In 1984 this historic city hosted the Winter Olympics to world-wide acclaim. In part, that success flowed from the proximity of great mountains for skiing and bobsled. Little did anyone know eight years later those mountains would host an invading force that would hold siege on Sarajevo for more than three years.
From April 1992 until February 1996 as many as 13,000 troops fired down from the mountains at the folks of Sarajevo. Each day for 1395 days those troops fired on average 4,000 rounds down into Sarajevo. Artillery, mortar, rifle and machine gun fire killed 10,615 people and wounded more than 50,000. The people of Sarajevo could barely hang on, but with almost no weapons, little food and water they survived.The siege of Sarajevo was endured three times longer than the Second War siege of Stalingrad, and more than a year longer than Leningrad.
We thought in the 1990's that we were in modern times. Yet we failed to communicate, failed to help, failed to resolve problems before the problems turned to genocide. How did this happen?
So how shall we do this? We can start with how those who survived actually did so. Or we can look at why so many for so long would pour random fire onto innocent civilians.
Let's start with why an army would arrive in the mountains around Sarajevo. That is a tough issue. But then we'll turn to how the folks survived. That's a remarkable story and the one I want to leave you with.
First: why do a bunch of guys hang out in the mountains and keep shooting every day at the people of Sarajevo? In short, the army from a newly-conceived Republika Srpska wanted to take Sarajevo for their own, as part of their not widely recognized republic. That proposed republic would have occupied part of the newly formed Bosnia Herzegovina (let's call it Bosnia).
But the people in Sarajevo didn't want to be part of the Republika Srpska. Sarajevo wanted to be and is now the capital of Bosnia. But let's take a few steps backward before we move forward. After the Second World War, we all know there was a split in the world (to generalize) between those states behind the Soviet Union and those behind the West. Hence the Cold War. Yugoslavia was one of the many subtle exceptions. Although communist, Yugoslavia was able to keep somewhat separate from the Soviets. And the Yugoslav dictator Josef Tito was able to force one state upon the diverse cultural and religious groups that made up the territory called Yugoslavia.
Note that now that same terrain is seven countries, each with it's own cultural and even multicultural identity. Tito died in 1980 and the rumblings in Yugoslavia started. When the Soviet Union crumbled so did the centralized government of Yugoslavia. That started in 1990. Quickly multiple states declared their independence. But those in the former Yugoslav capital Belgrade weren't so happy to watch their power and their territory diminish. For example, they challenged Slovenia's vote to be independent. But after a ten-day stand off the still existent Yugoslav army backed off, and Slovenia went on become a successful member of the EU.
Sadly, there was a more grim fate ahead for those inside Bosnia. As the moves for independence proceeded, Belgrade continued to be the capital of a shrinking Yugoslavia, while the capital of a new Croatia was Zagreb. All good so far, but the presidents of Yugoslavia (Slobodan Milosevic) and Croatia (Franjo Tudman) wanted more terrain. Thus, they struck a deal between themselves to fight for and split up Bosnia. Hence the beginning of the conflict in Bosnia.
Sorry, but there's one more important motivator to the conflict: religious and ethnic differences. That was (and still is) a big part of the problem in Bosnia. The three religious/ethnic groups inside and behind the war in Bosnia are: Serbian (an Orthodox Christian group); Croatian (a Catholic group); and the Bozniaks (a Muslim group). Since Bosnia is primarily a mix of those three groups, the presidents of Yugoslavia (largely Serbian) and Croatia thought they had a right to fight for more terrain in the name of their ethnic group and take the part of Bosnia inhabited largely by their people.
The fight in Croatia started in 1991, but after a couple of years the conflict came to a negotiated stalemate. Although violence and the exodus of huge numbers of people continued.
Overall, estimates are that the conflict in the former Yugoslavia killed more than 130,000 people and generated more than four million refugees from all three of the major religious groups.
“Ethnic Cleansing” was the plan by the Croatian and Serbian politicians to create regions where their people would be the undeniable majority. Thus, there were massacres by Serbs, Croats and Bozniaks. But in Bosnia, it was the Muslims who suffered the most. For example, over just a few days in July 1995 Serb forces slaughtered more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in a place called Srebrenica, a village in Bosnia near the border of what is now Serbia.
