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)

Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
world cup 2014
Popes current and former won't be watching the football together
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
Germany's Andre Greipel crosses the finish line to win the sixth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 194 kilometers (120.5 miles) with start in Arras and finish in Reims, France
tour de franceGerman champion achieves sixth Tour stage win in Reims
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child