An alien 'brother' fights for Muslims: A young Arab in Sarajevo tells Robert Fisk of his struggle to understand the people for whom he is prepared to die

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WE SHALL call him 'Mustafa', although he wrote his real name and address on a piece of paper, a 19-year-old fighter from the Algerian town of Anaba with four frightening scars on his arm, shoulder and chest, a long, bushy black beard and a question that came up again and again in our conversation: 'Why are Bosnian Muslims frightened of dying?' The bullet wound in his chest - sustained in an attack on the Sarajevo front line - almost killed him.

He has been nine months in the Balkans - six months in the Bosnian Army's 'Brigada Muslimanska' at Zenice and Travnik and then three months in Sarajevo - one of at least 300 Arabs now fighting in Bosnia. He crossed the Serbian lines by running across the UN-controlled airport runway at night, was met in Sarajevo by other Arab 'brothers' - although he never uses the word 'Arab' - and was inserted by them into Muslim units on the front line. 'I was a student in Turkey when the war started here, and I knew I had to come to defend my Muslim brothers and sisters,' he said, sitting in his combat fatigues in an easy chair scarcely 100 yards from the nearest Serbian position.

Mustafa is one of the very few Arab fighters in Bosnia to talk to a journalist, and his story provides an insight into the motivation of Arabs under arms in the Balkans. He admitted that life in Sarajevo was not as he imagined; indeed, that it could be an experience of mutual incomprehension.

'Muslim girls still come up to me and want to shake my hand, and I cannot do that, but they don't understand. They think it's because I don't like them and I have to explain that it is my religion that prevents me touching their hand. These people here are not like us, they are not Arabs. They are Europeans. I have seen so many of them drinking, but there are very strict Muslims here, too, who pray five times a day. I try to teach them about Islam, about the laws of Islam. They listen, some of them.' Mustafa looked up in consternation as a woman - a mutual acquaintance of both of us - approached.

To Mustafa's horror, she held out her hand in greeting. 'I cannot - I am sorry,' he said with embarrassment. He is an intelligent man, fluent in French and near-fluent in English and Turkish with a fair smattering of Serbo-Croat (or 'Bosnian' as the language of the South Slavs must now be called in Sarajevo). His smile is warm, even if his attitude to his fellow Bosnian Muslim fighters is frightening.

'Except for the 10th Brigade, these people don't know how to fight,' he said. 'You know, when we stage an attack, the Bosnians come with us but they don't want to die. They go forward and then they turn back again. Several times, I have been out in front, up in the hills above the city, and we have broken through the Serbs. But just when they are winning, the Bosnians want to go back home. They want to live.' There followed the familiar assertions of so many fundamentalists in the Middle East, that he, Mustafa, was not afraid of death, indeed sought martyrdom and paradise.

'A strange thing happened after I was badly wounded. I was taken to the Kosovo hospital and they operated on me but I liked the doctor at once.' Here Mustafa pulls up one sleeve to show two puffy scars running round his arm. 'The doctor said he had to take some skin from my rib to close the wounds on my arm and he did a great job. And I discovered afterwards that he was a Serb. I thought this very funny, a Sarajevo Serb alongside the Muslims, looking after me, a Muslim fighter. So I said to him when I left: 'I will make you a present - I will try to convert you to Islam.' He laughed at me, but I meant what I said.'

Mustafa demanded news about the war in Bosnia. 'We are very cut off and have not time to listen to the radio. What has happened now in Gorazde and Srebrenica? Why do you let these murders of Muslims take place? Why do you try to make propaganda from us and say we are all terrorists? You have English and French people who come and fight for the Croatians so why should we not come and fight for the Muslims when you will not even give them arms?' Ask Mustafa if the Bosnian Muslims want his assistance and he prevaricates. 'They need our help - we have experience. Many of my brothers were in Afghanistan and know how to fight and are prepared to die for these people. They want to help Islamic people.'

Aware of the propaganda advantages for the Serbs, the Bosnian government has no desire to advertise the presence of Mustafa and his Arab 'brothers'. The Bosnian army officially rejects their help but tacitly accepts it. Mustafa's principal political opponent appeared to be a Colonel Valentin of the French UN contingent in Sarajevo whose functions - according to the 'brothers' - include the arrest of Arab fighters trying to make their way into the city through the airport. 'I hate the French - hate them - more than I do other countries, because of what they did in Algeria. We drove them out of my country and we will also win in Bosnia.'

But there was an ambiguity in all this. No sooner had Mustafa finished excoriating the West than he asked whether he might obtain a place at a British university. Then he paused, his face lighting up. 'Sarajevo will be Muslim,' he said suddenly. Mustafa's Bosnian colleagues in the city are not supposed to be fighting for a Muslim Sarajevo but for a mixed, multi-religious capital of an unpartitioned Bosnia. When I asked Mustafa if he understood this, he replied: 'Yes, but Muslims must be Muslims. They are the majority. This is their country. They must learn this.'

(Photograph omitted)