What I Learned About the Siege

Where were you during the Siege of Sarajevo?  Do you remember it?  Because I don’t.  Now, to be fair, I was in my small-town high school during that time and I wasn’t the most worldly of students.  I remember writing holiday cards to prisoners of war in BiH with my small Amnesty International Club.  But I don’t think I knew what was happening to put them into those camps.  I remember reading about the Rwandan Genocide inmy final year of high school, which happened in 1994, but I don’t remember seeing or learning anything about Sarajevo and the Bosnian War.  Actually, other than from the teacher that ran the AI club, I don’t remember hearing anything about it in school.  This was before the Internet but it was televised, wasn’t it?  In the newspaper?  On the radio?

When we decided to go to Sarajevo, learning about the siege was really important to me.  I felt that learning about it was very important to honour those that died and lived through it.  In the month before going, I re-read The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway and I had watched the 1997 movie Welcome to Sarajevo.  My partner and I had long discussions about what was happening in the movie and also googled up parts we were unsure of.  So I came to Sarajevo with a basic understanding.  I’m glad I did because I had a better understanding of what we were told on our two tours.

We booked a driving tour at Tours Sarajevo on our second day that highlighted many of the sites of significance during the siege.  This tour went mainly around the outskirts of the city.  Our tour guide, Jasmin, spoke English quickly and fairly fluently.  We walked out of the Old Town to his car and again, a small car for five people but this time there were three women and Bob so the three ladies were able to fit comfortably in the backseat.

One lady was from Croatia and she and the lady at the tourist office were speaking in an animated way when we arrived.  The tourist lady looked at us and said, in her broken English, “We are Yugoslavian so we understand each other.”  Serbo-Croatian is a south Slavic language that also includes Bosnian and Montenegrin.  There are minor differences between the four dialects but anyone from these Balkan countries can understand each other.  This was not the first time we heard reference to the former Yugoslavia.  It was not the first time we heard of this type of solidarity with the other nations from the former Yugoslavia.  And seeing how these people accept each other and their differences speaks to their incredible humanity and resilience and the tragedy and futility of the war.

The other lady was from Switzerland but was staying in Zagreb and came to Sarajevo for the New Year’s Eve celebrations.  She said she had tried to come earlier but the fog was so bad all flights had been cancelled for days so she had to take a bus.  She said it had given her lots of time to read up on the city.  Which was a good thing because she asked a lot of questions.  And she asked a lot of questions to our tour guide that I would not have thought appropriate to ask.  (Far too Canadian, I know.)

Let me start by giving some background.  In 1992, these small Balkan states (Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia and Bosnia) started to gain independence from the former Yugoslavia.  When Croatian left, it was no big deal because the population was almost entirely Croatian.  Same with Macedonia and Slovenia.  But when Bosnia tried to become independent, things started to get ugly.  The problem was that Bosnia was made up of many different ethnicities.  It’s mostly Bosniak (Muslim) but there are areas that are predominantly Serbian or another ethnicity.  So the Bosnian Serbs wanted to create Serbian republics within Bosnia because of the large number of Serbs living in these areas.  To accomplish this, they attacked Sarajevo and surrounded it, which was not hard to do because the city is surrounded by mountains.  They blockaded the city and while there were Bosnian army defence forces within the city, they were outnumbered and unable to replenish food, resources or weapons.

Wake Up, Europe!
An example of a poster created to bring awareness to the world of the horrors in Sarajevo.

Our first stop on our tour was near an old and crumbling fortress, on a hill on the Eastern side of the city.  We had our first view of the city from above.  The fog had blown over and we could see the city in its entirety.  I could even point out the very noticeable building that was very close to our apartment, though we were on the very opposite end of the city.  From here it was easy to see how the city lay snuggled into the valley and just how easy it would have been to besiege it from all the surrounding mountains.  This gave us a vantage point to orient ourselves and the sites we were to see.

From here, we drove through some excruciatingly tiny streets, to get to the main boulevard of Sarajevo.  It’s real name is Ulica Zmaja od Bosne but it’s better known in our neck of the woods as Sniper Alley.  This boulevard today is a multi-lane road with the tram line in the centre median.  It is treed and has many large office and apartment buildings on either side.  These tall buildings were the perfect hideouts for snipers, hence the name.  It traverses the city east-west and leads to the airport on the western side of the city.

During the war, this boulevard was a desolate place.  There were no trees (they’d all been cut down to burn for heat), no trams (the tracks had been destroyed by mortar shells) and it was an especially dangerous place for civilians to traverse (the snipers killed anyone, including children).  Everyone ran everywhere.  And cars raced past at ridiculous speeds in the hope of evading a sniper shot or mortar.  Some made it.  Many didn’t.

Here is a short video from Associated Press of footage from Sarajevo near the end of the siege.  Notice the how damaged the buildings in the background are.  Notice how fast the vehicles are driving, that everyone is running and you will hear sniper shots ringing out.  Intersections were particularly dangerous because there was no cover from snipers and because the snipers were in the mountains or in the tall buildings, nobody knew where they were shooting from.  Can you imagine living this on a daily basis?  (Though the title of this is “Snipers Wound 8 People”, nobody is wounded in this footage.)


