Wars used to be satellite-transmitted images of far-off lands, fantastic landscapes and exotic peoples. That is until last year, when one of Europe's favourite holiday destinations collapsed in an orgy of violence. The shot-up place names and the countryside began to look familiar, the bodies on the streets were wearing recognisable labels and the key battles were being fought less than 100 miles from the Austrian border.

But while a war around the corner may frighten many, for those with a morbid sense of curiosity or just looking for excitement, such an accessible war in what was Yugoslavia is the chance of a lifetime.

The cheap youth hostels and hotels in Zagreb are home to what can only be dubbed war-spotters in transit. They perch with their rucksacks on bunk beds exchanging stories of how close they got to the war, with copies of Europe on a Shoestring next to them, now hopelessly out of date.

The aim of war-spotting seems, ideally, to see a puff of gunsmoke or a mortar shell land, and then return to Zagreb to exaggerate to other war-spotters. Encountering road blocks or visiting villages razed to the ground is a less macho option. But, above all, the appeal is that something unexpected might happen.

'We are here for the adventure and the unknown,' said Laurent, a 24-year-old French law student travelling in Croatia with his friend Bernard. Like most war-spotters they only admitted this in private, preferring to pretend that their motives were more intellectual. 'The French press is leftwing and we came to see the truth and what is really happening here,' said Bernard, a parliamentary candidate for the French National Front and a quality-control officer for a perfume company. He added that he thought France might look like war-torn ex-Yugoslavia in 10 years' time.

Laurent and Bernard had driven non-stop from their home town just outside Paris to Zagreb, as they had to be back in time to vote 'no' to the Maastricht treaty on 20 September. After a day in Zagreb they crossed the mountains to Rjeka, a small port at the beginning of the Adriatic coast road where, for pounds 6, they left their car in a supervised car park for three days.

From there they headed south by bus. For pounds 5, war-spotters can get a ticket which will take them from Rjeka to Zadar, a coastal city still partly surrounded by Serb positions. The front line is just 2km from the bus station .

Laurent was surprised that Zagreb did not have more signs of the war, but Zagreb was only under attack for a few weeks and there was no attempt to take the city. The distinctive blue berets of the United Nations Protection Force in the cafes are indeed the only sign of the crisis but, as any tourist in transit from Venice to Budapest could get off the train and see them, war-spotters give UN soldiers little value.

'I expect Zadar will be just like Zagreb, with a few soldiers but no sign of the war,' said Laurent during the five-hour bus ride along the beautiful coast road, not knowing the situation in Zadar.

But he and Bernard became increasingly quiet on the way, after seeing the first distance marker to Zadar riddled with bullet holes. The bus left the main road and took a ferry to avoid a bridge that had been blown up, explained a Frenchman on his way to rejoin his Croatian wife. But even if the bridge had still been there, the bus would have taken the detour because the 'Chetniks' were just a bit farther down the road, he added. From then on, the French war-spotters barely muttered a syllable until they got to Zadar.

War-spotters do not consider theirs a risky pastime. 'It is not dangerous if you are careful and take precautions,' said Laurent. But whatever precautions they were taking seemed very vague.

Laurent and Bernard had not heard the news for four days. They did not know Zadar was still partly surrounded and believed that if a public bus went into a town then it was obviously safe. (Buses still run to Sarajevo.) Arriving at 10 o'clock that night, they had not thought about where they would stay and had seemingly never heard of bartering, a way of life everywhere east of Germany.

Once in the town, travel to the front itself posed few problems. If you could not get a taxi, you walked. Orientation in Zadar was simple: you kept the sea behind you and went in a straight line. In many places, Croatian soldiers manned roadblocks to stop civilians walking right up to the front, but not always. A Western passport is often as valuable as an official press pass in negotiations.

The two Frenchmen finished up in a position of which many war-spotters would be envious - sitting in a half blown-up house looking across no man's land to the Serb emplacements a few hundred metres away. On the ground outside they picked up enough spent cartridges to give to everyone they knew back home. There had not been any daytime shooting for two months, but a soldier warning them not to walk so slowly because they were in a sniper's line of fire would make a great story to tell their grandchildren.

'I was surprised the war was so close,' said Laurent, returning to Zadar to get the bus back to Rjeka. 'There was nothing in the French news about the war being over here.' Bernard, however, claimed the front line was exactly what he had expected and that he had not been at all frightened. 'You cannot be frightened of something you don't know,' added Laurent.

It was the truest comment to come from any of the war-spotters' lips. Most are young men, between 22 and 28, single and bound to an uninspiring job. A couple had been fired at with blanks while doing national service, but none had ever seen a war before and floated through the whole area as if immortal. Although no one spelt it out, their eyes told the truth that they were desperately hoping they would be involved in a drama, maybe even become famous through it.

Young men are not the only people attracted to war-spotting. A Mexican and a Californian, both in their mid-fifties, had taken a detour from their European route to see at least a few bombed-out buildings. They had been on a two-month rail pass and were travelling in Italy when they noticed their tickets were still valid for former Yugoslavia.

Rather than go to the front line, they satisfied their curiosity by taking a one-hour trip from Zagreb to Karlovac, a city that bears the scars of war and where all the soldiers are still armed.

Laurent and Bernard had saved up pounds 200 each for the trip, the first foreign holiday Laurent had taken in three years and a bit of a change from his usual family break in Spain.

The Frenchmen's budget was small compared with that of one young New Zealander. He had come solely because of the war, leaving his return date open. 'I wanted to see what it's like,' he said. He did not intend to leave until the end of November. An Egyptian and an Argentine added to the list of international war-spotters passing through one hostel in just two days towards the end of the holiday season.

After their experiences on the front line, Bernard and Laurent abandoned their plans to visit Dubrovnik and headed back to France. An earlier comment that they would try to go to as many conflicts as possible in the future appeared to be under review by Laurent, at least. But they planned to tell their friends about their trip. If the war lasts until the university winter holidays, the delegation of war-spotters may soon outnumber the UN or EC personnel.

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