I can barely remember the siege Sarajevo. I mean yes, I remember hearing about something going on in Bosnia in the 1992-1995 timeframe, but there’s only so much you hear and care about when you’re starting elementary school so my knowledge extended about as far as reading Zlata’s Diary. So if you’re reading this and fall into that category, here is a brief summary of the Yugoslav War (keep in mind I pieced this together through talking to Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbians)- following the death of the dictator Tito in the 1980s the country of Yugoslavia he held together began to fall apart. Slovenians decided they wanted to live in Slovenia, Croats wanted to live in Croatia, Bosniaks wanted to live in Bosnia… you get the idea. What was the former Yugoslavia is actually seven countries now- Slovenia, Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovinia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Serbia, listed here should you ever come across that card in Trivial Persuit.
The problem with this (and this is the part where I wish I’d meet a Serbian whose opinion I could ask) were the largest ethnic group in Yugoslavia, the Serbs. They’re a bit famous for being nationalistic, and while there’s nothing wrong with that they insisted that every Serbian had a right to live in “greater Serbia” and they were outraged by a recent (Serbian) report saying that the minority ethnicities in the country were getting a better slice of the pie than Serbians (pop quiz- when did you hear rhetoric like that in Europe before?), so they went to war in all these new countries on behalf of the minority Serbs living in each country. In Slovenia it didn’t last long, and I’ll be covering Croatia later, and Kosovo I figure everyone remembers better. But none of them really compare to the war in Bosnia, where the Serbian forces committed war crimes against Bosniaks in an effort to make the Serbian areas of the country exclusively Serbian (pop quiz answer- yep, last time there was a genocide). The U.S. brokered peace in Bosnia in 1995 with the Dayton Accords, meaning Bill Clinton is extremely popular around here.
Anyway, Sarajevo. For nearly four years, that is to say the extent of the conflict in Bosnia, the city was under siege by Serbian forces, making it the longest-sieged city in modern history. Each day several hundred shells were dropped on the city pretty much everywhere, and by the end over 10,000 people were dead and over 50,000 wounded. (The Serbs never got in though. Bosnians explain this by saying Serbs weren’t good fighters, or at least no match for people fighting for their lives.)
Look up onto the hills in Sarajevo and you soon come across graveyards like the one pictured above, most belonging to twentysomething soldiers but hundreds of civilians were killed too. Walk through the streets today and it’s hard to believe such a bright, new, youthful city could have such a recent past until you remember the reason things look new is because so much was completely destroyed and there are so many young people because so many older ones left or were killed.
If you look around Sarajevo today, though, you begin to notice things- how the walls of apartment buildings often have bullet holes in the walls, and while streetfronts are built up the backs are often still destroyed. Take this house, which was right next to the hostel I was staying at. I’m told it was hit by several grenades during the war and no one is quite sure who owns the house as the former owner fled, so there it sits.
This is me in the famous Sarajevo Tunnel, completed in 1993 and considered by many to be what saved the city as it allowed supplies to come in and people to go out. The tunnel runs 800 meters under the then-UN controlled airport that stood between Sarajevo and the Bosniak-controlled territory- before it was completed you needed to run across the airport for supplies, exposed to fire from Serbian forces and being pursued by UN soldiers who would send you back if caught. (The UN also enforced a weapons embargo that every defender hates with venom, as attacking armies tend to have lots more weaponry than defending civilian populations.) Most of the tunnel has since collapsed, but the house where it started is now a museum.
My guide out to the Sarajevo Tunnel was S., the 25 year old son of the hostel owner (who is such a charming and attractive fellow that every girl in the hostel had a crush on him). He showed me around the museum with a running commentary of what it was like to grow up in Sarajevo during the war- how he spent most of his life in his grandfather’s basement, how his father had gone through the tunnel to buy the family food, and where his uncle’s name was on the list of dead who had been hit by a piece of shrapnel on his temple. (“Bad luck,” he shrugged.)
The moment that hit closest to home though for me was when we came across an old M.R.E. in the museum, and his face lit up. “These were so good, you had some meat and vegetable and a little bit of sugar!” he smiled, thus being the first person I have met happy to eat an MRE. “And this plastic they wrapped it with- look how slippery it is- we loved this, it was perfect for sliding in the snow…”
And that was the point when I decided that I am never complaining about my life again, ever.
After the Tunnel Museum we went up the hill to the old Jewish cemetary- before World War II Sarajevo was over 10% Jewish, though only a small handful live there now. The cemetary is important because this was the closest the Serbs got to the city and it shows on the gravestones- the above is the remains of the pummeled Holocaust memorial- with only a street marking the distance between Serb and Bosnian forces.
The other interesting thing is there is a small stadium at the bottom of the road leading to the Jewish cemetery owned by one of the Bosnian football clubs. Obviously the thing was wrecked and covered in minefields during the war, but cleaning things up came out of the scant money of the football club. As a result, the night before I went on this tour marked the first night they had stadium lighting for a game there since 1992.
Back to the Jewish cemetery, here is the view the Serbian troops had down to Sarajevo (the city is nestled in a ring of hills, thus making it perfect for siege). The yellow building on the left is the famous Holiday Inn where all the Western journalists stayed while covering the war, the white skyscraper to its right is the parliament building that burned in an iconic photo of the war, and on the far right is Sniper Alley. Obviously it’s a pretty clear view that way, so civilians who needed to get supplies would either run like hell and pray for the best or wait for an armored UN truck to come by that they could walk behind.
Needless to say, it’s difficult to come to Sarajevo and not be moved by the tragedies that happened here. As humans it’s within our nature to assume bad things like war happen in this mythical “somewhere else” that doesn’t reach us, that maybe other people don’t suffer as badly in conditions we would consider intolerable. But if I were in charge of things, I think I would round up all the young people who are planning to go into politics and send them to Sarajevo. I would have them walk the streets where people died in a conflict that they can actually remember, make friends with people their age who speak matter-of-factly about things you never wish upon a living soul, and see a mother crying as she lays flowers on her child’s grave. I don’t pretend that this would solve our problems, but it would make suffering a little bit less and lives a little bit better.