Jasmin, our guide, spoke of how dangerous the snipers were.  He said that mortar shells made a particular sound so you could determine where they were, which he recreated with frightening accuracy.  But you could never hear a sniper until the shot rang out.  He would be running to wherever he needed to go and see someone fall from sniper fire and all he could do was just keep running and pray not to be the next one hit.  Can you imagine running with your child through the city to get somewhere, knowing there were snipers aiming at any intersection?

We drove the length of Sniper Alley, passing the UNITIC buildings (famous because its twin skyscrapers, once jokingly named after two radio characters – a Bosniak and a Serb, were shelled heavily during the siege but remained standing, becoming a symbol of resilience) and the Holiday Inn (famous because it was the only hotel open in Sarajevo during the Siege and housed all the war correspondents, photographers, and foreign aid workers though it didn’t have electricity or running water either.)

Holiday Inn
This photo from the BBC during the siege shows both the Holiday Inn and the Unitic twin skyscrapers behind it.
Holiday Inn Today
This is a recent photo from Wikimedia of the Holiday Inn (no longer a hotel) and the UNITIC towers.

These buildings have been completely rebuilt but retain the same architecture and design as before.  The Holiday Inn is no longer a hotel but a business building and the UNITIC towers are an internet security company.

We also passed an Orthodox cemetery (I’m assuming Serbian) that was on the small section of grass under an overpass.  We knew it was Orthodox because Orthodox gravestones are black stone, Muslim gravestones are white.  While our guide said nothing of it, Bob said later that it wasn’t unusual to see any spare piece of park or green space turned into a cemetery after the war.  They used anywhere they could find to bury the almost 14 000 dead.

We were headed to the Tunnel of Hope, on the other side of the airport.  The Tunnel Museum is a very important part of history for Sarajevans.  The tunnel was the only way in or out of the city.  It was built in only four short months in 1993.  They dug it out from both ends, silently and secretly.  The dirt that was brought out of the tunnel on the inside of the city was hidden in houses.  The dirt brought out on the outside of the city was also hidden and then transported far from the city so as to be undetected.  It was over 800m long and went from inside a house inside the city, under the runway of the Sarajevo airport and then into the yard of a house outside the city.  It was an average of 1.6 metres high and a meter wide.  People could only walk in single file so people on either end of the tunnel had to wait for the tunnel to empty of the people coming before they could begin their journey in the other direction.  Today, only a 25m section in the present-day museum is still open.  The tunnel under the runway was obviously too dangerous and has been closed off and reinforced.  The part of the tunnel that is in the city is part of someone’s private property now and they preferred not to open it to the public.  The part of the tunnel we saw had also been part of someone’s private property.  The family that owned the house during the Siege often met travellers and soldiers on their way out of the tunnel with water and encouraging words.  After the siege ended, people still came to see it.  They opened it as a museum and charged a small admission.  The government realized what was happening and bought the museum from the family.  It’s small but historically significant.  The buildings that house the museum have been kept in the same state as they were during the war and the museum has numerous artefacts from the siege, including ration packs, jerry cans, photos, a map of the city, photos of the engineer who designed the tunnel and stories of those who lived through the siege.  Jasmin, our guide, used the tunnel twice.

Our tour guide was 12 years old when the siege started and 16 when it ended.  His father was a patriot and became a soldier.  He said, “Well, I’m a patriot too but…” and let his sentence trail off.  During the siege, buildings, roads, bridges and life in general was reduced to rubble.  The conditions that they lived through and the hardships they survived were nothing I will ever really be able to comprehend.  You will find many books, photos and online articles about the siege that can do it more justice than I.  It was barbaric and horrific and they now joke about the people you see walking along the streets of Sarajevo being “the ones they missed”, meaning the ones the snipers missed.

The siege of Sarajevo, as it came to be popularly known, was an episode of such notoriety in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia that one must go back to World War II to find a parallel in European history. Not since then had a professional army conducted a campaign of unrelenting violence against the inhabitants of a European city so as to reduce them to a state of medieval deprivation in which they were in constant fear of death. In the period covered in this Indictment, there was nowhere safe for a Sarajevan, not at home, at school, in a hospital, from deliberate attack.

— Prosecution Opening Statement, ICTY vs Stanislav Galić, 2003[

Having read The Cellist of Sarajevo, I had read some of the same stories.  But of course, when you read a book about something you know nothing about, you feel sad but not empathy.  Now, I was being driven around the city by a man who had lived through it.  He could describe with incredible realism the sounds a mortar shell made.  He took the jerry can out of the museum display and showed us how he brought water back to his house from the brewery, which was the only place that had running water for the entire four years of the siege.   I asked him, “So you had to walk from wherever you lived?”  And he laughed at the absurdity of the statement.  “We didn’t walk. We never walked. We biked or we ran.”

