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Agony of Sarajevo siege, 20 years later

Agony of Sarajevo siege, 20 years later

It is 20 years since a peaceful demonstration in Sarajevo turned ugly and marked the beginning of a brutal, four-year war. Yugoslavia turned on itself and we watched it tear itself apart on TV every night. A peace accord was finally brokered, but have the changes been all for the good? By J Brooks Spector.

On 6 April 1992, Sarajevo entered the roster of wartime horrors with a toxic mix of medieval and modern warfare. On that day a siege of the city broke out that was only ended on 29 February 1996, when the Dayton Accords came into force.

From 1992 onward, Bosnian Serb forces besieged the city for almost four years, firing artillery shells and mortars every day at the city’s hapless inhabitants from prepared military positions in the heights, ringing the site of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games. During those hellish four years, almost 12,000 Sarajevo citizens died, fuel ran out, people carried out nightmare journeys to reach scarce medical help and food supplies – all of it as the city’s agonies were beamed into homes around the world, live on television during the evening newscasts.

Photo: Sarajevo residents run through an intersection marked with a sign reading “Beware: Sniper!” Several civilians are killed and wounded daily by snipers operating within the downtown area, on 13 July 1992. REUTERS/Djordje Ugljesic.

A first-hand eyewitness to the brutality of siege conditions, Otto von Gericke could write “In this frenzied rage, the great and splendid city that had stood like a fair princess in the land was now, in its hour of direst need and unutterable distress and woe, given over to flames, and thousands of innocent men, women and children, in the midst of a horrible din of heartrending shrieks and cries, were tortured and put to death in so cruel and shameful a manner that no words would suffice to describe, nor no tears to bewail it…”

But for the fact that Von Gericke was writing about the siege of Magdeburg during the Thirty Years War in 1631, he might just as easily have been chronicling Sarajevo’s more contemporary agonies, by adding a mention of long-range artillery and rockets. During the siege, Sarajevo’s nearly 400,000 inhabitants struggled on without electricity, running water during hot summers or heating during chilling winters, scuttling desperately to get to desperately needed supplies even as they avoided incoming fire from the surrounding hills, or living in hiding from the shells that were smashing the city during the siege.

Besides its gruesome quotidian horrors, the siege of Sarajevo also seems to have won the dubious honour of being the first such event to become a staple of nightly news broadcasts on broadcast and cable television everywhere – live, in real time – as dozens of reporters descended on the besieged city to report its agonies on a daily basis. While cable news broadcasts had come to viewers live via CNN during the 1991 aerial attacks on Baghdad, CNN’s role, then, was unique. But only a year or so later, Sarajevo’s torment came to the world in a broadcast deluge – made even easier by the fact that Sarajevo was just a few hundred kilometres from major European capitals and television network studios.

The horrors of Sarajevo’s siege at the hands of Bosnian Serbs lasted almost twice as long as the infamous Nazi siege of Leningrad, although the latter’s larger toll of one million casualties drew on a combination of constant German air raids and artillery bombardments as well as the brutal Russian winter, an absence of fuel for heating and a near breakdown of food or medicine supplies into that beleaguered city. While no one has yet written a titanic symphony about Sarajevo’s torments such as Shostakovich did for Leningrad’s – there is an opera about Sarajevo, as well as the memory of the city’s famous cello player, Vedran Smajlovic, playing in public at hundreds of impromptu recitals and even weddings, despite the carnage all around.

Now, two decades later, the inhabitants of Sarajevo have paused to contemplate their years of living under that fire, and they have created a huge temporary memorial – a kind of public artwork that would make Christo pause, given the visceral impact of the installation in Sarajevo’s downtown – even in photographs. The organisers have arrayed exactly 11,541 red chairs in thousands of neat rows, right through the centre of Sarajevo. There is a chair for each man, woman and child killed in the siege. Hundreds of those red chairs are small-sized ones – these represent the children killed during the siege. And many of those chairs host small toy cars, stuffed animals and dolls as spontaneous, anonymous acts of private, personal remembrance. Haris Pasovic, the organiser of this Sarajevo Red Line comments, “This city needs to stop for a moment and pay tribute to its killed citizens.”

Photo: Twenty-year-old Arna Hadzic cries by the body of her 13-year-old brother Adnan, who was killed as a mortar shell exploded next to his apartment. REUTERS.

