Cela's Muslims fly white flags and pray to be spared 'cleansing': Calls for action after shooting down of Sarajevo flight. Robert Fisk and Tony Barber report: Robert Fisk goes to a Bosnian village that clings desperately to a fragile 'normality'

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The Independent Online
REMEMBER Cela. You'll need a good map to find it in the countryside south of Prijedor, but the Muslims are still there, frightened of course, white flags hanging from the balconies and roofs of their pretty homes. Every village around them has been 'cleansed'. And they are waiting, asking all the while to be remembered in the hope that this will save them.

There are 1,200 Muslims in Cela, living side by side with 500 Serbs, their houses indistinguishable save for those white sheets. The Muslims have been selling their plums to the Serbs to make slivovica, protected by their two village imams - Adil and Itsak - and by the Serb policemen in the patrol car, of whom they speak with careful respect.

It was the Serbs, after all, who wanted us to visit Cela. Call by and look at a model example of Muslim-Serb cohabitation, they had told us.

Adil and Itsak were only too happy to oblige. Both wore identical black berets - imams have regularly done so since Tito banned the fez in 1945 - but it was Adil, born and working in Cela for 20 years, who did most of the talking.

Of all places, we met in the local bar while the equally local Serbian cops lounged on the benches outside. Readers must decide what runs between the lines of Adil's account, but this is what he told us, using the term 'Orthodox' when he meant Serb:

'As far as our community life with the Orthodox goes, our experience has been very good. The first day of the fighting near here, my neigbour, an Orthodox, came to me and said 'My home is your home - if you feel frightened, come to us and we will protect you.'

'Yes, there were some cases when men came and shouted at the Muslim villagers. In one case it was a group of drunken soldiers, seven or eight days ago. They set fire to the mosque. And they killed one elderly man. While some villagers tried to put out the fire in the mosque, others called the police and they came very quickly. They helped us pull the body of the old man out of the well which he'd been thrown down. I was told later that the same policemen arrested the drunken soldiers.'

Here Adil glances gratefully out of the window of the bar to where the blue-uniformed cops are guzzling beer outside.

'We have struck a deal. We promised the authorities we would not fight them and they agreed to leave us alone. Until now, they have kept their word and the situation is more or less normal. Everyone was told to give up any weapons they had and to display white flags to show they had no guns. A few days after we put the white flags up, there was a military search. There were no incidents - none - except that one of the inhabitants had a lamb stolen.'

Shortly after the military search, the army returned and arrested 15 young Muslims from Cela. They later brought 14 of them back. 'We don't know what happened to the 15th man,' Adil said quietly. 'I'm sure he is being well treated. He'll be OK. But no one knows what happened to him. Yes, things are all right. There's a curfew from 10 at night till five in the morning but this is normal for everyone these days. And we're not allowed to have too many people in a group because of 'uncontrolled elements' - two or three is all right, although everyone comes to Friday prayers at the mosque. The police even put a guard outside to protect us.'

Such consideration. Was that really why the policeman stood outside the mosque? To protect his precious Muslim charges? Or was he there to listen to the sermon? And why were the white flags still flying, sheets and bed linen and towels tied to the gables and drainpipes and front doors of the Muslim houses? Adil laughed nervously.

'We don't know whether we should take them down or not so we just left them there. It seemed the right thing to do. They don't bother us. It doesn't mean surrender. It is a sign of our loyalty.'

Then these must be the only white flags in the Balkans to signify trust rather than humiliation. But the imams are not to be dissuaded. Itsak remembers that another villager was taken away - he is in the filthy Manjaca prison camp near Banja Luka - and of course many villagers are frightened to go into Prijedor on their own. Then he suddenly says: 'Will you come and look at our lovely mosque and the damage from the fire? This would help us. Please ask the police what happened to the 15th man. This would help. And tell the Red Cross about us. Remember us.'

We walked up a beautiful, shaded lane to the mosque, past tidy homes with families picnicking at tables on the grass, trees dripping with fruit, cosy hay stacks in the back yards. We called 'Salam Aleikum' to the families and they shouted back 'Aleikum salam' and waved.

Several windows in the mosque had been broken and the inside wall to the left of the pulpit blackened by fire. As we walked back to the car, Adil suddenly glowed with pride.

'You know, this is a model village. Things are good up till now.' A lamb stolen, an old man slaughtered and thrown down a well, a young man disappeared, another in prison camp, an attempt to burn down the mosque. And Adil calls it a model village. Those sheets and towels, a cancerous white in the afternoon sun, are not there to protect the Muslims. They are there to identify them.

This is how 'ethnic cleansing' always begins. White flags to show which homes are owned by Muslims. A little intimidation to remind the Muslims who is master. Then deals done with friendly policemen. Like the initial, frightened deals done in the ghettoes of eastern Europe 50 years ago.

As we are leaving, a family runs after us down the road with a plastic bag full of bright blue plums, squashy and rich in our mouths and on the tongues of the policemen who also accept this touching gift. For they, too, understand that the fruit in Cela is ripe for plucking. What can we do but follow Imam Adil's advice? Remember Cela.

(Photograph and map omitted)