My point is that while the people of Sarajevo suffered through the siege, people in the towns and villages in Bosnia and also Croatia were savaged in so many other ways. They all shared one thing: suffering and sometimes death.
In 1992 the military conflict started in Bosnia. The newly formed Republika Srpska (Serbian) felt justified in claiming a good piece of the new Bosnia. And supported by the president of Yugoslavia along with other international players, they proceeded to fight for their newly claimed terrain. Hence, the army moved into the mountains around Sarajevo and thought they would take it. Initially, they had 260 tanks and 120 mortars, plus numerous troops. Little did they know of the durability of the folks below.
Just to clarify, this region has always been in conflict, since the Illyrians (in the years BC), the Romans (BC and AD), the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, then the Ottomans and later the Austro-Hungarian empire have all fought for parts of that same terrain.
In the twentieth century, real savage battles of the Balkans took their toll. There were the first and second Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913, which were fought over the terrain which is now Macedonia and parts of Bulgaria. Then they had the First World War. Some time for peace, then things got real bad during the Second World War.
The Germans and Italians invaded and then occupied much of the Balkans, but it was not so simple. Some of the people in the Balkans cooperated with the invaders and others fought back. Even worse: the people fought, killed, maimed and savaged each other. On one side fascists, the other communists. I'm making this simple, but my point is things got very ugly: lots of savage killings. Then the war ended and Tito's communist Yugoslavia suppressed the nastiness with its own nastiness. Thus, the revenge and hatred between the factions sat dormant until Yugoslavia fell apart and the demons lost their cages.
Sadly, conflict in the Balkans is not new. We could almost say it was invented here. At least as far as recorded history takes us. And so the people of Sarajevo weathered one more long, long storm in a very stormy place. So let's take a look at how they did it.
The Siege of Sarajevo
This is a photo of a map of Sarajevo showing how close the Serbian troops were. The center of the city is just above the river. And the river is less than 30 meters wide.
How did the people of Sarajevo survive a siege where the enemy was right on top of them?
The Serbs were shooting from the hills just above. That's close. And that was for more than three years.
When I say “right on top” I mean the army from the now non-existent Republika Srpska sealed off the city on 2 May 1992. That continued for way too long (if we consider that the UN was involved and even inside Sarajevo for most of the siege). Yet the army sat above Sarajevo and continued to shoot. They were not far from the people. The front lines around Sarajevo were very close. One part of the front lines was inside the city and just across the Miljacka River. That is close. (On the map above, that line is at the far left).
Twenty years later, this is what one of the apartments on that front line looks like. The people, I imagine have deeper and more permanent scars.
With the knowledge of how their enemy attacked, the people of Sarajevo responded. In the Kill Zones where sniper fire had a direct line, signs would warn people, so they could either take another route, or sprint across. Also, so that they could transverse their city, they placed a series of concrete blocks, container crates, disabled buses and cars, and they dug trenches.
Let's talk about how these people carried on life not as usual, but kept morale in spite of being under siege. Water, food, medical supplies, weapons and ammunition are all essential to keep an enemy at bay. But when under siege, how get those?
The UN stepped in to some extent to provide, as they call it, humanitarian aid. But the supply was not constant. And apparently often sold, rather than given. During the siege, the Belgian commander of the UN forces spent most of his time bunkered down. He was only there for part of the siege, but while the UN had a presence in Sarajevo, people continued to be killed. And they suffered daily shortages of everything.
So, to quell the significant need to supply a city under siege, some powerful souls dug a tunnel. That's right, a tunnel. The Dobrinja-Butmir tunnel probably saved the city. At least it saved many of the folks from dying. After four months or so of digging, in July 1993 the tunnel went 800 meters from a place just outside the city into the city. But things weren't that easy. The Serbs knew about the tunnel and regularly shelled the zone around the entrance. Still the supplies flowed. And they continued throughout the siege. Daily, some 4,000 Sarajevans went through the tunnel, often carrying 50 kilos or so of goods.And the tunnel even had a mini rail system to haul heavy goods. I've seen a remnant of the tunnel and can say each person's journey would have been tough. At only 1.6 meters high and a meter wide, it's a trick to walk. Often there was a thick muck of muddy water. So for more than two years the people of Sarajevo supplied themselves with the basics to survive.