The siege first came into being on 6 April 1992 when about 40,000 people from throughout Bosnia – Muslim Bosniaks, Christian Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats – all joined together in a downtown square to demand a peaceful transition from their respective squabbling nationalist politicians. By that time, the European Community had already recognised the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia as an independent state in the wake of a vote for independence from the now-rapidly disintegrating Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia’s dissolution was now taking place in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the re-emergence of ethnic rivalries throughout Eastern, Central and Balkan Europe. Now Yugoslavia, too, had begun to fracture along divisions between Slovenians, Croatians, Serbs, Bosniaks and the rest, differences that had first been papered over when Yugoslavia was assembled after World War I, out of Serbia, Montenegro and various parts of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Of course, aside from its infamous siege and hosting of the winter Olympics in 1984, Sarajevo is also the place where the spark that set off World War I occurred. Gavrilo Princip, a young Bosnian-Serb student and proponent of a greater Serbia, assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on 28 June 1914. By then, Bosnia had been ruled by Austria-Hungary since 1878 and had become an official province of that empire from 1908 as Ottoman power continued to crumble in the Balkan region throughout the latter half of the 19th century. The resulting demands and military mobilisations following that assassination set the great powers of Europe against each other in a four-year war that destroyed five empires, created seven new nations, and allowed for the creation of the new, larger, united kingdom of Yugoslavia under the Treaty of Versailles.

The 1992 Bosnian vote for independence had, however, largely split along ethnic lines, with Bosniaks and Croats voting for independence while a majority of Bosnian Serbs preferred to stay in a Serb-dominated – but now much smaller – Yugoslavia. On 6 April, the unity of purpose shown on the square seriously rankled some Serb nationalists who began firing randomly from a nearby hotel into the assembled crowd. That incident killed five people and became the spark that set off the 1992-1995 Bosnian War and the siege of the city.

Serb nationalists, substantially aided with weapons from the Yugoslavian Army, laid siege to Sarajevo and, within a few months, had occupied 70% of Bosnia, expelling non-Serbs from territories they controlled. Meanwhile, Bosniaks and Croats – who started off as allies – turned against each other. The groups ended up fighting a confused, bloody, three-sided war that eventually claimed more than 100,000 lives, made half of Bosnia’s population homeless and left a once ethnically mixed and relatively tolerant Bosnia devastated and divided into mono-ethnic enclaves.

The 1995 peace agreement, brokered by the United States under the lash of Richard Holbrooke at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, Ohio, finally brought an end to the shooting. But the difficult compromises of these Dayton Accords have left Bosnia divided effectively into two mini-states – one for Bosnian Serbs, while the other is shared by Bosniaks and Croats – linked by a weak central government. As a result, Bosnia now has three rotating presidents at the national level, and each statelet has its own president – giving the country five presidents, 13 prime ministers, over 130 other ministers, along with more than 760 lawmakers and 148 municipalities. This wobbly, Rube Goldberg-like government means over 50% of Bosnia’s GDP is consumed by these overlapping structures and the resultant, endless bickering between institutions and levels of government.

Unfortunately, ethnic mistrust or economic differences between these mini-states continue to keep the various ethnicities in Bosnia starkly separated. Children in school now learn three different versions of their nation’s history; they call their common language by three different names – Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian – and, in fact, are growing increasingly isolated from each other in their respective, mono-ethnic enclaves. As a result of this continual biting and scratching, potential foreign investors – the only realistic hope for the country’s economy – continue to avoid Bosnia for other choices, despite Bosnia’s proximity to some of the world’s richest nations and sources of investment capital, due to the country’s political instability and its untidy, awkward, overwhelming bureaucracy.

Analysts insist this dysfunctional system will have to be simplified if Bosnia is to have real hope of joining the European Union. The EU insists Bosnia must become a more centralized state, but this runs counter to Bosnian Serb desires to maintain their enclave’s autonomy, even as Croats now also insist on their own little mini-state, instead of sharing one with the Bosniaks. The Bosniaks still want a unified country. In essence, the various communities are locked into advocacy of pretty much what they wanted 20 years ago.

The picture is not irretrievably bleak – there have been a few forward steps since the peace accords – not least the end of the fighting. More recently, EU pressure now means Bosnia has both a common currency and central bank – and one jointly managed ministry runs its two mini-state police forces. There is also a unified state court, a border police force operating on the national level and it even has a joint army – melded from the three forces that once fought each other so ferociously. And in a particular irony, soldiers from all three of the formerly separate armies have come together in protests over the ramshackle government’s lack of military retirement pay and post-military jobs – in the same Sarajevo square where the killing began 20 years ago.

