Battle for North Bosnia `Corridor' Catches Residents in the Crossfire

Civilians are caught in the see-saw battle between Serbs and more numerous but outgunned Bosnian forces - a reporter's notebook

AS I approached the town of Bosanski Brod, a troubling realization began to dawn: The sun was sinking lower in the sky. I would have to drive the shakily held Serb corridor back to Belgrade in the twilight and perhaps into the night.

All around, one of the biggest victory parties was drawing to a close. Machine-gun fire rat-tatted into the late afternoon as Serb soldiers fired into the air and headed away from the town they had captured three days earlier.

They had picked it clean - TV sets, cars, furniture, clothes, food, everything. But buildings stood virtually undamaged as if in a ghost town - unlike surrounding villages that have been burned and blasted. The enemy had surrendered, fleeing in boats across the river into Croatia.

Though the Oct. 6 capture of Bosanski Brod is being touted as a turning point - giving Serbs in Serbia a corridor to Serbs across northern Bosnia and Croatia - the terrifying events of the following hours brought home just how fragile the Serb victory remains.

The "corridor" is in fact a tenuously held stretch of road snaking along northern Bosnia. Keeping an eye on the sinking sun, I drove along it as fast as possible, weaving to avoid potholes and deep tank-tread ruts. The signs of fighting were everywhere, though some houses had hopeful messages painted on the side: "Serb home: Don't touch."

It was all dirt tracks and side-roads - most of the main roads were closed. Serb villages along the way were in a state of siege, with sandbags at basement windows where people sleep at night. They have had no electricity or phone links for six months.

That morning, I had been rattled driving across a narrow bridge near Brcko. Bursts of machine-gun fire exploded around the car as Serbs crouching around the bridge exchanged fire with enemies in the unharvested and rotting corn fields.

Sure enough, as twilight began to fall, soldiers stopped me at the village of Obudovac, about 12 miles west of Brcko. "No passage through - you'll have to wait."

The Serb tanks and heavy guns continued toward Brcko, but I was worried about was what I heard behind: loud thumps and the roar of machine guns coming closer and closer. The battle seemed to be closing in from all sides. I was gripped by a sense of terror and helplessness, the feeling people along the corridor live with constantly.

Suddenly, from behind, a truck emerged flying a Muslim flag, green with a white crescent and star. My worst fears of being caught in a battle, it seemed, had been realized. I regretted taking what in retrospect looked like a stupid risk - if I died, I would be just another name, the 33rd, added to the long list of journalists killed here. But there was to be no battle here: The soldiers turned out to be Serbs celebrating the capture of a Muslim unit. They were firing into the air.

It soon became evident there would be no passage through that evening. I sought refuge for the night. But nobody wanted to take me in. Numbed from the war, they could think only of their own survival from day to day.

"That's my house over there but I don't even sleep there," said one elderly woman, her face lined with worry. "The Croats lob grenades over the river at night. I sleep in a friend's basement with other women."

I parked my car by the walls of the Serb Orthodox church. Soldiers passed by carrying bodies on stretchers. In the cemetery, men and women dressed in black were visiting new graves. A plump, middle-aged woman sat beside a new tombstone where she had placed flowers and lit candles. She rocked back and forth, keening with grief.

"My son, my only son," she wailed into the gathering dark.

Soldiers milled in and out of the church: They at least left their weapons at the door.

I resigned myself to a night in the car, sleeping only intermittently, jolted awake frequently by the sounds of war.

By 8 o'clock the next morning, the news was bad for the Serbs. Muslim and Croat forces had cut the corridor, capturing about two miles of road. A Serb Army spokesman in Banja Luka, Maj. Milovan Milutinovic, later told me Serb families had been captured from three villages up ahead and were being held hostage.

"You'll have to go back - it will be two or three days before we get it back," a soldier told me. "And quite frankly, they're probably going to push back to here and beyond."

"I really don't care when it opens up again," another soldier said. "I've been fighting for a month. I was in Bosanski Brod and they wanted me to go out again last night. I'm sick of war."

But his commanders are not. Soldiers along the "corridor" said they were under instructions to press ahead with the offensive to secure the region and "bring all Serbs together." They appeared well-organized and well-supplied.

While negotiations go on in Geneva about concessions and peace plans, the Serb policy on the ground is quite the opposite. The no-fly zone over Bosnia declared by the United Nations was being ignored: As I drove back in the direction of Banja Luka, I saw five jets and a helicopter. Bosnian leaders accused the Serbs that day of attacking the towns of Gradacac and Brcko - the area through which the corridor had been cut.

Serb leaders deny it, but air attacks are an effective way to reverse the defeat and reopen the vital corridor. The Serb superiority is in weaponry alone; Bosnia's Muslim and Croat defenders have superior numbers but are engaged in a David and Goliath fight because of their lack of equipment.

On the day I drove along the corridor, David had scored a victory and won a battle. But Goliath - for now - is still winning the war.

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