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.

There is no clearer illustration of the impotence and irrationality of the UN’s strategy in Bosnia than their failure to intervene in the struggle for Otes. They could manage only hand-wringing objections. Worse still, for safety reasons they had to abandon the delivery of humanitarian supplies while the two sides slugged it out. Relief planes were shot at, the airport was closed and Serb tanks started to use delivery routes as firing platform. By taking Otes the Serbs shifted their front line nearer the west of Sarajevo, strengthening their enclave in Ilidza and securing their winter supply lines. The Serbian advance blocked all chance of the siege of the city being broken from within and reconfirmed their intention to go for slow strangulation. At painful UN-brokered negotiations they had promised to agree to the demilitarisation of the city area and the establishment of safe corridors for the free passage of civilians – in other words, promised to lift the siege. This glaring disparity between word and deed underlined the credulity of senior members of the UN forces.

In the summer the announcement of a ceasefire was usually a signal for the fighting to intensify. General Mackenzie, the then commander of UN troops in Sarajevo, would complain bitterly about both sides’ hypocritical invocation of the ceasefire mantra and journalists would reach for their flak-jackets on each declaration of the laying down of arms and resumption of eternal brotherhood. Things have improved slightly since then, but ceasefires remain part of the strategy of the war, not its conclusion.

The ceasefire signed in early November was the first agreed by military leaders and the first that applied to the whole Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, not just to its capital. The United Nations negotiators were pleased with their success. General Philippe Morillon, the Bosnian UNPROFOR force commander, needed the accord much more than its signatories did. He had just installed a new force of 7000 UN-mandated troops across Bosnia to secure aid deliveries, and needed a political success to shine light on his logistical achievement. The UN succumbed to the illusion that they had everything under control. General Morillon took off his flak-jacket, put on his dress uniform, called the press together and told us the war was over.

Although Sarajevo remained relatively quiet for two weeks, warfare continued elsewhere – in less press-intensive areas. That the ceasefire was generally deemed to be holding illustrates the effectiveness of the UN public relations offensive. Every report of fighting was rosily recast as a minor ceasefire infraction until the illusion fell apart during the fighting for Otes. A point no doubt vividly brought home to Morillon when his plane was hit by six bullets while taking off from Sarajevo airport.

For the Serbs the ceasefire meant time to regroup. They also benefited considerably from the wishful thinking of UNPROFOR’s public-relations machine, almost becoming, by the warped logic of the region, models of restraint. This was not unnoticed by the Bosnian forces loyal to the Presidency. They know that ceasefires do not lift the siege of Sarajevo and that, unlike the Serbs, they have little to gain from them militarily. They also believe that by taking the Serbian negotiating stance at face value the UN bears some responsibility for Serb aggression. The Bosnians see ceasefires as UN placebos that do not interfere with the real progress of the war: they are distractions that save lives in the short term but condemn the Bosnians to slower tonus of extinction. The 19th ceasefire was signed on 13 December: the Bosnian Army’s representative. Colonel Siber, promptly dismissed it as an irrelevance.

The Bosnians now believe that any UN negotiation involves unacceptable compromise, as well as an abandonment of the moral high ground – a descent into reality from the lofty peaks of heroic martyrdom. They believe that the West privately wishes to shut down the Yugoslav conflict in a way that won’t make it too obvious that they have acquiesced in the conquest of a Central European nation-state by – as the Bosnians see them – these bearded rapists with furry hats. This is confirmed, they believe, by the UN’s preventative deployment of a peacekeeping force in Macedonia: achieving there what they failed to do in Bosnia. The overall commander of UNPROFOR, General Nambiar, has publicly admitted that the UN should have conducted affairs differently. A series of minimalist UN and EC mandates, cumbersome consensual decisions resulting in a lowest common denominator response, have left international reaction puffing and wheezing a long way behind the pace of events. The consequence has been to give the whip hand and between 60 and 70 per cent of Bosnia to the self styled ‘Republika Serbska’. Decent, right-thinking, liberal Western states are left with very little idea about what to do with the mess they have acquiesced in creating. It is rather galling for the Bosnians that the UN has used them as a field laboratory, an experiment in how (not) to intervene in a regional war. It is no comfort to them that the UN has promised to learn from its mistakes.

Which is how I came to spend a rather chilly day on a hill north of Sarajevo watching David, with one hand tied behind his back, tackling Goliath. Having learnt that they cannot rely on the UN to save them, the Bosnian Army were answering back, attacking an advanced Serbian position on the ridge of a hill. They were using an old Russian 70 mm cannon taken from an abandoned Yugoslav Army barracks in the city. The retreating army had chopped the gun barrel in half and an ingenious repair had given it an ugly collar. The Bosnians had recently captured two hundred shells from the Serbs and were now sending them back to their previous owners: but it seemed as if they were only tickling the sides of the well-dug bunker. The Bosnians’ most formidable weapon, a T-55 tank, didn’t make it to the battlefield: its amateur crew drove it off the mountain road and it lay useless, wedged against some pine trees. We were told that it would be suicidal to watch it in action in the forest: acres of smashed tree trunks and torn branches testified to the ferocity of the barrage that could be expected once the tank moved into position.

