'What should I think about it?' one elderly woman replied when asked for her opinion of Saturday's mortar attack on Sarajevo that killed 68 people. 'What happened was terrible. But we are not responsible. Serbs would never do that.'
The woman's belief has been bolstered by the Bosnian Serb leadership, which has insisted in press conferences and television interviews that the worst atrocity in the Bosnian war was carried out by the Bosnian Muslims themselves in order to curry world favour and to provoke international military intervention against the Serbs.
To the outside observer, the accusation that the Muslims slaughtered their own people to score a propaganda victory smacks of incredible cynicism and callousness. But to the Serbs, historical myth is in many ways more important than historical fact. The Serbs have successfully used the same tactic in the past to blur responsibility for particularly nasty incidents. The best known case occurred shortly after the Bosnian war started.
In May 1992, a shell slammed into Vase Miskina Street in Sarajevo where dozens of people were waiting for bread. Sixteen people died in that attack which, until Saturday, was considered the worst horror of Bosnia's 22-month- old war. Then, too, the Serbs vehemently denied that they launched the attack, and the massacre quickly developed into a bone of contention between the makers of the Serbian and Muslim mythologies of the war.
United Nations consideration in August 1992 of the possibility that Muslim shells might have been responsible for the 16 deaths was hailed by the Serbs as a vindication of their claims of innocence. Although subsequent UN analysis pointed to the Serbs as the guilty party, by that time it made little difference to the myth-makers.
Thus the UN announcement yesterday - that it was impossible to say with any certainty where Saturday's single mortar round came from, because its trajectory had been altered when it hit a market stall - received prominent attention on Belgrade television.
However, the news programmes failed to mention that UN analysis of impact craters left by a mortar attack on the Dobrinja district of Sarajevo on Friday, in which nine people died, clearly showed that the shells were fired from Serbian positions. It also ignored a statement by the UN commander in Bosnia, Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, that he had never seen any evidence which suggested that the Muslims ever fired at their own people.
But even if the UN had positively pinned the blame for Saturday's attack on the Bosnian Serbs, it is wrong to say that the mortar salvo marked a terrible new phase in the war. On the contrary, it was business as usual. Saturday's attack was distinguished from other shellings only by the magnitude of the carnage. Serbs have shelled the city continuously since the start of the war.
It would also be wrong to say that Saturday's attack marked the beginning of a new Serbian offensive. The latest artillery barrage on Sarajevo represented more of a tightening of the screws on Bosnia's Muslim leaders in the run-up to new peace talks in Geneva on Thursday; it was a reminder of the Serbs' ability to hit the city at will, especially if the Muslims do not agree to a peace deal which would carve up the country into Serbian, Croatian and Muslim mini-states.
President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and his Bosnian warlord Radovan Karadzic desperately need the Muslims to sign a peace agreement if they are to consolidate their military victories in Bosnia and get painful international sanctions against Serbia lifted. But the Muslims, encouraged by victories against Bosnian Croats, and convinced that they have nothing left to lose in the war, have said they will only agree to 'a fair peace'.
Faced with the prospect of a costly endless war, the Serbs view force as the only way to convince the Muslims to reconsider their position. From the Serbian point of view, it is the Muslims who are responsible for Saturday's attack. This view was echoed by Serbian television's carefully worded report on Saturday that 'the ones responsible are those who want the war to continue'.Reuse content