Weary Bihac cries with joy as siege ends

As we pulled into Bihac the hands reached out, the children danced and the old people cried. The three-year siege was over, and we were the final proof.

"Now I see you, my life begins again", said Hojic Mayo, and his words were echoed in every street and from every balcony and window.

The Muslims here appeared emaciated, tired and weather-beaten.They looked like a people who had scraped for food and had constantly run for shelter to escape the shells for those three long years.

And they looked like people who had almost lost all faith in the outside world to relieve their plight, caught between Bosnian Serb and renegade Muslim forces. But, as they stared at us long and hard, the relief began to show on all their faces.

"Welcome ... welcome, we are free", they cried. And within a hour of our arrival they were dreaming of a better future, of being joined to Bosnia and to the world beyond once again.

"Now we have friends all around. We will chase the Serbs far away. We have arms to take Banja Luka", boasted one soldier who had lost two brothers in the fighting.

"The siege is lifted here. Next it will be Sarajevo."

Bihac, the enclave, the pocket, the same area whatever term the Western big powers have chosen to describe this small community, lay quietly yesterday in the deep green folds of a flat valley as we drove down towards it.

Our route had taken us across the still smoking terrain of "liberated" Krajina across the border in Croatia. Since the Croatian forces have recaptured their Serb-occupied territory, the Serb guns over this Muslim town have fallen quiet.

Two days ago the Croatian army linked up at this border checkpoint with the Bosnian forces to end the stranglehold in force since 1991. And our convoy of journalists and Croatian soldiers brought the first civilians to the town since the start of the siege .

As we passed through the last deserted Serb villages on the Croatian side we made our first contact with the Bihac Muslims who were out in desperation looting the food, cutlery and clothing left behind by the Serbs who had fled. They were also looking for arms left behind by the Serb militia that had shelled their town.

Bihac has had few food convoys throughout the three years, only the occasional airlift. The wreckage of the bombing lay all around. Sandbags were piled high against houses and bunkers were dotted on street corners. Half the population seemed to be in military fatigues.

"The Serbs, they have gone up into the hills, far away", said Mithet, a 24-year-old mother leaning over the balcony and staring in confusion at the sight of Westerners tramping along her street.

Slowly, the words stumbled out. The people were still dazed as they tried suddenly to tell the history of the past three years.

"Life has been difficult. There have been a lot of bombs and a lot of dead," said a young mother, standing on a street of empty kiosks, empty shops and rubble.

Cars have almost disappeared from the streets of what was once a relatively prosperous community. There has been nowhere to go and little fuel. The post office yesterday was piled high with sandbags. Almost every telephone line has been cut since 1991 .

Behind us on the road we knew that a large convoy of food and humanitarian aid was following. But the people of Bihac had not seen it yet.

"We went to a kitchen for all the people every day. We have shared out the food and grown our own. We have eaten bread and fruit and a little meat. But look at us. We are so thin," said Makajc Fakira, a 37-year-old mother who says she had not left Bihac for five years. "My brother is dead and many friends in the war, but now you give us hope."

The Muslims of Bihac are now putting their trust in Croatia to ensure their freedom lasts. Their suffering has been intense and memories are short.

Few yesterday recalled fierce Muslim-Croat fighting in Bosnia earlier in the war and few doubted the good intentions towards them now of the Zagreb government.

As the Croatian assault on Krajina began last Friday the people of Bihac huddled around their few radios for news.

"I knew when I heard Knin had fallen that we might be saved," said one woman. But her husband was not so sure. "The war will not be over until all of Bosnia is free," he said.

With our convoy came Croatian soldiers, happy now to show the journalists their achievement in lifting the siege of Bihac, which all the resources of the world had failed to achieve.

The Muslims embraced the Croats as brothers and sisters. A young boy carried a Croatian flag and the Croatian forces were cheered on past.

An old man turned to tell us: "You must tell the world about us now. We thought we were forgotten."