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Crossing the Line In Bosnia's War

A Croat commander concocts a plan to save a Serb artist - and other stories of bravery

THE Serb soldiers had been drinking, recalls Muslim schoolgirl Rahima Siladzic. "Hey girls," they taunted, "how many rapes today? How many good Serbian babies are we going to make?"

Then one of the soldiers led her to a nearby house. She is still stunned by what happened next:

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"He said, `Look, I don't want to hurt you. But I have to pretend to rape you and you have to pretend you were raped,' " she related.

In Bosnia's war there is no highly organized resistance movement. But evidence is emerging that hundreds of men and women are putting themselves in danger to save others - both friends and strangers - on opposite sides of ethnic divides.

Few want to publicize their actions for fear of reprisals. But several detailed cases from first-hand sources suggest a thin, common thread of decency surviving amid killing and terror. They include:

* In Sarajevo's old quarter, there was a knock on the door of an artist. It spelled for him his worst nightmare. Muslim gunmen were outside waiting to arrest him and his wife. The artist - a Serb who wants only to be identified as "Misha" - had taken neither side in the bitter war. But in the climate of paranoia, his ethnic background worked against him.

Misha and his wife climbed into the unmarked car at gunpoint, wondering if they would still be alive the next day. They were taken to one of the senior commanders of the Bosnian defense. But it was all a ruse. The senior commander, a Croat, was a fellow artist and friend of Misha's from university. He had devised the plan to smuggle Misha out of Sarajevo to the safety of Belgrade.

* Although Sarajevo has become more polarized ethnically as the war has progressed, Serbs are still fighting alongside Muslims and Croats in the city's defense forces. There are countless stories of the three working together, sharing food, and sheltering together in basements in many parts of Bosnia. Sometimes, whole communities have banded together against nationalist hatreds.

That happened in Rajevo Selo, a rustic northern Bosnian enclave where Serbs and Croats have cohabited for centuries. Its present-day drama began in a familiar way: Soldiers from one ethnic group (Croats) came from the outside and insisted the others' (Serbs') homes be destroyed. The Serbs had already fled. The remaining Croat villagers decided to dynamite one home as a token sign of their "patriotism."

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Two peasants from the village then went to the market in the nearby town of Brcko where the owner had fled. They told him they had come in disguise, pretending to sell produce, to tell him that the villagers had had to destroy his home but they would rebuild it after the war.

* Some of the battles of the war are no more than smokescreens. In one instance, Muslim, Croat, and Serb soldiers - all friends from Brcko - have organized fake "shootouts." They have met secretly to agree on times to open fire - always above head level.

* In the town of Visegrad, one Serb family faced a terrible dilemma: Their neighbors, best friends, were Muslims. Ethnic cleansing was underway. The family hid their neighbors and helped them escape by bribing officials in the local defense forces.

* Even the most battle-hardened soldiers are not immune to decency. Last month, this reporter accompanied a Serb soldier in his time off from bombarding Sarajevo. He took food to a friend, a Muslim who does not venture out of his house for fear of being shot or arrested. When the Serb visits, they often sit up late into the night, reminiscing.

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