The aftermath of a battle, not a massacre: Christopher Bellamy finds no evidence of an alleged mass murder in the Bosnian village of Here

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The Independent Online
IF THERE was a massacre two days ago, it has been well covered up. But the shattered mountain village of Here, with every building scorched or ablaze, huge holes blasted in the walls by tank shells and entire walls of houses raked by small-arms fire, has the feel of recent hard battle and house-to- house fighting rather than deliberate atrocities.

''We have nothing to hide,' said Colonel Zvonimir Skender, the commander of the Bosnian Croat HVO in the Prozor area yesterday.

News of the destruction of Here reached UN forces on Monday night, when Sarajevo radio alleged the village had been razed to the ground and 25 people killed.

Those facts were close to the truth, though all the houses in the village are still standing, if burnt out. Colonel Skender said 19 men and two women died on the Bosnian side, all soldiers killed in battle, and he invited us to the funeral yesterday afternoon. Two bodies, he said, had already been buried 'because they were completely splashed by mortars'.

Here lies in the area covered by No 1 Company of the Coldstream Guards, based in Gornji Vakuf, but on Tuesday no British UN patrols were able to reach the remote area. Here is just 6.5km east of Prozor and the main UN resupply route as the crow flies, but it can be reached only over a tortuous track from the HVO side and, with the battle lines as they are, it would be impossible to reach from the Bosnian army side. Yesterday we reached Here with the co-operation of Colonel Skender and the HVO, which had captured it two days before.

'For the moment, it's quiet. The heaviest fighting was on the 24th,' said Colonel Skender. 'The Muslims are attacking every day. They attempted an attack on the 24th: the HVO responded and overran Here.' Asked if there had been a massacre, the colonel, a Croatian who had spent two years in the French Foreign Legion, said: 'Absolument non]' 'It is war,' said Colonel Skender. 'In war people get killed.'

The colonel offered to send one of his liaison officers to escort us to Here. Asked how many Croat casualties there had been, he said: 'Not many.' He claimed that the Bosnian army outnumbered the HVO in the area by five to one, but this appeared to be standard military deception. He said civilians had withdrawn some time ago because the village was on the front line.

In the HVO headquarters at Prozor, we had seen the insignia of the HV - the Croatia army proper - down to a lowly section commander, suggesting large- scale employment of troops from across the border in Croatia.

On the way to the newly captured village, we saw Croat soldiers in snow-white camouflage, some wearing sophisticated uniforms with grey-green leaf pattern breaking up the white, and passed an artillery position with two 105mm howitzers and ammunition, manufactured in Spain.

When we turned the corner into the hillside village, the impression of a fresh battlefield was overwhelming. Rifle-fire crackled in the surrounding hills. Most of the houses had their roofs blown off or were completely gutted. The smell of burning charcoal, burning plastic and possibly of burning flesh was everywhere. Most of the houses looked as if they had been abandoned for some time, but one still had washing hanging out on the line.

'The front line ran through the village,' explained Djerko Pavlicic, a HVO spokesman. Until a few days ago, the Croat area had been further down the hill and the destroyed area had been held by the Muslims. There was a well- constructed dug-out in the centre of the village with the remains of a bed and a stove, which may have been the command post.

Anoraks and sleeping bags were scattered about, with the odd woollen hat and a woman's high- heeled boot. But there were no bodies, apart from that of a cow. The HVO had taken all the corpses for burial.

To the south was another steep hill, snow-covered, up which a trench that formed the HVO's front line straggled. Mr Pavlicic said the final battle started early on Monday morning with a Muslim attack. The HVO counter-attacked and it rapidly degenerated into close-quarter fighting. The Muslims fought from house to house and the battle continued till 7.30pm. A fight of such ferocity and length would certainly explain the destruction we saw.