The Bosnians had been unsuccessfully attacking the same position for four days; they lack everything but manpower and their un-protected troops had been taking heavy casualties. The soldiers who had called in the artillery seemed unconcerned: this activity had given them at least the illusion of progress. They formed a vocal gallery as we watched the distant puffs of smoke, a ragged assembly in cast-off uniforms and boiler-suits, with as many types of weapons as there were men. Their respect for the UNPROFOR troops who feed them was negligible, and with no respect there is no co-operation. Collective hypothermia is setting in and the Bosnians cannot bring themselves to stop fighting long enough to allow UNPROFOR electricity repair missions in – the one-sided struggle is the only thing that gives their lives significance.

The Bosnians have for a long time taken the view that the UN has them in a half-nelson. Before the Geneva conference began on 2 January the threat of a Bosnian attempt to lift the siege was talked up by the UN, because they realised that any such attempt would be as much about throwing off their control as about liberating Sarajevo. The objective was to rein in Bosnian waywardness and to keep them at the negotiating table by signalling that they, rather than the Serbs, would be held responsible if continued combat was used by either side as an excuse to leave the conference room.

The impossibility of military success and the need to negotiate a solution was one of only two points that the UN Secretary-General made in the six hours he spent in Sarajevo, two days before the Geneva talks began. It was a visit intended to reinforce the UN message to the Sarajevan people, in case they were under any illusions about the UN’s support for their cause, but the seriousness of Boutros-Ghali’s intent was promptly undermined by his second point. He told Sarajevo’s combat-weary citizens that they had never had it so good, that there were at least ten worse-off places in the world. All requests for the official UN league table of dreadfulness and the criteria for its compilation have been met with silence. The world’s premier diplomat had travelled to one of the most dangerous and unpleasant places in the world to be suave, arid and unsympathetic. After his tour of the city and a visit to one of the local chambers of horrors, the hospital, he was asked if anything he had seen had changed his opinion. ‘No,’ he answered. He denied the Sarajevans the one thing that sometimes mitigates the awfulness of their lives: the unenviably special place they believe they occupy in the world’s attention. Even the most primitive psychology might have suggested to Mr Boutros-Ghali that nothing was more likely to arouse Bosnian determination to stick to their guns than his statement.

Seemingly serene in the knowledge that the UN was about to propose the de facto effacement of one of his organisation’s members, the Secretary-General kept smiling through the window of his armoured car despite the jeering crowds. Bosnia’s credibility as an internationally-recognised state, which has never been altogether solid, was seriously threatened by the Vance/Owen proposal to divide the country into ten autonomous provinces. The plan of which the proposal was a main part appeared to allow the introduction of ethnic cleansing by the back door. The Serbs after all only play hardball and would be quick to dress themselves in the trappings of nationhood at the slightest suggestion that they might get away with it.

In fact, Cyrus Vance has always opposed international recognition for Bosnia and has adopted an ‘I told you so’ pose about the war. The UN put troops on the ground to protect the local population and have been forced instead to protect themselves against an army with superior firepower. Had the UN troops had bigger weapons to brandish, and been able to meet shellfire with something more than pea-shooters, the Serbs, who only respect the argument of superior strength, might have learnt self-restraint. The failure to protect the Bosnian Vice-Prime Minister, Hakija Turajlic, from assassination is symptomatic of an internal paralysis deriving from the way the UN operation in Bosnia has been established.

Ironically, the argument that you need force to keep the peace is reminiscent of the argument in favour of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War, the death of which gave the UN its recent lease of life as a peacemaker. A further irony in the UN position is shown by the manner in which the Bosnian delegation to the peace talks, paving the way with careful concessions, was able to corner the Serbs by quoting Security Council resolutions at them. Vance and Owen had no choice but to support Bosnian sovereignty, an issue which they had hoped to keep to one side.

Geneva seems very remote to the citizens of Sarajevo, politically and practically. They have no electricity to run their televisions and no batteries to power their radios; the daily newspaper’s print run is 3500 copies. There is nothing except the struggle to stay alive in sub-zero temperatures while queuing for water, or finding a tree to fell for firewood. In the hierarchy of misery the fortunate have chainsaws, the unlucky hack at stumps with chisels. Prosperously dressed middle-aged ladies scrape at the ground trying to fill elegant leather handbags with wood chips. If one day there is military intervention and US war-planes come screaming down the valley to take out the artillery on the ridge, will anyone be left with the spirit to cheer them on?

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