Nothing moves for me down there in Sarajevo, because my view is also the sniper's view

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The Independent Online
The Bosnian lines were 200 yards down the mountain. From the Serbian dug-out, I could see them: sandbags zig-zagging through a row of trees. It was a quiet time. A sniper's rifle cracked occasionally nearby, and from Mount Igman, a grey- blue silhouette on the horizon, came the distant thump of guns. The Serb soldiers took me a few yards further down their breastworks, and warned me not to look over them for too long.

And there below is Sarajevo, spread out along the floor of the valley, open to the sky and the guns. In the coppery afternoon light, everything can be seen but everything seems motionless, abandoned, as if - after gas, electricity and water - time itself had been cut off. Palaces throw their rectangles of shadow, long boulevards are blank, plazas and squares and the quays beside the river are as still and geometrical as an architect's drawing. The stadium can be seen. Beside it is a park dotted with small shining flecks: these are fresh graves.

The huge hills around the city, dark with forest, are in the hands of the enemy. From up there comes sometimes a glint from the windscreen of a moving vehicle. But in Sarajevo, where I know 300,000 people are alive, nothing moves. Nothing moves for me, because my view is also the sniper's view: no car, not a curl of smoke.

Down there, a Muslim woman wrote a letter to a missing friend, a Bosnian Serb. 'Dear Milan, how are you? Did you get back safely to your village, and do you have enough food there? Here it is terrible. Dzavid and Nedzad were killed. We others think of the good times we used to have together. When will this madness be over, so that we can all meet again as we used to? . . . I worry about you and think of you a lot, and I pray that you are safe. Yours, Mirsada.'

After many weeks, through the tortuous channels of the United Nations, this letter reached Milan. I know this because he is standing in front of me, showing me the letter. Milan is not in his village, but on the Serbian front line in uniform. Mirsada cannot know that he is close to her, looking down at her street from behind a German heavy machine-gun trained on her city. And she cannot know that Milan has turned into a different person.

When Raul Hilberg wrote his history of the Holocaust, he described the evolution of Christian attitudes to Jews in three stages: 'Hilberg's Steps'. They go like this: 'You shall not live among us as Jews. You shall not live among us. You shall not live.' I spent a quiet siege afternoon talking to four Bosnian Serb soldiers in their positions on Trebevic mountain above Sarajevo, asking them what they hoped for and what they were fighting for. And I found they were taking me down Hilberg's Steps.

Milan was a gas-stove mechanic when he lived in the city. The others were a middle-aged factory worker, the manager of a Sarajevo furniture showroom and a butcher's boy.

'Those Muslims have no culture of their own, no alphabet, no language of their own,' said Milan. 'They don't exist.' I said: 'But they are Serbs like you, who only changed their religion.' Milan replied: 'So they changed it, so they must change it back again.' They shall not live among us as Muslims. We had descended the first step.

The shop manager said: 'We can't live with them any more. Not after so much blood. Alongside, but not with.' The other soldiers wanted a wall built in the city - 'with guards on the top'. 'They can have their own bit of Sarajevo round the mosque, and be kept inside it. The rest is Serbian.' And with that we had gone down the second step. They shall not live among us.

Under the gullible noses of the 'international community', Radovan Karadzic is waving an alluring proposal: the Muslims should keep the city of Sarajevo, and the Bosnian Serbs will build a new city of their own alongside it, based on the suburbs they hold already. The soldiers think nothing of that. 'New Sarajevo? I have been building the city in my own way for 40 years, and if I thought I was not going to get back to my own flat, what am I fighting for? I would stop fighting and go away]'

Overhead, two Nato fighter- bombers from Italy rumbled across the sky, futile as paper darts. 'They can't harm us. We will shoot them down. Anyway, if they bomb us, we will destroy Sarajevo instantly. The Americans - everyone knows they parachuted weapons to the Muslims on Mount Bjelasnica and Mount Igman, and other places, too.'

