Siege mentality as Serb gunners resume shelling

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The Independent Online


The 14th-century Lovrjenac tower, whose mighty walls guard Dubrovnik's ancient harbour, today forms a bizarre blast shelter for 50 or so people against the shells of the Bosnian Serbs in the hills across the border. Camp beds and chairs line a walkway where tourists once watched illuminated tanks of octopus and other sea life.

"It's OK here - the children are safe," said Nefi Bakaric, who has spent almost two weeks in the shelter with her sister's family. "There's shelling near my house - I don't know when we'll be able to go home."

Along the passage an elderly couple gazed blankly at a tank filled with wrinkled grey anemones; a couple of women watched a portable black-and- white television instead.

Mrs Bakaric was eager for Croatia's troops, thousands of whom have been dispatched to the Dubrovnik area in the past few days, to launch an attack on the Serb gunners in Trebinje, 10 miles away, who have teased the city and scared off its tourists. "They should liberate Trebinje," she said. "Life is no good here now. For five years we have had no people, no work."

Dubrovnik's polished stone streets are almost deserted, the turquoise waters empty of bathers or boats, an occasional rumble of distant artillery which could be thunder. "There are a couple of tourists - I met one this morning," Barbara, a travel agent, said firmly. "He wanted to go to Italy tonight."

Her litany of complaint encompassed the loss of trade, the war, the foreign media's (unspecified) lies about Croatia, her demand that Zagreb's forces silence the Serb guns. "They should because we're fed up," she said, adding that of the 13 pre-war staff at the agency, only one other remained.

"We have to clear [the Serbs] out if we want to live. I make 200 German marks a month: it's not enough to live on. Luckily I have relatives in Slovenia and they send me money to survive. We have only tourism here, no factories." If the Bosnian Serbs remained in Trebinje, she said, "We will die anyway."

Although the old town was bombarded by the Serbs during the war in 1991, there are few signs of damage: pockmarks in the walls of ancient buildings, mostly. The war tourist must consult a large map just inside the western gateway which details each shrapnel mark and holed roof in Dubrovnik.

The city has so far escaped the recent shelling - concentrated around the airport and border villages in the region - which has wounded more than a dozen people and sparked numerous brush fires on the scrubby mountains near the coast.

The Serbs seem to be playing a dangerous game of "dare", too circumspect to attack the city, but tempted to revenge itself for the loss of Krajina and towns in western Bosnia.

The Croatian commander, General Zvonimir Cervenko, visited the front- lines on Tuesday to warn the Serbs against playing with fire. "I am not going to allow the people of Dubrovnik to spend their lives in cellars," he told reporters.

Huge military columns are heading south along the coast road from Split; on Tuesday we saw more than 50 trucks, at least 10 towing guns or heavy mortars. The materiel never reached Dubrovnik, prompting speculation that the column turned east towards the Bosnian border near the town of Neum.

UN officials in the region have no access to the border, but seem in no doubt of Zagreb's plans. "The only intention of the Croat side is to make Dubrovnik safe. I think they have to do it," said one.

Last week ,the UN issued unconfirmed reports that civilians had been evacuated from Trebinje, the first hint of a Croatian offensive to come.

Before the war, Barbara took tourists sightseeing in the town. "We used to look at the mosques - there was one from the 14th century in Trebinje, it was very special," she said.

She did not think there were many inhabitants left - "They pushed out all the Muslims" - and she hopes the same fate will now befall the Serbs, and that Dubrovnik will ring again to the sound of foreign voices and Croatian cash registers.