Death among the plum trees

Bosnia conflict: War rages in north-east after lull around Sarajevo 8 Serbs demand new concessions from UN over aid delivery; Robert Block, the first reporter to observe the latest fighting in Bosnia from the Serb side, gives a bird's eye view of a battle

It was early morning and the sun was shining; the battle for the villages around Kalesija, south of Tuzla in north-east Bosnia, raged in the valley below.

Looking down through a grove of plum trees on top ofBorogovo hill, the battlefield stretched across the valley like a giant sports pitch. The boundaries were clearly marked. The front lines were defined by palls of white smoke and puffs of dust where shells had landed. The closest ones marked the Serbian positions; the furthest ones, about four kilometres north-east, showed from where the Muslims were attacking.

The Muslim side would fire two, three, or four rounds at once and then the Serbs would answer with big guns hidden in the abandoned houses of what was a Muslim village. The explosions shook fruit from the trees.

Although the Muslim offensive around Sarajevo has died away - for tactical reasons or for lack of success - the fighting further north continues.

For every Serb shell fired there, it seemed the Muslims had at least four, a reversal of fortunes if my counting was anything to go by. There are rumours the Bosnian Serbs are low on ammunition but such stories are impossible to verify.

The shooting went on all morning. The illusion of a game was completed by the running commentary of Milica B, 71, awidow who could tell just by the sound of the blast where each bomb landed. "Oh no, that was Osmaci. Did you hear? That exploded near Medjasi. Oh dear, not Sajtovici."

Milica had a face that looked like a raisin with mournful eyes. Every so often she uttered obscenities, cried or pulled her hair. Each explosion was torture for her as somewhere down there, amid the smoke and the dirt and the blood, was her only son, Slavko, a farmer turned soldier by the necessity of war.

"I am sorry, but I am so worried. My son ... ," Milica said, her voice trailing off into a moan. She regained herself. "They [the Muslims] have been shelling all morning long. A few days ago it was worse. They are not giving our boys a chance even to lift their heads. They have never attacked like this before. This is the worst fighting in two years," she said.

Milica was surprised by the ferocity of the Muslim offensive, but perhaps should have seen it coming. The reasons why the Muslims want to attack the area are scattered throughout the countryside.

Every so often, peeking through a thick growth of weeds and vines, the ruins of a house revealed itself. Charred by fire or demolished by a barrage ofbombs, the "ethnically cleansed" houses of the Kalesija region are being swallowed by vegetation. But no amount of weeds can hide what happened here.

A few years ago I travelled these roads when houses just like these were still smouldering. The Muslims in north-east Bosnia were not prepared for the war unleashed by Serb nationalists. Entire villages were emptied by violence. Houses were destroyed or taken over. The lucky ones made it to Tuzla. For two years, Serb forces ruled the day. Their superiority in firepower ensured that this corner of Bosnia remained more or less quiet until now.

The Muslim offensive in Sarajevo last week was accompanied by this push. Muslim forces from Tuzla are trying to break Serb lines, defend the nearby Tuzla airport and reclaim some Muslim land before Mother Nature beats them to it.

At one point in the fighting, Milica's neighbour and daughter-in-law came running up the hill, huffing and puffing with news that Muslims had broken through Serb lines and were advancing on Vis, a ridge across the valley. There were more tears and curses. Savo, Milica's nephew, arrived from the hospital and dismissed the report.

"The lines are holding, but there are many casualties," he said. A few days before, Savo was in a tank hit by a Muslim rocket. He and the gunner escaped with a few bruises but their commanding officer was not so fortunate. "He died a horrible death." The silence that followed Savo's story was broken by another boom.

"God should have taken me. It would have been better than letting me experience a second war," Milica said, as the shells kept landing.

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