Travnik trusts in Allah as Serbs advance: Robert Fisk reports from the embattled Bosnian town where the British United Nations troops do little more than 'reassure' people

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THEY couldn't fit Mustafa Dzonlic's coffin into the grave. The snow swept over the Muslim gunmen and weeping women on the hillside, and the Imam of Travnik, his red and white turban bright amid the dead trees and mud, remonstrated with the grave-diggers. There were three other Muslim soldiers to be buried alongside their comrade, but they too had to wait in their cheap wooden boxes - covered by a green cloth of embroidered Koranic inscriptions and an Islamic half moon - before facing their eternity in the ground. Far away, on the other side of Mount Vlasic, we could hear the guns that had killed them.

There were the usual prayers, the usual gaunt-faced women wailing in the arms of relatives, the usual stunned expressions of soldiers who had survived the latest Serbian offensive, six miles up the road at Turbe. The bodies of the four Bosnian Muslims, and two dead Croatian fighters being interred at that same moment on a hillside across the valley, had just been exchanged for six dead Serbs. As usual, respect for death remained where respect for life had disappeared.

In the end, the grave-digger shuffled irritably into Dzonlic's grave and shovelled out some more clods of mud under the eyes of the Muslim militiamen, before the coffin was lowered by ropes and wedged into the ground with stones. Dzonlic was 26 years old. Ahmed Mamasedzija was 30, Zijad Fazlic 27. Amir Hrustanovic, whose name only just fitted on to his wooden grave marker, was the oldest at 31. The younger of the two Croats was only 15.

Ivo Andric, the town's most famous son, said the pride of Travnik's people was both their second nature, and their most burdensome inheritance. Sure enough, when the last mud had been patted around the graves, the hundreds of mourners simply walked away through the snowstorm in silence, not a tear staining their faces.

The people of Jajce must have behaved like this before their town fell to the Serbs. The road signs in Travnik still point to Jajce. And to Banja Luka and Sarajevo, even to Belgrade, to towns and cities which no one in Travnik can any longer visit. The Turks made Travnik, with its decorated mosques and white-painted minarets, its great fort and Islamic college, the seat of a vizier. Perhaps this is from where its people derived their pride.

Every few days now, a Serbian shell explodes in the town, splashing a mosque with shrapnel, destroying an apartment or two. But its 74,000 people refuse to leave. They still go to market in the frost beside the derelict Church of Saint Aloysius, destroyed by the Partisans in 1943 because of its Ustashe antecedents. They still drink plum brandy in the dirty cafes, and shop in the only open supermarket down the road from the Muslim fighters' office. 'The only way to fight the Chetniks is with guns,' a poster says in the window. 'With Allah on our side, we must win.'

Through the centre of Travnik runs the Lasva river. How is Travnik going to be defended if the Serbs come down the gorge? The shape of the place, as Andric wrote, 'is like a half-opened book, both pages of which are . . . illuminated with gardens, streets, houses, fields, graveyards and mosques'. By the river is an old Soviet BMP armoured vehicle with a piece of sheet metal welded above the cab and mounted with a machine-gun. But there is not a tank, not a single artillery piece in Travnik, just herds of militiamen smoking in the streets. In one sense, Travnik has already fallen.

The British United Nations troops drive their Scimitars and Warriors in and out of Travnik to 'reassure' the people. But there is no British base in Travnik, no plan - so far as anyone can discover - for the UN to draw a line outside the town, to stop the Serbian advance. 'They will come this week,' a Muslim officer announced with equanimity as he looked up at the snow-covered heights of Mount Vlasic.

Around town, a British charity, Feed the Children, is dispensing baby food and soup to the local Muslim relief agency, to Caritas, and to the Croatian refugee centre. There are 20,000 refugees in Travnik, and the British team leader is anxious to take a few more boxes of food round to the Muslims, to make sure the religious balance is maintained. Are they saving lives or fattening up refugees for further suffering?

It is as if Travnik is safe, far behind the lines, still secure beneath its castle, as it was when Napoleon landed on the Dalmatian coast, far beyond the mountains. At first, Andric wrote of that time, the people of Travnik felt no concern. 'But there came days when . . . they could have wished to live instead, peaceful and carefree, in one of those obscure and ordinary market towns which do not figure in the calculations of kings or in the quarrels of states, and do not lie within the range of world events nor in the path of renowned and powerful men.'

Perhaps only a stranger can understand why history is about to visit Travnik again.

(Photograph and map omitted)