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Documentary : Hurtling Down a Long, Winding Road to Sarajevo : Reaching Bosnia's capital via Mt. Igman takes determination, good timing and an armored car.

June 20, 1995|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The driver accelerated each time Serbian snipers fired on our armored car as we careened down Mt. Igman, the only route into besieged Sarajevo, the capital of chaos and Bosnia.

Bouncing past the burned-out and rusted shells of vehicles that hadn't made it, we maneuvered the curves and banks of the goat trail that passes for a road. Then, at its foot, on the southwest edge of the capital, we dashed to the relative safety of government-held territory.

Getting in and out of Sarajevo has been complicated and usually dangerous ever since Serbian separatists surrounded and isolated the city in April, 1992.

Until a few months ago, United Nations peacekeepers had control of the Sarajevo airport on the western edge of the city. With luck and patience, journalists, diplomats, aid workers and the peacekeepers themselves were able to catch U.N. flights into and out of Sarajevo. It was neither fun nor easy, but it was doable.

Then the Serbs started shooting at the planes and placed a number of restrictions on who could fly, and when. For instance, they wouldn't permit the U.S. ambassador to fly out of Sarajevo, and their guns blew a large hole in the side of a jet carrying the U.N. special envoy. Finally, in an effort to further tighten their stranglehold on Sarajevo, the Serbs closed the airport altogether.

The only access to the city became the rutted, switchback road over Mt. Igman. The pine-covered mountain is controlled by troops of the Muslim-dominated Bosnian government, but the last four miles of the road are within range of Serbian gunners based in surrounding territory. They routinely shell and snipe at vehicles that attempt to navigate the mountain.

A Bosnian government minister was wounded a couple of months ago, and his driver was killed, by Serbian shelling. Three French journalists were injured last month when they crashed on Igman while trying to evade Serbian mortar shells.

Still, it was the only way in, and journalists were willing to take the risk. I decided to make the run.

To reach Sarajevo is a journey through logistic entanglements and physical barriers. Each step illustrates the essence of the war: the fight over land and self-determination; governments and countries that don't recognize each other.

The Croatian port city of Split on the Adriatic is the starting point. There, U.S. and European TV networks and other news organizations maintain fleets of armored cars for use in Bosnia. The cars, most painted white, are Land Rovers or similar vehicles fitted with bullet-proof plates. The back cabins have no windows. The cars are expensive, clunky and slow, but sturdy.

After flying into Split, I make the rounds of the networks in search of someone who might have room in an armored car. Journalists who don't have their own have been known to have to wait for days to hitch a ride to Sarajevo. But I luck out: ABC Television had a last-minute cancellation, and the seat's mine.

We depart around noon, the car packed full with an electrical generator, blank videotapes, food and other equipment. In a TV network car, people have to compete with supplies--incoming or outgoing--for space.

The drive takes us down Croatia's spectacularly beautiful Dalmatian coast. An archipelago of islands drifts out to the west. We turn east.

We cross into Bosnia-Herzegovina--ostensibly and officially, another country. But no one asks to see a passport. Up the road we reach Mostar, headquarters for the "Muslim-Croat Federation," a compromise creation that is supposed to allow power-sharing by the Croats and the Muslims of Bosnia, since neither group really wants anything to do with the other. Though we are on Bosnian territory, many people in Mostar act as though they are in Croatia--using Croatian currency, for instance.

In places like Mostar, the red-tiled roofs of farmhouses have been shattered, and homes left in ruins, by shelling. Conflict like this has followed each secession by various parts of the former Yugoslav federation, most tragically in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

We continue through central Bosnia and, about eight hours after we started, approach Mt. Igman.

Going up the western slope is not a problem. There is other traffic, the occasional bus, farm trucks and speeding Mercedes-Benzes. Bosnian government troops stop us near the top. There has been some shelling and we might want to wait it out, they say. Several dozen civilians are gathered at the side of the road.

The army suggests waiting an hour. "Twenty minutes," says our driver.

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