Defenceless Muslims face the final agony: Tony Barber witnesses the relentless demolition of Bihac by Serbian guns

THE SERBIAN GUNNERS fired the shell last Tuesday from the hills, three miles outside Bihac. It exploded in the town centre, next to a building converted into a shelter for Muslim women and children. It killed five people, including three children, and wounded 24. Eight needed amputations.

'That was one of my most difficult days. All the casualties were big operations,' said Mensur Shabulic, director of the town's hospital.

The 75,000 Muslim inhabitants of Bihac, armed with little except old rifles, had no means of retaliating. Instead, as on every day since 12 June, when the Serbs first began to bombard Bihac, people simply did their best to carry away the wounded and clear up the wreckage. 'It took hours and hours to wash away the blood,' said Dzanana Fajtovic, a secretary.

There is little military logic to the Serbian shelling of Bihac. Major Helge Ringdal, a Norwegian who leads a team of five United Nations observers in the town, says he has repeatedly told the Serbs that the Muslims have no armed positions in the centre of Bihac. It makes little difference. Every day the Serbs send over more shells, some in the morning, some in the afternoon, and some at night. On Thursday the shelling lasted from 6.40pm until after midnight.

The virtually defenceless town is being systematically reduced to rubble. Everywhere shops, homes and offices have been smashed. Clothes stores, cafes, pharmacies and furniture warehouses lie in ruins. The roads have gaping holes. Sandbags, blocks of concrete and planks of wood protect the buildings that are still intact. The few windows that have not been blasted out are taped or boarded up. Major Ringdal said 52 civilians have died and 250 been wounded since 12 June.

Bihac is the last large Muslim town in northern Bosnia not to have fallen to Serbian forces. But the Serbs have blockaded it since last October, and slowly but surely the noose is tightening. The Muslims have no electricity except for the odd generator, such as one that keeps the hospital running. They have no regular hot water. They have no communications with the outside world except the radio. They sit next to candles at night, listening to the boom and crash of the shells. 'The Serbs are digging our graves here. For us there is no future. But whose victory will it be? In such a war, no one wins in the end,' said a Muslim woman working at the hospital.

Ismet Dupanovic, a retired railway engineer, said: 'If only I could be given a weapon, I would fight. This is our home, this is Bosnia-Herzegovina. Most people don't want to go anywhere else. In any case, they have nowhere to go. Of course, we can win. But you can't do anything against a tank with a rifle.'

Food supplies are sparse but, for the moment, adequate. It may be a different story in the winter, for the war has so disrupted the lives of peasants in the Bihac area that they are having trouble collecting the harvest.

The people of Bihac are adamant that they will not surrender their homes lightly. But if Bihac should fall to the Serbs, the world may be faced with a refugee crisis bigger than anything yet seen in Bosnia. It is not just that many thousands will be compelled to abandon their town and flee north to the Croatian border. The refugee wave may also include many of the 230,000 Muslims who live in small towns and villages between the border and the river Una in northern Bosnia.

All are trapped in a Serbian encirclement that could turn into yet another bout of the 'ethnic cleansing' in which Serbs evict Muslims from their homes and force them to renounce their property and pledge never to return.

This time it would represent the final collapse of the Muslim position in northern Bosnia.

Serbs near their goal, page 7; leading article, page 12;

letters, page 13; Robert Fisk, page 23

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent