One soldier I met told me that there was an 80 per cent chance of getting killed in Otes. A Bosnian-controlled village in a thin straggle of then unconquered territory on the western fringes of Sarajevo, Otes was a mixture of solid rural homes and once fine, now rundown apartment blocks. We were there for two hours, two days before it fell to the Serbs in early December, and the relentless shower of hot metal gave the soldier’s statistics a deeply personal relevance.
We were there to find out about the noise. Sarajevo is an echo chamber: nobody can tell you where the booms and bangs are coming from and going to, the rattle of machine-gun fire evaporates in unlocatable confusion and unless you happen to be in the street where a grenade lands it might as well be an event in another war. The shelling can be both fiercely local and exasperatingly distant.
In Otes we found the epicentre of the bombardment that was rumbling through the city. I felt like a trench rat that had invited itself to the Battle of the Somme. The Serbs were engaged in total war, not occasional mayhem. Tank shells slammed into the top floors of buildings and rubble and dust poured down onto the residents below. Grenades were landing in patterns along the main street. The bravest people were those who carried the dead from the front line to the makeshift morgue.
The local commander was in a shelter, gloomily screaming orders into his radio, surrounded by men too grief-stricken to fight. The most realistic assessment of the military situation was provided by the 18-year-old commander of an anti-tank unit. ‘Run away,’ he said. We did.
In one of the basements of Otes we met an elderly couple. I saw them again after the village had fallen, in a refuge centre in the city, surrounded by two hundred other futureless people. They had all fled the previous night, stumbling across fields raked with machine-gun fire, wading along a nearly-frozen river. The couple, in their eighties, were too exhausted to cry. They had salvaged the clothes they wore and a walking-stick.
The United Nations had the best view of the fall of Otes, if not the closest. United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) military observers have a position on a prominent hill, where they sit with binoculars and cups of tea, marking every hit on a chart. Their commander told us they had lost count. During the last two days of the battle more than 1500 shells landed each day from weapons of a calibre of 80 mm or above. The devastating effect of anti-aircraft guns used as assault weapons is not taken into account. In the town below, pillars of smoke rose from burning buildings, the low winter sunlight smudging the battlefield with haze. The men on duty seemed ill at ease with their Olympian detachment. They suffer frequent near-misses from stray shells. The military observers are paid for directly by the UN rather than by member governments, as are the troops supporting the humanitarian operation; no money has been found to buy them armoured cars, so they drive soft-skin vehicles into firefights, a practice given up long ago by the rest of the UN.