The soldiers want to know which side the British people are on. They think Serbia still has friends: Russia, Greece, the Orthodox world. They know the British government is against them, but what about the people? I say that the British, from wartime memories, once liked the Serbs, had doubts about the Croats but knew little about the Bosnian Muslims. Now they back the Muslims against the Serbs. 'So they don't know much about the Muslims?' says Milan, once the friend of Mirsada. 'They don't have to worry, because after this war there will be no more Muslims.' We have taken the third and final step. They shall not live.

I WENT down to Sarajevo, where, wedged in the middle of the city, there is still an enclave held by Bosnian Serbs. Grbavica is a few dozen battered streets enfiladed on three sides by the Bosnian government forces. It is a horrible place; filthy, claustrophobic, starving, where some 8,000 civilians are hanging on - about one in five of them Muslims. A steep, sniper-tormented track connects Grbavica to Serb- held territory in the hills above, but little more than military supplies come down it. The place is still connected to Sarajevo's water and electricity, which meant no water on the day I was there and current for only a few hours a day.

The world thinks these people are on Sarajevo's winning side. But they are losers, too. The younger people run when they cross the streets covered by snipers; the old shamble across indifferently. They could leave, but they would only become part of the immense flotsam of Bosnia's refugees. They stay because they have nothing left in the world except their bullet-scarred homes.

At midday, they crowd together to get their one meal of the day. Food is brought in by UN armoured cars. On Friday, it was two pints of rice soup, boiled in water with a few greasy drops of vegetable oil, collected after queueing for three hours. Today it will be sugared rice cooked in milk - a Sunday treat. They say they have not seen meat since the war began. But in this half-ruined ghetto there are still traders selling food for terrible prices. One young schoolmaster told me his salary: 57 million inflated Bosnian-Serb dinars a month. With that - all of it - he could buy four watermelons. It helps to look at men's belts, to measure up the distance between the well-worn pre-war hole and the new one. Six inches is the war's average register. To have lost four stone is common.

There are still children here, although most have been evacuated. They stay because their parents stay. But their minds are still free. I talked to a crowd of schoolchildren: laughing, inquisitive, they said at once that they longed for their old, undivided Sarajevo again and for their Muslim friends. 'Will you take a message across to my friend Sanjib?' asked a boy. After curfew, they watch videos when the power is on, read books and dream of ice-cream.

There was one bumptious green- eyed small boy, about nine years old. 'Yeah, when the war's over we will be playing soldiers again but with real guns]' he shouted. At first, he seemed merely a pest. Then I realised he was in trouble. As I turned away, he followed, and there were tears in the green eyes. 'People will keep their guns even after the war,' he said, 'because the war will never be over. Please, I want to go away from here now, right now, forever . . .'

On the other bank of the Drina

Three girls are dancing a reel . . .

EARLIER on the journey, crossing the river from Serbia into Bosnia, I remembered that old song about the three sisters choosing between pearls, gold and a lover. Then came a rattle of shots, and past the end of the bridge drove a Chetnik convoy: the lead truck crammed with roaring boys waving their black skull and crossbones flag, the lorries behind them mounted with field guns in rusty home-made turrets. The convoy swayed off, with its victory screams and volleys, and revealed behind it - facing Serbia across the Drina - a cemetery with row upon row of new, raw Serbian graves.

This is also a Serbian tragedy. It is hard to remember that, when you see what the roaring boys have done to the Muslim villages: the blackened, gutted houses, some disembowelled by tank shells, some burnt out with charred mattresses spilling off their balconies, the broken walls painted with slogans of hate and triumph. But the Bosnian-Serbs, too, are victims of the war planned by Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic.

They are being sucked down a vortex of helplessness, maddened by loss and displacement, their sense of reality broken by insane hyperinflation. The more they suffer, the more blindly they believe every lie pumped out by their leaders. On this stinking culture of misery, the monsters driving the Serbian people down into disaster feed and breed. A Serb refugee woman picked up on the road said: 'If I could find who is responsible, I would kill him. Serbia's enemies will be punished for their wickedness.' But she is already being punished, and Serbia's real enemies are at home.

(Photograph omitted)