'It's our destiny to save our families or to get killed': Christopher Bellamy in Vitez goes on patrol with British UN troops in the Bosnian war within a war that pits Muslims against Croats

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'IT'S legal for hunting, but not for human beings,' said the corporal, staring at the 7.62mm round. The tip of the bullet was silvery-soft metal. Striking an arm or a leg, it would flatten and cause catastrophic injuries.

'Dragunov?' he asked the soldier from the HVO Croatian militia. Understanding the name of the formidable Russian sniper rifle, the latter nodded and said something in Serbo-Croat. 'He says they get them from their enemies,' said the interpreter. 'Sure . . . '

They had emerged from the forest quietly, drawn by the roar of the two Warrior fighting vehicles after their ascent of the steep muddy track. We had come up the narrow logging track until it petered out on the edge of a steep wooded valley. On the next ridge 300 metres away, they said, were Muslim snipers. We should not cluster on this gravelly cul-de-sac. British soldiers scanned the skyline, squinting through the optical sights of their SA-80 guns so they could see better, but presenting an intimidating appearance. They watched three holes in the forest canopy through which a sniper might spot us.

These HVO soldiers had not been in the forest long. They had recently shaved, and unlike the British army they were not sticklers for that sort of thing in the field. There were two bivouacs, of logs and tarpaulin and covered with leaves and branches. There were seven at first, later joined by three more. Their commander, a middle-aged man with new webbing equipment, a pistol and a radio, was initially suspicious but soon warmed to us. They were refugees from Kacuni village, near Kiseljak. We were a few kilometres from Busovaca, a village where tension between Croat and Muslim has heightened over the past few days. 'It's our destiny either to save our families or to get killed,' one said.

Their front line, in the war within the war in Bosnia - the Muslim- Croat war - was here. 'Up there - Prosije; down there - Donje Polje,' he said. 'Up there you can see a destroyed Croat cemetery blown up by the Muslims. The chapel was burnt down and tombstones destroyed. We tried to clear the mess away and we found mines. I'd take you there but it's too dangerous.'

'The trouble is,' the commander said, 'Unprofor (the UN Protection Force) protects the Muslims. So they have troops free to come and fight us.' It had a kind of logic, of the twisted sort that becomes convincing in the bizarre circumstances of this war.

They apologised that they could not offer us tea or coffee. They wore a variety of footwear - climbing boots, trainers. But their weapons were immaculate. They were mostly Kalashnikovs, but one had an Arab copy of a German G3, with Arabic writing on it.

'The positions aren't bad either,' said the corporal. 'Some of them are quite professional. One light machine gun, four RPG (rocket-propelled grenade),' he added, committing these bits of 'milinfo' (military information - the word 'intelligence' is banned) to memory.

Our 'framework patrol' - being seen around the area and gathering milinfo - was complete. The 30-ton Warriors revved up, turning tightly on their tracks ready to drive back down the logging path through the silent forest.

(Photograph omitted)