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Documentary : Crossing Perilous Borders : A visitor to Bosnian territory held by Serbs encounters a weird drone of tension--and nightmarish memories.


KARLOVAC, Croatia — The jumping-off point is the Mreznica River, or at least it is one of them, one of dozens, really, where the line is drawn most visibly not by the clear water running below a bridge and represented by the thin blue line on the map, but by the wrecked and burned-out trucks shoved into the bridge's right-hand lane, and then by the shattered houses just beyond.

This is the beginning of "Indian Country," you could call it, in the spirit of old American Westerns, beyond which comes a certain terra incognita : open, silent spaces, buzzing summer heat and the possibility of the war party, stirred from their rest in the shade of the cottonwoods.

Actually, it is checkpoint country at first. Borderlands. The line between what might be called de facto Croatia, which is marked by the river behind, and territory ahead, which is a swath of Croatia taken by Serbian guns last year and which the Serbs prefer to call "the independent republic of Serbian Krajina."

It is also known on the maps of the U.N. Protection Force as Sector North, or sometimes, more informally, even facetiously, as "the forbidden zone." Up ahead, beyond a tangle of locally administered checkpoints, each marking a separate authority--Croatian police, Croatian army, then a space, then the Serbian Krajina police--the United Nations watches the road from sandbagged checkpoints. Nigerians, then Poles, then Nigerians again and a cluster of reassuringly efficient Danes.

And then, across another river, Bosnia.

Those cottonwoods, so to speak. The Chetniks--a term applied to World War II Serb partisans and worn proudly here still. Serbian-cleansed territory and dubious prison camps. Or, in another direction, the morning and evening whine and bang of artillery--and gathered refugees, leaning in the shade against grimy walls, waiting.

The Croatian officer back at that first bridge was fretful, a junior filling in on a Sunday morning. His men, in front of a bullet-chewed building, its gutters dangling crazily, lounged in the shade of umbrellas (advertising a local beer) liberated from some sidewalk cafe. The lieutenant worried over the exact ownership of the car (a hapless rental agency charging exorbitant rates), stalled, relented, just doing his job, and then helpfully suggested taking off the Croatian license plates. On to the next.

There is always a weird drone of tension that grows in the very idleness, the requisite passiveness, of these crossings, as though at some sonic frequency just above or below the level of hearing.

Borders seem to come with the job. I have crossed borders that I later had cause to regret crossing. I have crossed them, too, when I was not forced to regret it later but regretted it while I was doing it, at moments when that whine, or drone or whatever it is, was becoming too audible. These borders always suggest, beyond the tangible artifacts of geography, buildings and terrain, a certain mental boundary as well--beyond which lies a psychology, a febrile concentration, shimmering like the heat haze down the road.

There are many such crossings now in the fallen Humpty Dumpty of the former Yugoslav federation, and not all of them have been marked or arrive with adequate warning. In 14 months of fighting, about 30 journalists have been killed here and many more than that wounded. It is tough country and a nasty war, and many of the sides, particularly the Serbian side, do not like journalists very much and tend to take aim at them.

The Croatian town of Glina is on the road toward northern Bosnia, and a reminder. Now part of Sector North, Glina is in Serbian hands and is peaceful, although it looks underpopulated and depressed, like a town with a bad headache.

A little more than a year ago, the war was here, and one afternoon a German reporter was here too, looking for a way out of town. The bullet that killed him was like the straw a tornado drives into a tree trunk: It passed through the headlight of his car, along the fire wall of the engine, through the floorboard and into his inner thigh. It took 40 minutes for his driver to get to a hospital, and by that time he had bled to death.

That same day in Glina, a reporter for a Canadian newspaper was pinned down in a house for most of a day. His car, outside, had "PRESS" spelled out in black tape in letters two feet high, and he spent the afternoon watching the radio antenna on the car flick back and forth as the bullets struck it.

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