Displaying a lethal talent: When his home town became a battleground, Becir went from repairing Hondas and Mazdas to M-48s and Kalashnikovs, writes Robert Fisk in Sarajevo

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The Independent Online
'CLASSICAL' is the word Becir uses; about cars, about guns, even about his Toy-Town plane, the 'Embargo Breaker' as he calls it, nestling at the back of his makeshift factory.

The old Browning machine- guns he repairs for the Bosnian forces defending Sarajevo, the Wehrmacht Mausers with their little eagle and swastika motifs still engraved on the breech, the British Lee Enfield and the shotguns which - with new hazelnut butts and extended barrels - Becir has turned into sniper's rifles; all are classical.

And because he is at war, because his little armoury is part of the front line, because he wears a uniform with a tiny Bosnian fleur- de-lis badge, Becir is no arms dealer but a Muslim fighter, a 58- year-old machine engineer who turned from the repair and maintenance of Hondas and Mazdas to Kalashnikovs and M-48s the day Sarajevo became a battleground.

Every time the city's defenders capture a broken Serbian gun, they turn up at Becir's repair shop to admire his collection of mortar shells and guns, to watch him manufacturing home-made hand grenades on his lathe. And to admire the 'Embargo Breaker', powered by the motor of a sports car, the one and only aircraft in the non-existent Bosnian air force.

No engine details here - Becir insists they must be as anonymous as his family name - but it is Becir who will fly it, at a maximum altitude of 150 feet, a car with wings and a sturdy wooden propeller that must take off along Sarajevo's only runway: the fearful boulevard known as Sniper's Alley. If they keep their eyes open, the United Nations troops up at the telephone exchange will see him flying by one night later this year, on his way across the front lines for food and 'supplies'. That, at least, is the plan.

Not surprisingly, Becir is affectionate about his light aircraft as well as his guns, an artist in a deadly business. 'All this technology is for the Western nations, perhaps, like we saw in the Gulf war,' he explains patiently. 'But we are returning now to the time of simple, classical weapons with classical design.'

He picks up a British Sten gun - a Second World War vintage Mark 2 - and fondles the barrel. 'Classical, you see. And beautiful in its way. Our return to classical design is like our love of classical music. Mozart, Beethoven - these guns are the equivalent.'

And as you watch Becir rummaging through his cluttered back-room, you realise that he is more than a little in love with these dreadful things. He touches them, pats the barrels, runs his fingers over the working parts with even more care than he lavishes on his constantly mewing black cat, Beda. 'Come and see this,' he says with excitement, stumbling over a tin of TNT salvaged from unexploded rocket-propelled grenades. He picks up a huge 30-calibre Bowning machine-gun, manufactured in 1919, according to the engraving, by 'the Saginaw Steering Gear Co of General Motors (number 431726)'.

'This was mounted on a Liberator bomber shot down by the Germans over Yugoslavia in 1943. Tito's partisans saved it and then the Chetniks (Serbs) used it against us in this war. We captured it from them but without the ammunition so I've had to manufacture a new ammo box for it.'

A visit to Becir's factory is a journey into the past. Hunting rifles engraved for the Austro-Hungarian monarchy lie beside Russian PPS assault rifles used in the liberation of Belgrade in 1945 and German MP44s, produced in the very last months of the Second World War, '100 per cent better than the Russian Kalashnikov - it was the Germans who produced the original of the AK-47'.

Sten guns and Thompson guns - Chicago pianos upon which Becir's classical music will never be played - stand along the wall, relics of the Allied air drops to Tito's men in the mountains of Bosnia scarcely 20 miles from this very factory. When Becir swings his torch into the corner, small eagles glint evilly from a dozen breach blocks, each clutching a miniature swastika in its claws.

'You see? This is our front line,' Becir says, holding a newly repaired Italian heavy machine- gun in his arms - the Serbs had smashed the barrel before abandoning it last year. 'We are a team, the fighters and I. They tell me what they want, too, and I make it. Look, this is my new mortar. I am making it out of shell cases. I put in the TNT like this, then throw in these pieces of shrapnel and bits of chain, nice and sharp for the Chetniks.'

And here he chuckles. 'Teamwork is what it's about. We have six men helping now with the plane, representing all of Bosnia- Herzegovina. We have two Muslims, two Serbs, a Croatian and tomorrow a Jew will start work with us. Our country will be in the air when I take off. We actually flew this plane once, just before the present war, to locate a Second World War shipwreck near Vis. It was damaged but now our repairs are almost done. What a plane. What a classical engine.'