For Bosnian defenders, the front lines are slit trenches in their flower gardens

September 04, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Staff Writer

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- You look through the telescopic sight on the Bosnian sniper rifle and the Serbian flag ,, appears in the cross-hairs, then a bunker among the trees and then a second bunker and the steep stone cliff the position is built on.

"We see soldiers sometimes," says the Bosnian Muslim who owns the gun and sometimes shoots it.

And the snaking, dodging run through the backyards of this little country suburb high above Sarajevo makes it very clear the Serbs can see the soldiers on this side.

In a war in which most of the casualties are people standing in front of grocery stores or at post offices or burying their dead in cemeteries, this is the front line.

The view from here also reveals why the Bosnians are the underdogs and why they want the embargo against arms to them lifted.

Here on the Bosnian side, this front is about three miles of slit trenches and bunkers stretched out among the flower gardens and the vegetable patches and the fruit trees of the city's Grdonj suburb, where about 12,000 people live.

This unit of the Territorial Defense Force, which is what these citizen soldiers are called, is supposed to defend Grdonj.

The bunker we reach is a 6-foot-square dugout with a sandbagged roof, but not sandbagged enough to protect anyone against the weapons the Serbs are supposed to have. The Bosnians say the Serbian position in the telescopic sight has two 82mm mortars, a 20mm anti-aircraft cannon, anti-aircraft machine guns, a 105mm howitzer, a 76mm cannon and a 120mm mortar.

Three defenders man the Bosnian bunker here. They don't seem to have a weapon more powerful than a Kalashnikov submachine gun.

In the only cafe left open in the city down below where the shells land, they say the Bosnian army had three tanks.

"We lost one. It was a national tragedy," someone said.

The Serbian forces are about a thousand yards away, across a valley. Their fire base is on vertical marble promontory called Orlovac, which means "Eagle's Rock." It's one of the places from which the city is shelled. It is said to have three lines of infantry bunkers in front of the fire base.

Eagle's Rock looks hard to assault. The Bosnians say they don't try.

This outfit is commanded by a young major with a smooth unlined face and clear eyes. He is 28 and he looks like he's barely out of his teens. His code name is "Khan."

"Genghis Khan," one of the men says.

Major Khan tries to contain the Serbs and cut their supply lines. He describes a classic ambush with covering machine-gun fire and an assault on a truck to disable it so it blocks the road.

"I can cut the road," he says. "But I can't hold it. There is the big problem of not having ammunition. We don't have enough."

In the city, the confidence and morale of the besieged is amazing. The army and the people believe that they will not only endure but that they will prevail and break the siege by themselves.

Major Khan is famous in Sarajevo because he is a fierce fighter despite his Ricky Nelson good looks. But also, because he began forming a self-defense force called the "Patriotic League" in this suburb before the war began. It's his nucleus.

He used to be an officer in the army of Yugoslavia. But he came over to the Bosnian side before the war started.

"He has a wife and a baby girl 1 year and 2 months old," a translator says. "He doesn't know where they are."

The Bosnian army has some of the qualities of the Israeli Haganah of their War of Independence, the partisan resistance of World War II Yugoslavia and the anarchist brigades of the Spanish Civil War.

The commanders have names like "Khan," "The Italian," "Yuka." They sing songs about these guys: "Sarajevo," "La Brigada." One video equates Sarajevo with Guernica, the city bombed by the Nazis during the Spanish Civil War. The video uses Picasso's famous painting with its screaming, mangled horses.

The men on the other side are called "Arkan's Men," "Martic's Gang from Knin," "The White Eagles."

Major Khan says he's got a real people's army. The men tending the gardens we pass through on the way to the bunkers will man the bunkers in their turn.

Major Khan's command post is in a former seismological survey station dug into the side of a hill. He meets with his local commanders at a table beneath the flag of Bosnia-Herzegovina with its split field of six fleurs-de-lis. A Turkish scimitar hangs from the same hook as the flag. Most of these men are Muslim.

Major Khan commands a remarkable assortment of men. "Dedo," which roughly translates to "Gramps," is a wiry old gent of 63 in a beret packing a very powerful assault rifle with a telescopic sight.

Samir Advic, a 6-foot-8, 25-year-old basketball player, says he turned down a $250,000 contract with an Italian team to come fight with Major Khan.

Forty-five men have been killed on this front. In the city last week, 91 people perished. The places where they died are marked mostly by broken glass.

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