Kalashnikovs and hospitality between the lines: Christopher Bellamy talks to the Muslims and Croats who confront each other in Kiseljak

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The Independent Online
BETWEEN the lines in Bosnia, south of Visoko, the road curves round to the west, towards Kiseljak. This territory is held by the Bosnian army.

Most of the way, there are the normal signs of life. Children play, even wave. Adults stroll and cyclists weave in the middle of the road. Then, about three miles short of Kiseljak, it goes quiet, apart from the wind and the sound of the Fojnicka mountain river flowing fast on the left. We are approaching the battle line. Ahead lies the Kiseljak pocket, one of two main Croatian pockets.

A road-block. A nervous young man asks for cigarettes. Already short (we have been giving them out at other Croat and Bosnian army road-blocks on our journey from Vitez), we give him two.

The next road-block is more serious. This is the last before no man's land. Our armoured Land Rover comes gently to a halt. There are three men in camouflage uniforms with arm patches indicating they are Bosnian military police. Two women are also sitting by the small shack, with a corrugated iron roof and concrete reinforcing rods.

'What's been happening?' our interpreter asks. 'This morning was quiet. Yesterday there was some shelling. Two children from the school in the next village - Grajani - got killed. A grenade.'

The south side of the river, a big, steep hill covered in russet and gold autumn forest, is in Croatian hands, within hailing distance of this post. 'Civilians' - women and children and men outside military age, though that is flexible - with the right papers pass through here to work in the Croatian enclave and then out again.

'The day before yesterday the Croats and Chetniks (Serbs) shelled these villages but something was wrong with the grenades - they didn't go off,' said the head man, offering some remarkable information. 'The Serbs sell grenades to the Croats for 1,000 German marks ( pounds 400) each, but they are old ones - not good.' In the distance, we hear the crackle of musketry and the occasional crump of a mortar. We later heard some landed in Kiseljak, probably fired from Visoko. 'They are probably looking at us through their sights now. They fire across there, just behind you,' continued the head man. We felt uneasy.

We head on. In no man's land, there is, indeed, no one. One point half a mile on, we suddenly come on the Croatian checkpoint. A white Land Rover suggests we are not hostile, though the only thing identifying us with the United Nations is our press passes. These Croats are a touch more exotic. There is one splendid man with a walrus moustache, a hand grenade and Kalashnikov magazines, full of shiny new ammunition strapped to his leather belt.

There is a concrete shelter, like a sentry box, painted the Croatian colours of red, white and blue. We are greeted by a military policeman from the HVO - the Bosnian Croat army. He wears a badge that would impress a Chicago policeman: a gold background bearing a circular silver band with Vojna Policija on it in blue enamel and a silver scroll with his number. Four others are eating lunch at a table down the embankment. Lamb and the local bread, baked fresh every day. They carried Kalashnikovs with varnished wooden stocks, immaculately clean.

'Have some brandy.' We have not expected such generosity. The yellowish liquid tastes good. As we gather round the table they say that the Bosnian army has been attacking all the Croatian areas in Bosnia. 'Why are all the journalists pro- Muslim,' asks a man with a beard in a green pullover. 'When did they last have aid in Busovaca, in Kiseljak, in Vitez, in Kresevo, in Novi Travnik?'

They say the UN protection force, Unprofor, was smuggling arms and ammunition to the Muslims. Only about 2 or 3 per cent, they believe, but some, nevertheless.

'Do you think there will ever be peace?' 'Yes. When Unprofor goes. Unprofor is the worst thing in Bosnia.

'If Unprofor went that would be the end of the war. There would be some fighting but after that there would be peace.'

Two warring sides, half a mile apart. Both ordinary, friendly, hospitable people. The Croats say their Muslim neighbours are not so bad. It is Muslims from other areas.

We are already well behind schedule and after more brandy and beer explain that we have to get on. We will be back and the discussion, like this bizarre war, will continue.