Soldiers tell of the pain of parting

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The Independent Online
Belgrade - The last contingent of UN troops to leave Gorazde had 20 minutes' notice to move. The soldiers, 77 of them British, left the Bosnian enclave on Monday night a few hours after the attack on the Sarajevo market, removing at least one obstacle - fear of Serbs taking them hostage - to the use of Nato force in Bosnia, writes Emma Daly.

"We went one minute from playing cards and discussing what we were going to do that night, then we got the order and 20 minutes later we were off," said Frank, a Royal Engineer who spent more than three months in Gorazde. Neither he nor his comrade Dave knew why their departure had been advanced by 24 hours - it was only when they reached Belgrade that they learnt of the deaths of 37 people in Sarajevo.

The safe arrival in Belgrade of the last group of Royal Welch Fusiliers and Royal Engineers cleared the way if necessary for Nato jets or the heavy guns of the Rapid Reaction Force to avenge the Bosnian Serb attack on Sarajevo.

But it leaves the people of Gorazde standing alone in the event of a Bosnian Serb offensive with only the promises of Nato action as protection. "The saddest thing as we were leaving was the little kids begging us to take them with us," Dave said."I think the people there must be bitterly disappointed," said Frank. "Especially after the UN said Gorazde would be the last stand," Dave added.

Despite fears that terrified civilians would try to stop the pull-out, the Britons left unhindered. "The journey in took six days," said Dave. "The Serbs wanted us out quicker than they wanted us in." The two said they would happily return. "It was excellent," Frank said. "I had a great time, I really enjoyed myself out there."

Much of their work involved building fortifications and repairing the camp fence - damaged in many attempted break-ins - but occasionally there were more rewarding jobs such as enlarging the river pool where locals swam when the Serb snipers were quiet.

Although their departure was earlier than planned, the men had prepared for withdrawal, destroying equipment they could not remove. "Any vehicles left behind got blown up and trashed," Frank said.

They clearly regretted leaving, despite their fears that the UN presence in Gorazde merely postponed its inevitable fall to the Bosnian Serbs. "The thing that sticks in my mind about Gorazde is that if you are going to pull out, all that work is wasted," Dave said sadly.