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09/08/97- Updated 02:49 PM ET

Love Thy Neighbor. A Story of War

By Peter Maass

Knopf, 305 pp., $25

Witness to Bosnia's heartache

Peter Maass was one of the reporters who went inside Bosnia-Herzegovina early and often to cover that nation's still- blistering conflict. His hard-earned time shows in his soulful, vivid, biting book Love Thy Neighbor. A Story of War.

When Maass writes of battlefield horrors or diplomatic deals that caused a country to collapse, the words sound as if they are being passed along over coffee with friends. Perhaps someone asked Maass, "What was it like over there?" and the book was his response.

"Sarajevo was a temptress, and it was hard to know which was more seductive, the half-mad look in her dark eyes or the scarlet drops of blood on her extended hand. Any sensible person would be wary of entering a city from which colleagues were being carried out on stretchers and in boxes . . .," he writes.

The writing in this book comes from Maass' coverage of Bosnia for The Washington Post in 1992 and 1993. He was part of the first team from that newspaper to cover the Bosnian conflict.

Even though currently there is a NATO-imposed cease-fire in Bosnia, the same sadness that Maass experienced remains down most roads there.

Maass delivers his tales in a style like a thrill ride. The words start slowly, letting the reader settle in before the velocity increases, the rush of the moment surges and the writing takes control.

The portrait of this Bosnia is one where the details have as much impact as the grisly scenes reported in the media.

There are the observations about how dogs "made good target practice for bored soldiers." A moment in a Muslim home when the electricity comes on and the family watches the progress of genocide against their neighbors being shown on CNN. The plastic sign on the door identifying the "Bureau for the Removal of Populations and Exchange of Material Goods," the code name for the office coordinating ethnic cleaning and looting.

It takes little effort to read Maass' words and hear the rumble of military trucks and the Serb soldiers grunting out nationalistic slogans. "Goons with guns," Maass writes. "They wore black leather gloves like Hell's Angels, except these were the real thing."

At the other extreme are the victims, in one case Bosnian delegates to a peace conference in Geneva. Maass writes how they were lodged in a hotel next to an amusement park that had a shooting gallery - a chilling reminder of what is heard daily in Sarajevo.

At times Maass brings himself to the reader in too much of a primal screech. But mostly the art of his writing makes even the most consonant-laden names of people and places easy to digest, as if they were neighbors and neighborhoods in America - a possibility he also examines.

Maass left Bosnia in April 1993, exhausted and unable to escape the war even in sleep. His conclusion: He was no longer curious about the war, and it was no longer worth risking his life since his reporting could not make a difference.

By Tom Squitieri, USA TODAY

An excerpt

Old people are the saddest ones of all because they are helpless and without hope. It is worse to talk with them than to look at a corpse. Dead bodies don't talk, they can't tell you of their woes, of their losses and the terror they have faced, and still face. But old people can talk. They can break into sobs as you ask them about the purse hanging from their neck. They can look at the corpses at the side of the road and whimper, "Oh God, I wish I were dead. I wish I were dead." It's true, they envy the corpses. Their past has been obliterated, their future consists of a grim spell in a refugee camp, where they will die in poverty, among strangers, in a strange land. They know it. The misery has ended for the corpses. It goes on for the living.

- From Love Thy Neighbor. A Story of War

Tom Squitieri covered the Bosnian war for USA TODAY

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