Serb Gunners View Sarajevo Differently; Besieging Militiamen Fear and Concede Little

The Washington Post
September 3, 1992

LUKAVICA, Bosnia – From a sandbagged Serb machine-gun nest on a wooded mountainside here, the view of Sarajevo — and of the war in Bosnia — is different from that within the ruined, besieged city below.

Although the people of Sarajevo live in daily terror of sniper and artillery fire from these hills, there was no fear in the bunker commanded by a paunchy Serb militiaman named Dragisa. With the city spread like a map below them, Dragisa and his men lounged in the sunshine near their post this afternoon. They seemed happy to talk with visitors who broke the tedium of waiting for something to happen.

Why, if his men were defenders rather than aggressors, did they not stay in their protected nest? Dragisa laughed. “We are on our lunch break,” he said. “Do you want anything to drink? All we have is wine.”

Dragisa’s post showed no sign of having been hit by gunfire of any sort from the Slavic Muslim-led forces defending the city below. Serb positions in the mountains ringing Sarajevo have been hit only occasionally by Muslim shellfire and are mostly out of range of small-arms fire from the city.

Still, Dragisa had a simple explanation of why he pumps four-inch-long bullets into the wrecked city. “We only fire for defensive reasons,” he said.

Dragisa’s Browning .50-caliber machine gun pokes out of the forest about 1,000 yards from the besieged city, with a clear view of cars and civilians scurrying along its streets below. Dragisa’s weapon is not the precise, selective weapon of a traditional sniper, but such powerful arms and other implements of overkill — including antiaircraft guns — have become common sniping tools around Sarajevo since the siege began last spring.

The Sarajevo Holiday Inn is directly beneath, shell holes and shattered windows clearly visible. As the only functioning hotel in Sarajevo, it is where foreign journalists stay. It is also a frequent target of mortar and machine-gun fire, most of which is believed to come from hilltop positions like Dragisa’s.

Under terms of a new accord, leaders of Bosnia’s Serb nationalist faction put some of their hillside artillery under U.N. supervision today. The Muslim-led Bosnian government is doing the same with its heavy weapons around Sarajevo, but each side is allowed to open fire if they are attacked. Serbs and Muslims each believe the other side will break the accord by firing from undisclosed artillery positions.

Bosnian Serb politicians seem increasingly amenable to such accords, perhaps as a prelude to swapping some of the 70 percent of Bosnia they now control for a peace that legitimizes most of their gains. They ordered a pullback from militia positions around the besieged Muslim city of Gorazde last week, but that withdrawal has infuriated Serb combatants like Dragisa, who opposes any concessions to the Muslims.

According to Col. Komnen Zarkovic, a liaison officer between Serb forces and the U.N. humanitarian aid mission here, the Muslims must lay down their weapons and accept whatever territory the Serbs choose to give them. Bosnia’s Muslims — the republic’s largest communal group — now control about 15 percent of its territory, while militia forces representing the republic’s Croat minority control what is left.

“We’ll make it possible for the Muslims to have a nice country, but we will give it to them as a present,” Zarkovic said. Dragisa concurred, declaring that if the Muslims were not stopped, they would set up a fundamentalist Islamic state in Bosnia, like that of Iran.

Dragisa denied any suggestion that his hidden outpost is enforcing a brutal siege of Sarajevo’s 400,000 frightened, underfed civilians. Instead, he and his comrades portrayed themselves as a front-line defense against “jihad fighters” who seek to surge out of Sarajevo and slaughter every Serb in sight. Western diplomats have branded such notions as absurd. They point that there is no evidence of a militant religious movement among Bosnia’s Muslims, whose culture has been predominantly secular for generations. But evidence or no, the Serbs in the Sarajevo hills seem convinced of the Islamic menace.

On this sunny afternoon, no enemies tried to storm Dragisa’s mountainside. The sounds of mortar and rifle fire all seemed to come from Serb positions spaced every few hundred yards along a twisting mountain road above Sarajevo. Boxes of ammunition were heaped alongside the road, and mortars and machine guns were pointed downhill.

Dragisa showed off his nest like a real-estate broker giving a tour of a house for sale. He went into the bunker and knelt next to the Browning, which was surrounded by spent rounds. He sprang open a box of ammunition and displayed coils of bullets, running them through his fingers like rosary beads.

Firing guns is no big deal up here. One of Dragisa’s squad members popped a few automatic rifle rounds into the air for no particular reason, and another offered to fire a demonstration burst from the Browning. Nearby, a musical sniper popped off a dozen rounds timed to the beat of a popular tune.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.