A farewell to arms - but for how long?

Marcus Tanner, who recalls the first day of the war in Bosnia, asks if this is the end at last
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"I THINK it's time to get out of here," said the UN mediator Cedric Thornberry, bustling out of the Holiday Inn. "A bullet's just come through my window," he added, indignantly.

It was the afternoon of 6 April 1992, seconds before the Bos- nian war began. "Can I have my key?" was the last thing I said before the receptionist threw herself on the floor and the hotel reverberated to bursts of gunfire between Bosnian Serb fighters on the upper floors and Muslims who had just stormed into the hotel, bent on capturing the headquarters of the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic.

Shielded by a huge pillar in the atrium, I crawled under the concrete stairwell while they fought it out, deafened by ricocheting bullets, panels of glass crashing down from the roof onto the marble floor and exploding grenades.

I should have seen it coming the day before, as I watched Mrs Karadzic and their daughter, Sonja, dragging suitcases down the steps into a waiting car - Karadzic having vanished to the ski resort of Pale a day or two previously. I was spirited out of the hotel by a Muslim fighter. From the nearby flat of a Serb family (who lay on the floor) I watched Serb fighters from white towerblocks in the suburbs of Grbavica and Skenderija trading fire with the Muslims in the battered Holiday Inn.

I had already seen barricades in Sarajevo, street fighting in Bosanski Brod and had heard of fierce battles in Capljina and air raids in Listica, but this, I realised, was it. In the Serb flat I heard the sonorous voice of a BBC World Service announcer; the EU had recognised Bosnian independence. In Grbavica the next day I found a Serb tank squatting in the street in front of a wall of barbed wire with a Serb flag on top. "This is the new Berlin wall," I remember thinking. And it was. Sarajevo has been divided ever since.

Three years and six months on the world is buoyed by the hope that the civil war and its accompanying slaughter is over. Bosnia in the meantime has been split as finally and irrevocably as was India in the partition. The minarets that once nestled among the green hills of the Drina valley in eastern Bosnia have gone, as has Mehmet Sokolovic's famous 16th-century mosque in Banja Luka, the Serb cathedral in Mostar and much besides. In the Serb-held lands around Banja Luka the last Muslims and Croats are being pushed out from their homes this weekend, while the Serb community in the centre of Sarajevo has dwindled to a remnant.

President Alija Izetbegovic hankers after the dead old Bosnia, and would like to pursue the war to the end. The dream of reconquista is a chimera. The Muslims' patrons in Washington and Croatia will not back a military drive that would destroy the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic, and all hope of a final peace settlement in former Yugoslavia.

The Muslims and Croats have already taken the war into Serb territory, and there is a limit to the death toll they will endure to gain land where they never lived, as well as a limit to the amount of territory any Serbian government can afford to lose. Mrkonjic Grad, which fell this week, was 77 per cent Serb; Petrovac, Drvar and Grahovo, which fell to the Croats earlier on were more than 95 per cent Serb. Banja Luka will not fall as easily as these humble villages, and the despatch to the city from Belgrade of the warlord Zeljko "Arkan" Raznjatovic and his ferocious Tigers, suggests that Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, finally has drawn a line in the sand around Bosnia's second city.

However, although Bosnia is divided for ever, and the war in its full sense may be over, that does not mean a neat partition along the lines of Cyprus. The plan to send in a Peace Implementation Force of 60,000 will never be realised, as the peace treaty on which this is conditional is unlikely to be signed; instead, the warring armies will use the ceasefire to rest up in winter before the next campaign season starts in the spring.

One reason for this is that each side has ended up with the wrong land. Before the war, most Bos- nian Croats lived in central and northern Bosnia. The Muslims now hold the first area and the Serbs the second. The Serbs used mostly to live in western Bosnia, which the Croats have overrun. The Serbs now hold eastern Bosnia, which used to be Muslim. How can such peculiar entities ever establish a lasting modus vivendi with each other?

Could this mess have been prevented by a show of Western force earlier on? Sarajevo and Srebrenica might have been spared an unnecessary fate. But not the rest of Bosnia, for the war in Bosnia was triggered by the war in Croatia, which was triggered by the secession of Slovenia, which was triggered by Serbia's clampdown in Kosovo, and so the chain of events stretches back.

There was something in Bosnia that we outsiders - who romanticised its ethnic mixture - did not see, as we devoured Ivo Andric's tales of Muslims, Croats, Jews and Serbs living hugger mugger in quarrelsome intimacy. Yet Andric wrote a strange letter in 1921. "There is something that people like you do not see - Bosnia is a land of hate and fear," he said. "It is a hatred like cancer consuming everything around it, only to die in the end because that kind of hatred, like a flame, has neither a permanent form or its own life; it is simply the instrument of destruction..."

Those who predict success for the US peace drive in Bosnia might bear that in mind.