A battle for dignity amid the guns

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The military situation in Bosnia remained confused yesterday, following the apparently successful Bosnian Serb attack in the Muslim- dominated Maglaj area. UN sources confirmed that 1,000 refugees passed Maglaj on Tuesday morning, heading towards the Muslim town of Zenica, and another 7,000 were trapped further north. Yesterday, British UN troops headed north to rescue four UN military observers trapped in Zepce, one of the Serbian objectives, since Friday. The British troops successfully collected the UN observers but, as Christopher Bellamy reports, on the way they undertook a mission that demonstrates the strange nature of the war in Bosnia

AS IN every war, what looks like a flurry of activity on the map translates into emptiness and inactivity on the ground.

Before the Warriors (infantry fighting vehicles) under Major Vaughan Kent-Payne, the officer commanding 'B' company of the Prince of Wales's own regiment of Yorkshire, headed north to try to pick up the trapped UN observers yesterday afternoon, they completed a mission that encapsulates the bizarre nature of this war.

It was like so many war films. An apparently deserted village, pitchforks sticking out of the hay, houses hastily abandoned. And eerily silent. No large animals, just the odd tabby cat and hen with her brood of newly hatched chicks. Pecine, a Bosnian Croat village eight kilometres (five miles) west of Novi Travnik, has changed hands many times. The Muslims threatened the Croats and many left, moving east, across the Bosnian Serb lines. The Muslims moved into the area, and the Bosnian Serbs pushed west to meet them. Then the Muslims made another effort and pushed the Serbs back to the original front line.

But there were people here. Attracted by the sound of the two Warriors, an old man appeared and greeted them. Pecine's most prominent feature is a church, and Major Kent- Payne was to try to remove the religious artefacts - pictures, statues, vestments - to the Catholic Croatian community in Novi Travnik for safe keeping.

The old man said there were more old people in the village, and the major, accompanied by his local interpreter, headed up the steep, gritty track. He found an old couple: the man in a black sweater, the woman in a dark blue dress and black headscarf.

'How long have you lived here?' the major asked.

'Seventy-five years.'

'How many people are left?'

'At first there were 12. Now, about five.'

'Why didn't you leave?'

'I'm too old, too ill.'

'Is there anywhere you would like to be moved to if you could be moved.'

'No. The Muslims bring me food to eat.'

'What I've been asked to do . . .' the young major was on delicate ground here, 'is to remove the religious artefacts and take them to safety in Novi Travnik.'

'That wouldn't be a bad idea,' the old man said.

'We will be back at times to check you are all right,' the major added. 'Is there anything you need?'

'If you have any painkillers,' said the old man. 'And spaghetti, and rice.'

'We have a small amount of food in my vehicle which normally my soldiers would eat. Before we go, I'll make sure one of my men brings it up.'

While this was happening, we had seen men across the valley. Major Kent-Payne bade farewell. 'I hope you will be able to live out your days in peace,' he said.

The interpreter started translating, but was holding back tears. 'They could be my grandparents,' she later confided. The major lent a supporting arm, and we descended the steep track.

Suddenly, the Muslims were there. Two of them. Major Kent- Payne explained, again, what his soldiers were going to do. 'I know you are looking after these people well,' he said. 'We will be back many times to ensure they are all right.'

At the bottom, there were another four Bosnian army (BiH) soldiers. They wore scruffy uniforms and carried immaculate Kalashnikov automatic rifles. Where they had come from, so silently and quickly, was impossible to tell.

The British soldiers began removing the artefacts from the church and loading them into the back of one of the Warriors. The Muslims, sitting on a tractor, played a tape of Middle Eastern music as the soldiers brought out plush fabric coverings from the altar, pictures and statues of brown-robed apostles.

Major Kent-Payne appeared, carrying some crucifixes. It was bizarre: one of the Warriors piled full of religious articles, guarded by two young soldiers, with the music of an oriental bazaar coming from the Muslim soldiers looking on.

It was a scene that must have taken place in Europe millions of times in 1,500 years. A church being emptied of its holy artefacts in the middle of a war zone . The modern Bosnian Muslims, like the Ottoman Turks, had treated the fabric of the Christian Church impeccably. There was even some money - a lot of money - in German marks and Austrian schillings, untouched. But the priest's house next door had been wrecked.

Then there was a message on the major's radio. 'We'll be going straight back,' he said. 'Got to go north, to Zepce.'

(Photograph omitted)