British map out the future of Bosnia

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AT the touch of a button, a helicopter pilot arriving in Bosnia can see a three-dimensional sketch of any route he wants to take, writes Christopher Bellamy.

The Drina valley - of some interest to those who believe in bombing Serb supply lines - is shown in three dimensions, as an approaching pilot might see it; all down to computers, and the map-makers. Any peace plan for Bosnia will revolve around maps. As Major Peter Dinwiddie, commanding the Royal Engineers' map section at the British forces' headquarters, explained, 'everything is tied up with boundaries, so it's all got to be tied around a map. One of the problems is to find out where the exact boundaries are. There are few definitive sources of where the exact boundaries lie on the ground. Obviously the peace plan revolves around getting it right'.

Major Dinwiddie should know about maps - on his mother's side he comes from Bartholomew's, the Edinburgh map-making firm. His geographic section of eight specialists started by producing 50 copies of their weekly situation map. Now they produce 600. Their biggest problem is not finding out which warring faction is doing what, where. 'That information is supplied by all sorts of agencies', he said. 'The biggest problem is consumables. We eat so much paper and film. You can never guarantee when it's going to arrive.'

The former Yugoslav army produced 'some pretty good maps' of the country. The British used them to produce their main 1/100,000 scale maps - about two miles to the inch, a centimetre to a kilometre.

There are many more exciting things you can do nowadays. With 'terrabase' you can manipulate the contours of maps and produce three- dimensional panoramas. 'The main pack is using height information covering the whole of Bosnia-Herzegovina', said Major Dinwiddie. It can do perspective views and 'line of sight' diagrams, to determine whether people can see from A to B, or the area which an observer can scan, or the best place to site communications equipment. 'You obviously don't get all the trees and things. But with the technology that's going you can just drape the features over it.'

Captain Eric Male is taking over the section from Major Dinwiddie. He, too, has been fascinated by maps since childhood, and trained as a cartographic technician. The army survey course lasts about 15 months, after which people become survey officers for the rest of their careers. Many of the sappers become interested in the subject while studying civil engineering at the Royal Military College of Science, Shrivenham. 'I think people have an interest, or they don't,' said Major Dinwiddie.

Although the team has impressive computer assistance, the weekly 'sitreps' are done by traditional methods. 'You take a blank piece of paper and build it up', said Capt Male. An old army joke says the most dangerous thing in the world is an officer with a map. In Bosnia, being without one is even more dangerous.

Conor Cruise O'Brien, page 20