Border town devastated by 'ethnic purge': Marcus Tanner, in Sarajevo, witnessed the stark transformation of a bustling community wrought by the action of Serbian military forces in Bosnia

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The Independent Online
THE BORDER guard was wary. 'Are the foreign journalists writing for or against Serbia?' he asked. 'For,' answered the interpreter. 'That's OK then,' grunted the soldier and he let us through.

On the border between Serbia and eastern Bosnia, a freshly painted sign in Cyrillic script reads: 'Serbian Republic of Bosnia.' Beyond the sign lies Zvornik, the largest town in the region.

Three months ago Zvornik was a typical Bosnian market town, crowded and dirty. The narrow alleys winding round the mosque teemed with Muslim women wearing colourful baggy Turkish pants, still common in the region.

Zvornik today is a ghost town. Washing still flaps in the wind from houses where the owners fled in a panic from the Serbian advance. Groups of tough, well- armed Serbian youths in khaki uniform patrol the checkpoint on the main road. In the backstreets, only a handful of local Serbs creep around the deserted market- place. The shop fronts are all smashed and the contents looted. The Serbian victors have daubed the walls with graffiti and slogans in support of the SDS, the local Serbian party.

Zvornik was among the first victims of a process which the Serbians call 'ethnic cleansing'. Now it is one of a dozen 'ethnically cleansed' towns which lie on the road between the Serbian border and the Bosnian capital, itself besieged by the Serbs for three months.

Along this main road the majority Muslim community have been systematically driven out, killed or have fled. The number of those killed may never be known. Few journalists or observers have penetrated the area since the Serbian takeover.

After the graveyard silence of Zvornik, the Serbs' provisional capital in Bosnia, located at Pale outside Sarajevo, is a bustling hive of activity. The stores are crowded with shoppers stocking up with a still plentiful supply of goods. The roads are crowded with cars. A fleet of black limousines is parked outside the offices of the leaders of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia.

The Serbs have set up a television station at Pale which covers more Bosnian territory than the official television station inside besieged Sarajevo. In luxurious hotels built for the winter Olympics hosted by the city in 1984, beefy Serbian soldiers lounged in the armchairs, machine-guns slung from bronzed shoulders as they quaffed Coca-Cola.

At the nearby former Yugoslav army barracks at Lukavica, Serbian soldiers for the last three months have pounded the city of Sarajevo into rubble. The Serbian soldiers now share the complex with United Nations peace- keepers.

The UN soldiers appeared strangely ignorant of the terrible suffering experienced by thousands of trapped civilian inhabitants in Dobrinja, a suburb a mere 100 yards away from the barracks.

They knew little of the lot of people in Dobrinja in recent months, of people who stole out of their apartment blocks by night to avoid snipers to find grass to eat, or of the families who were forcibly taken away from their homes to meet an unknown fate when a part of the estate recently fell to besieging Serbian forces.

Instead, with one corner of Dobrinja visible through the trees, a UN peace-keeper from Poland lectured me sternly on the dangers of Muslims setting up an Islamic state in Sarajevo. Sipping his vodka and coffee, he claimed that Muslim soldiers had turned Sarajevo's Holiday Inn Hotel into a brothel. 'They have rounded up all the Serbian women and forced them to work as prostitutes,' he said in a shocked tone.

In the courtyard outside, a group of old men under the scrutiny of an armed guard was shovelling rubbish. 'Who are they?' I asked the guard. 'Muslim prisoners,' he replied. 'Who are they?' I asked the UN peace-keepers. 'They probably work here,' one of them replied.

We drove out of the barracks to the no man's land between Serb- held territory and Sarajevo, to the flat, exposed stretch where you have to put your foot down on the accelerator, drive like the wind and pray you don't get hit. The blackened and burnt-out tower- blocks of Sarajevo loomed in the distance.

(Photograph omitted)