What peace? What future?

As I leave Bosnia, the terrifying, compelling country in which I have lived for more than two years, the front lines are quiet. The no man's land between the armies has been neutered by Nato forces, the mines removed, the weapons withdrawn, the snipers sentpacking. The only conflict comes in occasional clashes between angry mobs attempting to prevent the return of refugees from the other side.

Yet I leave with a fear that my time in Bosnia will have been defined by the treacherous book-ends of false hope.

When I arrived in Sarajevo in February 1994, the city was unusually quiet. Nato had imposed its first ultimatum and the Bosnian Serb besiegers, slowly and grudgingly, withdrew their heavy guns.

Washington was forcing a shotgun marriage on the Bosnian government and the Bosnian Croat militia. The fighting in Mostar ended, liberating more than 40,000 Muslims. Croats in Caplina turned out to prevent - for the first time - the expulsion by thugs of their elderly Muslim neighbours. Gradually, grudgingly, Sarajevo and Zagreb forged an alliance aimed at the common enemy: Radovan Karadzic and the Bosnian Serb army.

The people of central Bosniaslowly began to rebuild their lives, although for most this did not include a return to cordial relations with "the other", Muslim or Croat. But the agreement gave the international community some hope of resolving the main conflict with the Bosnian Serbs.

Pressure was applied to President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, patron of the war. He appeared to succumb, ordering Mr Karadzic to accept the latest peace plan and imposing a blockade along the Drina river, separating Serbia proper from his clients' gains in Bosnia. (It emerged late in 1995 that Belgrade continued to supply the Bosnian Serbs with fuel and military supplies for a year.)

Spring brought some hope to Sarajevo, and people began to relax. There was a curious side-effect: as the struggle to survive eased, people gave in to depression. Without the fight for life, they had nothing to distract them from the contemplation of a hopeless future.

The respite was short-lived. In April, the Serbs bombarded the enclave of Gorazde. The UN commander, Lt-Gen Sir Michael Rose, played down the situation and his civilian boss, Yasushi Akashi, refused requests for air power in support of trapped UN troops. The crisis ended with a familiar fudge: the Serbs called off the attack but took up positions almost on the edge of the city. Like Sarajevo, Gorazde had been designated a "UN safe area".

The foreign press hounded the UN about Serb cheating in the weapons-exclusion zones around Sarajevo and Gorazde; Gen Rose denied the stories. Eventually, the Nato ultimatum collapsed and the Serbs resumed their shelling of the city.

I visited Pale, Mr Karadzic's ski-resort "capital" only 10 miles from Sarajevo. I liked most of the Serbs I met, but was saddened that so many of those who offered friendship and hospitality to foreigners had been indoctrinated with hatred against their compatriots.

In Sarajevo, I met Aida One and Aida Two - the former a croupier-turned- soldier-turned-journalist, a Muslim divorced from a Serb, the latter a Muslim student who worked as a translator - and Anja, a mix of Serb and Croat, who said she would rather stay a doctor in Sarajevo than be a waitress in Toronto. They never complained about their privations, but they were not optimistic.

By the spring of 1995 Sarajevo was back to square one: under fire and without water, gas or electricity. The Bosnian Army made a vain attempt to break the siege, and the city rang to the crack of mortar fire and the thunder of improvised 500lb air bombs lobbed in by the Serbs.

I met the parents of Maja Djokic, dignified in their grief and determined not to succumb to hatred. I saw her, 17, blonde, angelic, her cheek smeared with blood, her jeans reddened where the fatal sliver of shrapnel had entered her body. Bosnian Serb TV news, in a display even more disgusting than usual, claimed Maja had been gang-raped and murdered by Bosnian Muslims while trying to "escape" to Serb-held Sarajevo. Maja Djokic, they thought, was obviously a Serb name.

But Maja was killed by a Serb shell as she walked home from volleyball practice; she was the child of generations of mixed marriages between Serbs, Muslims, Croats and Jews. Her death was "nothing extraordinary", her father said. We would not have come had it not been for the Serbs' loathsome lies, he said. He was right.

By now, the football field was a swath of brown: wooden markers and earthen graves. There were air strikes, so the Serbs took the UN hostage and the shelling continued. It was a time of fear and horror, of a sense of the end. We cannot survive another winter, peoplesaid. The Serbs crashed through the enclave of Srebrenica, expelling thousands of women and children and rounding up their men.

On 4 August Croatia launched Operation Storm, and powered through Serb- held Krajina, expelling tens of thousands of native Serbs and killing dozens who remained. The story of Srebrenica emerged: it seems that at least 6,000 Srebrenica men were driven to execution sites and buried in mass graves. The UN commander, Lt-Gen Rupert Smith, took his revenge in August, when the Serbs fired a shell that killed dozens of shoppers near Sarajevo's market, by launching a massive Nato air campaign. The Bosnian army began to move against its weakened enemies in the north-west.

Everyone was excited; even those who still believed in a shared life knew that the Serb statelet must first be defeated. Pale was cowed and a ceasefire agreed. The politicians flew to Dayton and the locals gathered before CNN to learn their fate. When the deal was signed, they breathed a sigh of relief, tempered by cynicism. There were no celebrations - while Dayton meant the absence of war, it said little about how Bosnia should operate, or could survive.

The water and electricitywere restored and cafes began to open in time for Christmas and New Year. For a couple of weeks, everyone was happy.

Doubts set in once again as all began to realise that Dayton had only been agreed because it seemed to offer different answers to different interrogators. In theory, it requires a united, multi-ethnic Bosnia; in practice, it splits the country into ethnic cantons. It allows no voice to the thousands of mixed heritage. Under the political structure set up for the September elections, ethnic quotas have been set for MPs. Aida One is supposed to vote for a Muslim, her ex-husband for a Serb. Should he do so, he will have to vote for a candidate on what he thinks of as the enemy side. Dayton did not answer the central question: one Bosnia or more?

On the terrace at Aida Two's house, with a view of the hills that resounded last summer to the crash of shellfire, war seemed far off. "It cannot happen here again," said her sister and mother. "Maybe it can," replied Aida and her father.

Not while the troops of Nato remain. But everyone knows that this is just a well-policed ceasefire, that neither the Serb leadership nor the Bosnian Croats have surrendered hopes of partition. Yet most of the country's people could live with a loose republic. Most are concerned with the normal aspirations: a job, a house, a holiday, a safe environment for their children.

If we were to cut the head off the Bosnian Serb snake by arresting Mr Karadzic; if we suppressed once and for all Croatia's ambitions in Bosnia; if we crushed the autocratic tendencies in Bosnia's ruling party, we might yet secure a peaceful future for the people who have been so damaged by the war.

If we don't, there will be another war and an even greater exodus. For as all my Sarajevan friends agree: We cannot go through this again.