Sarajevo snipers increasingly take aim at civilians

March 19, 1993|By Paul Quinn-Judge | Paul Quinn-Judge,Boston Globe

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- A bearded man holding a child by the hand suddenly bars the way as two people prepare to make the final -- to their destination in central Sarajevo.

Usually safety comes after a headlong sprint up a flight of steps, half leaping and half stumbling over the broken roadway of a once-pretty avenue. This week it wasn't enough.

"You can't go down there just now; it's been terrible all morning," the bearded man says urgently.

"Snipers."

Groups of people huddle in doorways, waiting for a lull when they can run to home, office or shops.

In two days earlier this week -- marking the reconvening of peace talks in New York, people here say ironically -- sniping in the center of Sarajevo has intensified.

Bosnian radio Wednesday said that the sniping has been the worst since the start of the war a year ago and warned residents to expect more bad times in the days ahead.

The Serbs shell the city regularly, but the snipers bring an extra dimension of misery: the feeling that they can see you wherever you are, that as soon as you go onto the streets you take your life in your hands.

Firing from a comfortable range, sometimes less than 100 yards, the snipers seem to have most of the city's main streets in their sights. They aim for civilians, says Dragan Vikic, commander of Sarajevo's special police unit.

"They probably think the world will pay less attention if they use snipers instead of howitzers," Mr. Vikic says. "They're not professionals, they're animals."

The wounds inflicted are terrible.

"The entry wound is usually small, but the bullet often disintegrates inside the body, creating a funnel effect, gouging out soft tissue and bone and creating a large exit wound," explains Dr. Faris Gavarankapetanovic, a surgeon at Sarajevo's Kosevo hospital.

Most don't survive. "When a sniper gets you in his sights, it means you're probably about to die," said Dr. Gavarankapetanovic.

One of Mr. Vikic's anti-sniper specialists, 25-year-old Ferid Paldum, can barely contain his bitterness as he speaks.

"We need heavy weapons to fight against people who fire on women and children," he says. But the West's arms embargo prevents Bosnia from buying what it needs, he said angrily.

Another unit member, 22-year-old Mustafa Shahinagic, was more relaxed. "We are fighting former friends, and very well-armed ones at that," he said. "We have to be artists in our fight -- to make do with very little."

Most of the sniping comes from two Serbian-occupied districts just across the river from the center of Sarajevo. The gunmen have the advantage of height -- tall buildings on the foothills that rise quickly to the mountains around the city.

They also have a variety of weapons -- not just the delicate, long-barreled sniper's rifle, but a light machine gun with special sights and a range of 1,500 yards, as well as anti-aircraft guns, which, when given new sights and turned on the city streets, are a terrifying weapon.

A good sniper can kill a standing target with a single bullet to the head at up to 250 yards, Mr. Vikic says. With some of the weapons at their disposal, the Serbs can bring down a victim with a shot to the body at 700 yards.

During the last year, Serbian snipers have refined their killing tactics.

They fire from well inside a room, so there is no telltale barrel sticking out of a window.

They look for a side room in a building or apartment, making it even harder for an observer to pinpoint them.

A shot's echo among high-rises further complicates the location of gunmen, Mr. Shahinagic said. Anti-sniper teams set up lookout posts around the city. They rely on good binoculars -- which are in short supply -- and when they pinpoint a sniper they use one of their own sharpshooters to kill him.

Some of the best counter-snipers were crack shots on the Yugoslav rifle teams as civilians.

Founded as a counter-terror group in 1982, before the Olympics were held here, Mr. Vikic's 1,000-man unit is considered to be the elite of Sarajevo's defenders.

Mr. Vikic himself, a burly 37-year-old Croat and a third Dan in karate, is friendly even though he makes it clear he thinks his visitor is an intelligence officer.

In his curtained, heavily fortified command post, he showed a visitor a video of his men in prewar counter-terrorism exercises -- mountain climbing, rappelling down the side of buildings, training as frogmen.

He points to the unit members who have been killed in the last year and adds dispassionately, "None of our people have been taken prisoner."

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