Holding the fort in 'Indian country'

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The Independent Online
VITEZ - It may be 1990s Europe, but it looks more like the Wild West of the 1860s, writes Christopher Bellamy. The British convoys and cavalry patrols move from stockade to stockade, the long lines of white UN trucks - with armoured vehicles riding shotgun - look uncannily like covered wagons at a distance. You register with the wagon master, and become part of the convoy.

The local forces, like Indian tribes, are usually friendly and helpful, but fight each other. You have to check who is fighting whom, who is friendly and who is not, as you move up the long, straggling road from the border with Croatia through Tomislavgrad and Gornji Vakuf to Vitez and then out into the still wilder country beyond.

There are bandits and outlaws, who are sometimes difficult to tell apart from the local militias. The robbers have become bolder, holding up journalists - especially the ones from television stations - who travel in expensive four-wheel-drive vehicles packed with attractive electronic items. Courts and juries are in short supply - posses and shows of force are the only protection.

At 'Fort' Redoubt, some miles up the forested mountain road from Tomislavgrad, the Royal Engineers had used the ample supplies of timber in the area to build walls - three logs thick, held together by wire baskets - covering the main approach.

The logs may be placed horizontally rather than vertically, but it still looks like the Fort Laramie of countless Western films.

At the Vitez base, the abundance of timber has helped the Engineers create an environmentally friendly pill-box. Not one of those ugly Second World War slabs of reinforced concrete, but stout brown timbers which merge happily with the fields of central Bosnia. Two layers of wood - with gravel packed tightly between - and neat, splayed gunports that would do credit to a cabinetmaker.

The base, home to about 900 British soldiers, consists of fields of green tents around a disused school. The approaches are covered by the pill-boxes, their fields of fire clearly visible from the geometry of their casemates.

The camp is out of sniper range of all the surrounding hills, but it can be reached by the longest-range Serbian artillery. So the Engineers - they make up about a fifth of the troops here - have built 'artillery shelters'.

For six German marks ( pounds 2.50), visitors can get three square meals from the cookhouse, including a breakfast that would put British Rail to shame. British Forces Radio seems to crop up on every frequency and familiar rock and pop tunes fill the air.

(Photograph omitted)

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