration of middle-class Muslims with the Nazi occupation and the vengeful Croatian Ustashe forces during the Second World War, recalling how Bosnian Muslims formed an SS battalion which was sent to fight on the Russian front. But the main purpose of the book was to respond to attacks by Iran and Pakistan against the Yugoslav federal government, which had in 1985 conducted a trial of so-called 'Islamic extremists' in, of all places, Sarajevo. The defendants, the book said, were guilty of stirring up religious hatred and of being 'connected to former Nazi collaborators and reactionary Cold War elements'.

Only when I met Muhamed Filipovic, the leader of the Muslim Bosnian party - a tall, frail figure in a worn trilby hat, he was sheltering from an artillery bombardment in the UN headquarters while waiting to leave for the Geneva peace conference - did the real meaning of this odd publication become clear. The principal defendant at the trial, Mr Filipovic explained, was a certain Alija Izetbegovic, who had been arrested by state security police in Sarajevo after paying a visit to post-revolutionary Iran. 'There were 13 men on trial, but it was a put-up job by the government,' Mr Filipovic said. 'Mr Izetbegovic cared about his Muslim people. He was popular. So the courts were told to frame him. Some of the defendants got 10 years.

'Mr Izetbegovic was sentenced to eight years and served four. He had signed a 'Muslim declaration' but his sentencing was just repression. I helped arrange his appeal to the supreme court - and was immediately arrested and interrogated by the police myself.'

Mr Izetbegovic's 'declaration' - understandably and swiftly passed over by Mr Filipovic - included an ill- advised appeal for an Islamic state in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Mr Izetbegovic has since dismissed it as a nave aberration, but Serbs have chosen to recall it ever more passionately.

In the hatreds now let loose in Bosnia, however, it is important to realise that as long as seven years ago, the man who is now President of Bosnia and leader of the Sarajevo resistance was being targeted as a Nazi collaborator, Cold War spy, revolutionary and supporter of the Croat Ustashe.

This propaganda had little effect on Sarajevo's Muslims - theoretically 53 per cent of the city's population, but now probably more - who transferred their affection from the long-dead Tito to Mr Izetbegovic with curious ease. If Tito advocated equal rights under a Serb-dominated Communist Party, it seems that Mr Izetbegovic was the result.

A drive through the triangle of Bosnia-Herzegovina still in Muslim and Croat hands to the east of the city is a chilling journey through a land that can never be a sovereign nation and which seems destined to be consumed by its own internal civil war, as Serbs and Croats divide up what is left of Mr Izetbegovic's mythical state. To take the mountain roads up towards Vojnice is also - however melodramatic the expression may appear - to witness an infinite if undefined evil.

The mountains are smothered in pines, the lakes green, the hillsides brown with autumn leaves. But they contain strange secrets. On a lonely road near Konjic, I turned a corner to find a magnificent railway viaduct spanning a thundering river. In the middle of the viaduct stood a stationary passenger train, the diesel-electric locomotive in the orange and white livery of Yugoslav State Railways, attached to four dark green carriages. Undamaged, silent, abandoned by its crew and passengers. Where had they gone, these branch-line day-trippers? A mile further on, an abandoned militia checkpoint was adorned by a life-size stuffed bear with its heart cut out.

I drove on through meadows glistening with dew, past pretty, empty, wooden-framed houses; until suddenly, round another corner, there stood on the forest road a bunch of slovenly, drunken, unshaven gunmen. The initials HOS - Hrvatske Obrambene Snage, the proto-fascist Croat Defence Forces - were painted on a shed beside them. Pinned to the shed wall was a large photograph of Ante Pavelic, the Nazi warlord of Greater Croatia, friend and ally of Hitler, responsible for the murder of 700,000 Serbs and Muslims in concentration camps that outdid Auschwitz in individual acts of human brutality.

Between 1941 and 1945 Bosnia had been part of Pavelic's Nazi 'Independent State of Croatia'. Now, it seemed, it had been repossessed by its old tormentors. What darkness lingered in this forest - and in all the other gentle, beautiful valleys to the north?

The further I drove, the fewer fleur-de-lis Bosnian emblems did I see; the more the chequerboard flag of Croatia hung over the roads. And more photographs of the ferocious Pavelic. Already Bosnia was being annexed. Even between the Bosnian Croats of the HVO - Hrvatske Vijece Obrane, the local Croatian Defence Council loyal to Croatia's President Franjo Tudjman - and the black- shirted HOS gangs, there is an undeclared war for control of this land. Only last month Nikola Kraljevic, the HOS commander in Bosnia, was slaughtered with nine of his gunmen at an HVO checkpoint near Mostar.

The Muslim militias, with the first words of the Koran printed in Arabic on their rifle butts, know that they will have to fight not just the Serbs but the Croats as well to prevent the cantonisation of Bosnia, a policy that already has the support of both Belgrade and Zagreb. Why else are the Croats now printing detailed ethnic maps of Bosnia-Herzegovina - on sale for dollars 2 - which claim to show every Croatian population percentage in every village of Mr Izetbegovic's notional state?

And what future is there here for the United Nations, for the European Community, for the 6,000 extra UN troops from Western nations - 1,800 of them British - who are to arrive before winter? For it is towards Sarajevo and its neighbouring valleys of death that a large part of the gallant 6,000 are to ride in their jeeps and trucks and armoured vehicles. And if the Western armies come into conflict with the Serbs, their allies, however unintentionally, will be the Muslim militias and the gangs from HOS as well as Mr Izetbegovic. If there are lessons to be learnt, the conclusions are as depressing as they are inevitable.

Sarajevo is a lie. Brave, besieged, embattled, indomitable, symbol of a people's refusal to succumb to overwhelming force . . . all this is true. But it is a capital without a country, seat of a government that does not rule, recognised by nations which do not believe in it, a city whose attackers seem to have no intention of entering its gates. The Beirut of the Balkans bears little relation to its Lebanese antecedent, save for the mythology that has been built around it: a cruel and perhaps deliberate attempt to deflect our attention from the darkness outside its walls and the dangers that await us there.

(Photograph omitted)