Threats give peace a chance in Sarajevo

John Si

THE window of my room at the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo looks out over destruction on the scale of Berlin in 1945 - wrecked buildings, weed-grown streets, piles of rubble. Every window is smashed, every wall pitted with bullet-marks.

In the normal way, people have to run across the open ground there because there is always at least a couple of snipers who have it in their sights. In the past few days several people have been killed or injured there - a journalist going out on a story,a government driver sitting in his car.

The little stuttering run which everyone does is known with the gallows humour of war as the Sarajevo Shuffle; and yet when I looked out of my window this morning no one was doing the Sarajevo Shuffle anymore. They were just walking across the field of fire as though it were any other rubble-strewn stretch of ground, picking there way thoughtfully and with care. There was no crack of sniper fire, and no crash of artillery echoing round the hills above us.

It was something no one has really experienced in this city for 22 months - a peaceful day. The kind of day which you might confidently expect to survive.

The delicate ceasefire, which began on Wednesday, was the product of two things. One was the massacre of 68 people in the open air market, which caused the kind of revulsion and anger across the world which thousands of deaths in Sarajevo previously had not aroused, since they came piecemeal in ones or twos up to a dozen at a time.

The other factor was the arrival of a new United Nations military commander in Sarajevo and a new mood of determination and robustness. Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose is educated, literate and proud of his good French.

''Robustness'' is his word - as he used to command the SAS, it is fair to assume he knows what it means. His definition of robustness is distinctly original for the UN in Sarajevo - he wants to make sure that when one side or the other in this bitter civil war promises to do something, the promise is kept.

This has not been the UN's way of doing things up to now. When, for instance, the Bosnian Serbs established a checkpoint between the army and the city last year, General Rose's predecessor but one, General Morillon, did not point out that this contravened a written undertaking given personally by the Bosnian Serbs' leader, Radovan Karadzic.

Soon the checkpoint was not merely holding up food convoys to the city - it was refusing to allow the UN to bring in supplies of fuel oil.

By July last year, Sarajevo had run out of clean drinking water because the pumps could no longer draw it from the city's wells. In the end, before anyone died of thirst or cholera, an agreement was reached whereby the UN could bring oil in to Sarajevo as long as it gave extra supplies of oil to the Bosnian Serbs; in other words, to their army. The UN's weakness was marked and each of the opposing sides in the war has taken full advantage of it.

It is, as General Rose reminds everyone who interviews him - and he is doing a great many interviews at the moment - still early days. A rebellious commander in the hills, or an angry and humiliated Bosnian Serb government, could easily wreck this fragile peace which has brought the Sarajevo Shuffle to a temporary halt.

And because this is the Balkans and because the mostly Muslim government there is desperate for the West to intervene on its behalf, some kind of provocation from the Muslim side cannot be ruled out. The only real power General Rose has to stop the Serbs shelling and mortaring this city is the Serbs' own belief that if they continue, NATO will launch an air strike against them.

After 22 months of siege, the Western powers seem for the first time to be prepared to do something. For now, at any rate, the Serbs are really nervous. NATO planes fly over the Serbian positions from time to time day and night.

In the mountain village of Pale outside Sarajevo, which the Bosnian Serbs have made the capital of their self-styled government, the bars and restaurants have been ordered to close early. There is a definite air of nervousness and people are ingratiatingly pleasant to Westerners.

I remember the same phenomenon in Baghdad in 1991 in the days immediately before the air war began. It was as though, by being nice to you, people though they might win themselves some special immunity from the bombs and rockets.

Now, on the road to Pale, a Serbian official who had often been curt and unhelpful to me in the past was almost creepily pleasant. As he shook my hand damply, I couldn't resist telling him I hoped he would be safe over the next few days. He looked distinctly rattled. Why, I asked myself, should people up in Pale, from which the siege was controlled, feel secure, when down in Sarajevo itself no one knew who would be killed next? Not, of course, that any of us can be certain whether a NATO air strike will really happen. I tend to think that if it comes to it, the Western powers will be forced to go ahead or be cripplingly humiliated. But I also think that if General Rose can keephis grip on the situation in Sarajevo, air strikes will not be necessary.

As I write this, his policy of ''robustness'' does seem to be working. I watched with a degree of disbelief last Thursday as UN troops made their way up the nastiest and most frightening 50 metres in the whole of Sarajevo: a street that leads from the main east-west road through the middle of the city - we all call it Snipers' Alley - to the Vrbanja Bridge, which for nearly two years has been the front line between the Serbs and the mostly Muslim Bosnian army.

As the blue helmets moved closer to the bridge we walked with them. I was acutely aware of the wrecked building, only 20 metres away, from which the Serbian snipers have habitually operated. Hundreds of people have probably been killed and wounded from its smashed and gaping windows. Yet nothing happened.

The Serbs fired a couple of shots in the air when they got tired of seeing television cameramen filming their positions from close up. We moved back fairly quickly.

Not many people in Sarajevo are allowing themselves to be optimistic - no ceasefire here has ever lasted before. But then NATO has never threatened to bomb the Serbs before, either. But I found myself agreeing with a Bosnian soldier, who could not have been older than 16, and who appeared from a hole in the wall of a shattered building which formed the Muslim front line in this most dangerous of streets.

''When I see the UN standing here between us, I begin to think just maybe there is a reason to be optimistic - just maybe,'' he said.

He was right to put it so uncertainly. Everything now depends on whether the Bosnian Serbs continue to believe that General Rose, and NATO, mean what they say. At the moment, if the ingratiating smiles and damp handshakes are anything to go by, they do.