A grandstand view of the suffering: On a hill above Sarajevo, at an observation post where monitors log the shellfire, Robert Fisk watched the city burn

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The Independent Online
FROM Flight Lieutenant Jim Finlayson's villa, surrounded by orchards, a shed full of hens, masses of geraniums and a wall of pink roses, you can watch Sarajevo burn. It burns well. Yesterday morning, superheated in our Teflon flak jackets and helmets, we calmly observed an electronics factory on fire and someone's home amid the trees burning like a torch. The air roared with artillery fire. Clearly, another Balkan peace conference was in the offing.

In the Napoleonic Wars, even in the Crimea, the rich and elegant and educated might canter to the top of a hill to appreciate a battle as others might visit the races or view Sorrento Bay. Thus were we participating yesterday in a long and obscene tradition, looking out across seven miles of pain and suffering, the mountains blue in the midday heat, the Serb lines 400 yards behind us, white butterflies moving amid the long grass as the gunfire cracked and slammed and changed the air pressure on the hill of Boljakov Dotok.

Only an hour earlier, we had watched Alija Izetbegovic's Bosnian delegation leave Sarajevo by United Nations convoy for Split and Geneva driving through Dobrinja under the protection of French marines. One of them had been forced to hand over an ancient Beretta pistol - hardly of use, one would have thought, at a Swiss peace conference - to a Polish UN officer before armoured personnel carriers took them across the Serb lines near the airport.

The Serbian response was to bombard the west of the city with shells, one of which smashed into a fire escape 50ft from us, catapulting off the railings and landing next to the Sarajevo UN car park without exploding.

There was certainly no reason for Flt Lt Finlayson to be surprised. As a New Zealand UN 'monitor', one of that decreasing breed of military academics who note each artillery round in the interests of international sanity, he and his Russian and Jordanian colleagues had logged three incoming mortars within 50ft of his location in the early hours of yesterday morning. Major Nikolai Rumyantsev - a suitably Tolstoyan name for the massive Russian viewing this modern-day Borodino - was pragmatism personified. 'Watching a battlefield is interesting but it can be pretty disheartening,' he announced. Flt Lt Finlayson, young, pink-faced, a helicopter pilot who blithely refused both flak jacket and helmet, was more to the point. 'To have a good observation post, you need to be exposed,' he said. And a few moments later, a single bullet whizzed like an angry bee a few inches from our faces.

In the one and a half hours from 5.30am yesterday, Flt Lt Finlayson, Maj Rumyamtsev and Major Radwan el- Hussein, of the Jordanian army, had logged 118 artillery and mortar rounds fired from the frontlines around them, mostly from Serb positions. Their chart stated with dull finality what this meant: 60mm mortars, 82mm mortars, 120mm mortars, 105mm artillery, 122mm artillery, 150mm artillery. Every few mintes, we would see the flash of the Serb guns to the east of the railway embankment that forms the frontline and, two seconds later, the sprouting of brown-grey smoke in the streets of Stup.

From Flt Lt Finlayson's comfortable eyrie - the three officers sleep on the floor but there is cold beer in the refrigerator for visitors and an enthusiastic welcome for anyone crazy enough to visit them - it is not difficult to understand how Sarajevo is being tortured. The Serbs want to cut the road to the airport and to do this they must capture the ugly modern suburb of Stup, its inhabitants still in residence although we can see through our binoculors only burnt- out cars and abandoned buses in the streets. The Bosnian militias - quaintly referred to as 'presidential forces' by the UN monitors - are trying to break through the Serb lines further south to link up with the Croat-Bosnian armies south of the Zeljeznica river.

But yesterday the shells were bursting along the whole gentle valley in which Sarajevo - to the doom of its present- day citizens - was originally built by the Romans and the seventh-century Slavs. From time to time, through our glasses, we could see tiny explosions and then a dreary column of brown smoke funnelling up into the blue sky with its white fluffy clouds. Occasional speeding, terrified motorists could be observed on the roads near the television station.

These days, however, battlefields are unkind to those who come to gawp at the efficiency of modern technology. We needed two UN armoured vehicles to drive us three miles out of Sarajevo through the shellfire to reach Flt LtFinlayson's villa, along roads lined by rusting railway tracks and incinerated cars. At least we had some armour. The 'Unmos' have thin-skinned vehicles and a radio link that works on only one frequency - to the fury of both Serb and Bosnian government forces, who hear their artillery details broadcast to every gunman around Sarajevo. There should be 100 UN observers. In fact there are only 60 and these are to be reduced by a further 20 under the terms, so it is said here, of the London conference.

Flt Lt Finlayson and his comrades make no comment on such matters. 'We'll just have to work harder,' he announced. The UN's logic is as simple as it is nave. The more the UN observers observe, the less the artillerymen of both sides fire their artillery - because neither wishes to be proved the aggressor. Everyone in the UN publicly claims this has helped to reduce the bloodshed, although this was hard to believe on the hill of Boljakov Dotok yesterday. Who bothered to count the hundreds of mortars we saw exploding along the river? Besides, in Sarajevo, peace conferences mean death. And it was a UN officer who observed a few hours later - as the guns religiously, if briefly, silenced themselves at lunchtime - that 'if you're going to kill people, you might as well do it on a full stomach'.

(Photograph omitted)

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