Meanwhile, the UN in it's great political wisdom referred to the “situation” as “the non-existent tunnel.” The UN had self-proclaimed a mighty acronym for their mission: UNPROFOR. The United Nations Protective Force. Don't forget this mission was happening at the same time as the massive failure in Rwanda. Two failed missions at the same time?
I spoke to a man who lived through this and who had been through the tunnel. He said:”When this started we had to change our view about life.”His wife said this about the transition from a fairly good life in the former Yugoslavia and in one of it's great cities: “In just a few minutes we moved back to the Middle Ages.”So that's it, they moved back to and were capable of living in and accepting a culture of being under siege. They were back to the Middle Ages, but that did not stop them. The tunnel supplied everything from weapons (throughout the siege they only had small weapons) to medical supplies to food.
But the people of Sarajevo supplied something more. Within the city they continued music and theatre performances. They had art exhibitions. A newspaper continued. And somehow a bakery, in spite of constant shelling, kept making bread. People had small gardens everywhere they could. In the winter, trees from the parks were cut to give heat. Markets continued. As did water and bread lines. Yet the Serbs targeted those. People died. Perhaps most importantly, religious ceremonies continued in the mosques, cathedrals and churches that make up this multi-ethnic city. The people inside kept together, it was the idiots outside that were creating the problem.
Thus, somehow, and by some miracles of human endeavor, the people of Sarajevo survived. Those who didn't were buried (often at night) in graves added into cemeteries, since the cemeteries used before the siege were outside the front lines.
As I walked the streets of Sarajevo it was sadly too easy to see bullet holes in many of the buildings. Eighteen years after the last rounds came down from the mountains, the buildings still bear the scars of arrogance. The arrogance of those who think they have the power of life and death. As I looked closely at those many bullet, shrapnel and artillery scars I had a thought: these scars on the buildings are just a small symbol of the mental trauma within the survivors of the siege of Sarajevo.
Sadly, this same story is playing out in Syria. And the number of dead and mutilated is still rising. More importantly, the so-called international community has once again failed to act. It's the same problem in another country. I have realized recently that one of our great strengths as a society is our capacity to ignore the suffering in other countries. Question: do we continue ignoring the plight of others? Or do we help them?
Addition: the conflict in Bosnia was resolved and relative peace arrived after the Dayton Agreement in November 1995. Dayton? Me too, I wondered how Dayton, Ohio got involved. Turns out that the US and all the other parties agreed to be sequestered at an air force base near Dayton to hammer out a peace agreement. They did that in November 1995. But the agreement may be a problem for the continued harmony in Bosnia. Why?
The agreement created two separate federal entities. One represents the Croatians and Bosnian Muslims, the other the Serbs. This is the same split that created the problems in the first place. Yet the people of Bosnia have lived in harmony, sort of, for the years since the war. But folks here say each group votes separately on issues in the parliament and there are newspapers for each of the three ethnic/religious groups. The question is, then, will they continue to be at peace?
There is high unemployment. No jobs and no money create stress. That is a worldwide issue. Let's hope the people of Sarajevo and Bosnia go beyond that issue to survive what they've survived before. Insurmountable odds. Speaking of odds, my bet in on the folks here in Bosnia.
The Intnational Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is finishing up its last prosecutions. And it continues to be criticized from many sides. Yet the court indicted some 161 men (68% Serbs) and so far has 67 convictions. No comment from me, except that it is clear many criminals will go unpunished.
Last note: this piece only deals with the siege of Sarajevo. That was a difficult part, but only part of a crazy conflict that created victims of everybody: Serbs, Croats and Bozniaks. The crimes committed during that war do not even get the grace of being described as being from the Middle Ages. The slaughter was primordial. It was more savage than anything ever done by an animal other than man. That is all I have to say.