Muslims grieve in Bosnia's innocent hills: Robert Fisk saw the effects of 'ethnic cleansing' on rural communities when he visited the detention centre in Trnopolje

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The corn is ripe between Banja Luka and Prijedor. The haystacks are neatly piled, Balkan- style, like giant loaves of bread. Birds flit between the spruce and poplar trees. Far across the fields, the mountains of Kozara shimmer blue in the early morning heat haze. They could have filmed The Sound of Music here. But the countryside of western Bosnia has a grim innocence all its own.

Not five miles from Banja Luka, you come across the first 'cleansed' home, a pretty farmhouse with a veranda and flowers in the garden, its roof blown off, black stains spreading upwards from each broken window. Round a corner of the smooth highway - road safety signs still advise motorists to slow before a dangerous bend - there is a row of gutted homes. Blackened, skeletal timbers sprout from steep, broken red roofs, tiles cascaded across the neatly cropped lawns. Across whole hillsides, the beautiful little houses lie shattered. A villa with a marble patio has been blown apart, a restaurant pummelled into rubble. A beautiful minaret is stitched with bullet holes.

But it is the deliberation of it all that is mind-numbing. Muslims lived here, thousands of them. Their telephone cables still run intact above the road. The hedges are trimmed, the farm gates of fresh wood, the shutters on the windows newly painted. You may be forgiven for blinking. On re- opening your eyes, you should see children and women in the gardens, men on farm tractors. Indeed, on a few dismal clothes- lines, ancient washing still flaps in the wind, a symbol of the rapidity with which catastrophe overtook the Muslims of Kozara. Where are they now, you ask yourself?

Amid this gentle desolation, one small home remains intact, a Serbian cottage within a Muslim community, whose ethnic status protected it from the mobs. Its inhabitants are there, visible from the road, a family of four sitting on the porch of a wooden-framed house, breakfasting round a table, an old man and a woman with high-piled hair and two children, their tiny homestead nestling comfortably between the ruins of their neighbours' houses; coffee in the garden, a natural preoccupation on such a fine morning, a moment of relaxation to reflect upon the new, 'cleansed' Bosnia.

As Serbian mayor of the nearest town of Prijedor, Milomar Stakic recounts the recent history of western Bosnia with a decisiveness that brooks no interruption, his appearance - bald, unsmiling, with a toothbrush moustache - scarcely softened by his T-shirt, upon which is printed 'Portobello Road, W11'.

'In the first free elections in Prijedor since the Second World War, the Muslim Democratic Action Party won the elections,' he says. 'They were in power for a year and a half and they took this opportunity to arm the most extreme members of their party and of the Muslim population. These preparations reached the point where armed groups set up checkpoints on the roads around Prijedor. Then they murdered members of the army and police.'

Here he pauses as aides produce glasses of plum brandy - it is just 10am - and the interruption is long enough to ponder an obvious question. If the Muslims won the elections, why on earth should they want to arm themselves and attack the army?

'The army and the police left Prijedor in the direction of Banja Luka to find the terrorists,' he continues. 'They were attacked again on the main road and three of them were killed . . . The police and army managed to protect the women and children and took them in buses to safe havens. In the course of the next few days, the army and police captured several thousand people and put them into Trnopolje camp to protect them from the war which followed with the extremists.'

We can visit Trnopolje at once, says Mr Stakic. He has been waiting for this moment. Trnopolje is, after all, 'a collection centre of an open type'. Not like Omarska. Or Manjaca. No guard dogs. No watch towers. A police escort to the camp, perhaps?

Through the trees we saw them, hundreds of young men, shirtless in the heat, lounging in the dust and squalor of the camp; old tarpaulins draped over sticks to create grubby tents, dirty blankets strung across broken lorries beneath which women with tousled hair watched us with suspicion. Scarcely had we entered the camp than a young, shrivelled man walked up to us. 'Omarska,' he said. 'I in Omarska.' And he slowly, weakly, peeled off his shirt. His stomach was caved in, every rib and shoulder bone pressing outwards through his grey skin. So here were the people of Kozara, the Muslim inhabitants of those pretty little homes with their verandas and nurtured gardens.

They talked with more freedom that the prisoners of Manjaca, over the hills near Banja Luka. But they were careful. No family names. No names of wives and children. A 30-year-old Muslim engineer called Mirsad was prepared to reveal how Kozara was destroyed. 'The army came to our homes in the night, shooting,' he said. 'My family fled the house but I stayed to try and protect it. I heard screaming everywhere and there were bodies. Soldiers were running towards my home. So I ran out the back door and hid in the forest. For three days, I hid there. I was hungry and thirsty and I could see my home. It was burnt. So I walked across the country and into Prijedor and to the police station and I said 'Here I am.' First they sent me to Omarska camp. It was terrible. Many died. Then I was brought here.'

There were a few farm animals roaming the edges of the camp, women in shawls, men trying to sleep amid the flies and heat. Mr Stakic cares about these people, he told us. He would like them to be safe although, alas, 'uncontrolled elements' were abroad; which was why Serbian 'soldiers' surrounded Trnopolje. To protect the Muslims inside. If only the Muslims elsewhere would accept them - take them in exchange for Serbs held in Croatia - the 2,000 inmates of Trnopolje could walk out of Bosnia in safety. And there would - although Mr Stakic did not say so - be 2,000 fewer Muslims in Serbian-held Bosnia. 'Cleansed' from their homes, these men and women are now to be 'cleansed' from the land in which they grew up.

How simple solutions can be in Bosnia. But most of the young men wait in fear of learning the truth about their women and children. Talk of a 'secret' camp for Muslim women near the town of Duboj has long been rumoured, never confirmed. Women were taken from Kozarac by the Serbs, the inmates of Trnopolje can confirm. But they do not think they were taken away for 'protection'.

Mr Stakic has only to wait and they will surely leave Bosnia. Does he ponder this in his sandbagged town hall? Or does he occasionally glance at the original, framed lithograph on the wall outside his office. It is a gracefully drawn picture of refugees huddling on the mountainsides of Kozara in 1944, Serbian victims of the terrible German and Croatian Ustashe offensives of the Second World War. There are farm animals standing behind the weary men, and women cowled in shawls. They are victims of another ethnic cleansing. Mr Stakic might scrutinise the name of the man who executed this remarkable work, one of old Yugoslavia's most famous artists. 'Ismet', it says in the bottom right-hand corner of the picture. A Muslim.

(Photograph omitted)