Medieval city prepares for a rain of shells

EMMA DALY

Dubrovnik

The old stone statue of Dubrovnik's medieval defender is entombed in protective pine casing while his descendants mass in the mountains to the east, preparing for a battle to push Bosnian Serb guns out of range of the walled city.

"The war is going to begin tomorrow - I will bet on it," said Ivo, as he sat in a bar singing folk songs with his friends.

Soldiers wandering through the town refused to answerquestions about the eagerly awaited offensive against Bosnian Serb forces around Trebinje, about 10 miles away across the Bosnian border.

But many residents echoed Ivo's views and expected that the relative calm would be shattered soon.

In the main square, workers nailed a wooden shield around the 15th-century statue of Knight Orlando, holding the sword that symbolises the many sieges of Dubrovnik, and raised scaffolding before the doors of medieval churches to protect the facades from shrapnel.

A soldier complained of being recalled to duty early, while Ivo's friends said they had sent their children away.

"For us the only solution is that we are out of range of their artillery," said Nikola Obuljen, the mayor. "You never know when they are going to throw their shells," he added, noting that although the old city has escaped fire since the start of 1992, the surrounding villages have been shelled for three years.

"People are impatient, they can't live any more in these conditions," he added.

The UN estimates that the Croats have sent at least 4,000 troops with heavy guns and armour into the area. They are well-hidden in the Dalmatian mountains, or across the border in Bosnia.

The silence at a checkpoint a mile from the frontier was disturbed only by the chirping of crickets. Only 24 hours earlier, the air was filled with the sound of rocket fire, much of it directed east.

Further south, beyond the village of Dubravka, which sits beneath the peaks of Montenegro, Croatian soldiers ordered us to leave.

"This is war," said the commander grimly. "You must get out." We are not the foreign visitors Dubrovnik wants.

"We never asked for their nationality or their religion - just for their money," said Ivo. "But a few kilometres away in Trebinje there is an invisible wall between two cultures."

His friend Enio works in Dubrovnik with two Serbs: "They are certainly OK, we are friends. But they are worried about their relatives."

The men believe the city will suffer when the Croat army attacks Trebinje. They think there is an unspoken agreement: you shell our town, we will shell yours. So far, Trebinje has escaped bombardment; they don't think that will last.

"We will either fight or die: there is no other way," said Sasa. "But what kind of people can shell a place like this?"

The polished stone streets are empty, the medieval towers converted to bomb shelters, the people eager for a return to real life. "All my life I dreamt of seeing the city without tourists," said Enio. "Now I'm sick of it."

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