Dreams of unity survive on front line: Robert Fisk talked to a rare mixed Muslim and Croat unit in Sarajevo which is determined to preserve its ideal of Bosnian unity - an ideal that bears little relation to reality

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THEY called themselves the '101st Bosnian Mechanised Brigade' although 'mechanised' was pushing it a bit. A clutch of old Yugoslav army trucks and a bullet-riddled water bowser parked in the barracks near Dobrinja were unlikely to have the Serbs shouting for reinforcements.

The 101st's recruiting poster of a cruise missile being launched from a battleship - pinned to the barracks' noticeboard and bearing the legend 'Now or Never' - was not going to persuade that well-known Bosnian Serb poet Radovan Karadzic that the Bosnian army had acquired a secret navy. But when it came to sincerity, it was difficult to fault the earnest young men whom we met on the Sarajevo front line.

They were polite to the point of shyness, the eldest 47, the youngest a schoolboy of 16 with a Koranic motif pasted to the butt of his Kalashnikov rifle. They strolled through the shattered housing estate at Hrasna like bored holidaymakers, cracking jokes, refusing to run past the barricades of bullet-holed containers and upturned cars, glancing only casually at the incinerated tenements around them. At the entrance to an apartment block 200 yards from the nearest Serb sniper, a young woman with too little hair was holding a screaming, grey- faced baby. Hunger can be as brutal as a bullet in Sarajevo.

Goran Ivankovic led the way upstairs. Twenty-seven years old, he was a television film director in the real world - if that is what it was - of pre-war Sarajevo, a bright, humorous Croat whose almost forgotten four- month holiday in Islington gave him an English grammar to match his rhetoric. 'I am here to defend freedom and liberty,' he announced. 'This is what I fight for with my brothers.'

'You must see what has happened here,' he said. 'This is Fuad's home.' Fuad Hadjimahmutovic had been trailing along behind us with his rifle in his arms, but he stepped forward and proudly pushed open his front door. The window frames had disappeared, a shell had blasted its way through one wall. The wreckage of beds and sideboards and chairs were scattered through three rooms. A computer handbook lay on the floor. 'Welcome to my home,' Fuad said with a broad smile. We had reached the front line.

Nihad Jivojevic sat down amid the splinters on the concrete floor and drew painfully on a cigarette. He was the 16-year-old who would have been at school but for the war, who admitted in a quiet, detached way that he thought of death from time to time, but only after he had risked his life - never when he was actually fighting. The French windows had been starred by snipers' bullets which had ricocheted round the room.

From time to time, more bullets cracked past the house, heart-stopping and unnaturally loud because there is no traffic in Hrasna to compete with the guns now - because, of course, there is no petrol. But between the rifle-fire, there was a pleasant, warm silence. When we peered out of the window, we could see only a sunlit sky filled with high, light clouds and a green hillside of red-roofed villas, a dangerous little Alpine slope of hidden snipers and unmapped front lines.

'The Chetniks (Serbs) are to the left,' Goran said. 'Don't look too far out of the window. Our men are up in those houses in front of you.'

So we sat on the floor, Goran with his back to what was left of Fuad's sideboard, Nihad on his right, an older, more thoughtful man, Mustafa Hubiar - a water-board security officer in the old world - by the door, all talking about what 'Bosnia' will be like in the future. Given the current partition plans, the inverted commas round 'Bosnia' are important just now.

'We must return to the old Bosnia,' Goran insisted. 'We have to live together. There is no other way. We cannot have an ethnically divided state.' Mustafa agreed. 'We have to fight for this,' he said, 'no one else will fight for it. The enemy . . . ' - and here there was a nod in the direction of the Serbs down the road although the word 'Serb' could not be mentioned - 'the enemy want to destroy our life in this city, the liberty we have had in Sarajevo.'

But did not Goran know that the Bosnian army in which he was fighting was now - in central Bosnia - an exclusively Muslim army, that his fellow Croats were fighting the Muslims scarcely 12 miles on the other side of these front lines? Goran looked at Mustafa as if for support. 'Yes,' he said after some hesitation. 'I know that is true. Sadly, I know that is true.' And were not the Muslims the greatest victims of this war? 'That is true, too,' he said. I asked him why.

'You must understand that people above us direct these things,' Goran said. 'People who want to use us, politicians. The Muslims are the victims but they should be our brothers. They were weak so they were attacked.' It was a remarkable statement from a man who - had he been born a dozen miles further west - would have been trying to kill Mustafa. Did he think, then, that there was some kind of a crusade to wipe out the Muslims of Bosnia?

Goran answered with a firm 'no' but Nihad, sitting beside him, face towards the floor, began to nod his head vigorously. 'Yes,' Goran said sadly, 'Nihad believes this is correct about a crusade, but I am an optimist. I do not think so.' Nihad did not speak for several seconds. 'I am afraid this is true,' he said. 'I don't know why but the Muslims are the victims and there must be reasons for this.' Was he religious, I asked? Yes, he said, he prayed five times a day and he asked God to protect him in the war. I asked if he could read the Arabic script of the Koranic verse on his rifle butt. He hung his head and muttered 'no'.

'You have to understand something,' Mustafa said. 'We have no future if we do not live with our neighbours. We cannot just divide up into small groups. We had a Bosnia in which we lived together. If we do not stay together, we are finished. With unity, we are strong.' His words were as brave as they were pathetic. For Europe and the United States long ago decided to allow the Bosnians to fragment. Indeed, Sarajevo is the only little bit of Bosnia left which can claim to be mixed. Outside its tiny frontiers, the Muslims are fighting only for themselves.

How come, I had asked Goran's officer, Commandant Nedzad Ajnadzic, an hour earlier, that his army in central Bosnia contained a 'Brigada Muslimanska'? How could a supposedly mixed Muslim-Croat-Serb Bosnian army boast a 'Muslim brigade'? He waffled on for a while about the 'Albanian Brigade' in Tito's partisan army, but then said that 'the Brigada Muslimanska is composed of men who maybe have more faith, who are more religious than us.'

And there, of course, was the truth of the matter. Isolated in their little pocket of Bosnia - with their ideals as unsurrendered as their city - the soldiers of the 101st Mechanised Brigade are all that is left of the liberal, multi-ethnic dream. Goran can sit between Nihad and Mustafa and still find common purpose, despite Nihad's suspicions. But the Bosnia they knew outside the Sarajevo perimeter has changed beyond recognition. 'We have to go on believing,' as Goran put it. Dreams are made of this.

(Photograph omitted)

Leading article, page 19

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