But the Bosnian-Sarajevan historical narrative is not exclusively one of warfare and chaos. For four hundred years, Sarajevo earned a well-earned reputation for religious and ethnic tolerance in an age that frequently had very little of any of that. In the Ottoman period, the city’s disparate communities lived in relative amity, and from the mid-1500s onwards a small but growing Sephardic Jewish community was added to the mix. In fact, one of the great treasures of Jewish religious art (the Sarajevo Haggadah, or the order of prayer for the Passover Seder meal) came to Sarajevo from its original home in Barcelona and was saved for posterity during World War II by both Christians and Muslims, who courageously hid the volume during Nazi occupation and civil war. Communal accord actually lasted pretty much through the post-war period, and virtually until the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. But then things fell apart.

Photo: A Serbian woman tries to keep her daughter warm while waiting to leave Sarajevo as part of a Red Cross convoy to Belgrade on 11 November 1992. Although part of the convoy left for Belgrade today, the remaining busloads were cancelled following a report that a driver had been shot and wounded returning with his empty bus on route the refugees were to take. REUTERS/Corinne Dufka.

As for cellist Smajlovic, the man whose musical performances had given such hope to thousands during the siege, after the peace accord took hold he moved to, of all places on earth, the relative peace and quiet of Northern Ireland. But along with many others, he too returned to Sarajevo to perform for this commemoration. Speaking at the anniversary concert with the Sarajevo String Quartet, Smajlovic told the audience that the quartet had “held 250 concerts in bomb shelters, in schools. They were hungry, but still had soul. You lost friends; I lost so many friends”.

On the broader canvas, of course, the failure of vigorous, forceful international intervention during the Bosnian War and siege of Sarajevo was a failure of nerve for Nato and the West. Perhaps it was just too soon after the collapse of Soviet communism’s Eastern European empire, and officials worried about distressing or destablising the Russians even further. Or, perhaps, it was some kind of bureaucratic hangover for America from defeat in Vietnam, or its failure in Somalia, that effectively kept America absent as well. Regardless, it took nearly four years for the US to summon the necessary energy to break the Bosnian stalemate at that air base in Ohio.

One final note also bears mention. Although they are not often linked explicitly, yet another ethnically based horror began while Sarajevo was still under siege – this one on 7 April 1994 – in the small mountainous African nation of Rwanda. At the time, too, no one chose to do very much about it. DM

Read more:

  • The Destruction of Magdeburg, Germany historical archive.
  • Bosnian war 20th anniversary: Sarajevo residents remember siege victims Friday at the Christian Science Monitor.
  • 1996: Siege of Sarajevo is lifted at the BBC.
  • Remembering Sarajevo: A Reunion of Journalists 20 Years Later at the ABC (US) News website.
  • Two Decades After Siege, Sarajevo Still A City Divided, a report at NPR by Sylvia Poggioli.
  • Bosnia-Herzegovina marks 20th anniversary of war at the BBC.
  • Sarajevo, 20 years on at The Telegraph.
  • Honoring Sarajevo’s Victims and Its Survivors at The New York Times.
  • – The Siege of Leningrad, 1941-1944 (contemporary narratives of that World War II siege).
  • Bosnia’s Lesson for Syrian Slaughter, Christiane Amanpour’s personal narrative for the ABC News website.
  • The Nine Lives of the Sarajevo Haggadah.
  • Ancient Haggadah rescued by Bosnians at the Jewish Weekly website.
  • The Mystery of the Sarajevo Haggadah at the Benevolencija website (Benevolencija is the Jewish social welfare organisation still operating in Sarajevo).
  • The 20th anniversary of the Bosnian war – Bosnia past, present and future at the Economist.     
  • A World Gone Raving Mad, Istvan Deak’s review of Robert Kaplan’s book, Balkan Ghosts at The New York Times.
  • The Dayton Accords: A Status Report, full description of the Dayton Accords at The New York Times.
  • The cellist of Sarajevo plays in his city again, from the AP story.

Photo: A child puts flowers on one of the 11,541 red chairs along Titova street in Sarajevo, as the city marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the Bosnian war, on 6 April 2012. The anniversary finds the Balkan country still deeply divided, power shared between Serbs, Croats and Muslims in a single state ruled by ethnic quotas and united by the weakest of central governments. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic.


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