The Swiss girl that asked a lot of questions, asked questions I never would have dared ask.  “Did your father survive?”  Yes, thank God. (Said, of course, with heartfelt meaning.)  “Did you lose anyone?”  He did not, he said.  But his wife did.  His wife had a lot of family in Srebrenica.  In July 1995, more than 8000 Bosniak men and boys were murdered in Srebrenica.

Things were starting to get really real for me at this point.  I could feel this reality start to weigh on my soul.  Just over twenty years ago, that lovely lady in the tourist agency probably lost every man she was related to in that village.  I always try to compare things to my own life so that I can really appreciate what someone else has gone through.  But I can’t even come close to understanding what it would be like to lose all of my uncles and male cousins in one month.  Not just lose them.  But have them lined up and shot.

The more I learned, the more I connected these stories to present-day Syria.  Canada had just stepped up and promised to accept 25 000 refugees and otherwise kind, compassionate and generous Canadians started complaining about terrorists and resources and job-stealing.  But what we will never understand (and I hope to never truly understand because we were lucky enough to be born in Canada) is the unthinkable losses these people have gone through.  The terror of being shot at just for stepping out your door.  The state of mind that one is reduced to because there is no running water, no electricity and no windows in the city.  (And Sarajevo has a real winter with snow and temperatures as low as -20°C!)  Our tour guide mentioned that when the war was over, those that escaped came back with money and potential.  But the ones who stayed were left with nothing except burnt-out buildings, settling dust and PTSD.

We moved on from the Tunnel.  We climbed back in the car and headed towards Mount Trebevic.  Mount Trebevic was the site of the Olympic bobsled run and luge.  It is quite an iconic spot in Sarajevo.  The bobsled run is graffiti-ed and overgrown but still intact in some places.  In the summer, it’s packed with tourists.  We were lucky because it being winter, and dusk, after a few minutes, we were the only ones there.  In the summer, these mountains are enjoyable day hikes and I can imagine that it would be a lovely walk in the woods to get up there.  But twenty years ago, these hills were known for the snipers.  There were over 400 snipers stationed on Mt. Trebevic, and it is only one of four mountains that surround the city.

Sarajevo in the Site
As I put my elbows on this rock to take a shot of the city below, I couldn’t help but wonder if a sniper had done the exact same thing.

Merima, our walking tour guide the next day from Neno and Friends, also lived through the siege as a 7-12 year old girl.  She was a very lively speaker and clearly enjoyed showing off her city.  She told us a great deal about the greater history of Sarajevo but she also talked about life during the siege.  She told us that she went to school everyday from 7:30 – 9:30 am.  They would run to school, learn for two hours and then run home.  School was usually in someone’s basement and the teachers would show up to work even though there was nobody to pay them.  Then the kids would run home before 10 am, because for some reason, the sniping and shelling didn’t start before 10 am.  This sounded strange to many of us in the tour group.  “You still went to school even though people were being shot in the street?”  “Weren’t you afraid?”  Yes, there was some amount of fear but Sarajevans just hunkered down and continued life as normal.  Life goes on.

“If this city is to die, it won’t be because of the men on the hills, it will be because of the people in the valley. When they’re content to live with death, to become what the men on the hills want them to be, then Sarajevo will die.”
Steven Galloway, The Cellist of Sarajevo

In fact, many people continued to go to their jobs even though there was nothing to do and nobody got paid. Collectively they needed to keep life as normal as possible, just to make it through.  The alternative was a darkness that might have become devastating for the future.  It was this resilience that kept them alive and this attitude that helped the city prevail and rise again from the ashes of such horror.  They even had beauty pageants.

Photo by Chris Helgren via Reuters Photographers Blog
Miss Besieged Sarajevo beauty contest winner Imela Nogic, a 17-year-old student, waves to the crowd on May 29, 1993, as other finalists carry a banner reading “Don’t let them kill us” in reference to the year-old state of siege of the Bosnian capital by Serb forces. (Photo by Chris Helgren via Reuters Photographers Blog)

Our large tour group met at the theatre and the first monument Merima showed us was just to the left of the theatre.  A Sarajevo Rose.  Sarajevo Roses are the scars of mortar shells that killed over three people in one blast.  The damage in the concrete from the shrapnel resembles rose petals.  We had seen a Sarajevo Rose at the Tunnel Museum and it was bright red.  This one was covered in the everyday dust of the world.

Only a few short years after the siege ended, Sarajevo was given a lot of foreign support to rebuild.  By 1997, Sarajevo started to look like it used to.  But people stopped to consider this.  The people of Sarajevo didn’t want to rebuild or get rid of everything that had been destroyed.  They wanted to remember.  They wanted everyone to bear witness and to remember what had happened so that it never happen again.  These mortar shell scars were filled in with bright red resin.  These memorials are meant to be a part of everyday life.  People are meant to walk over them; it’s not considered disrespectful.  They were created so that when you walked over them, you honoured the victims and you remembered how lucky you were to be able to walk over them.  Merima joked that the two favourite pastimes of Bosnians were to drink coffee and complain; they love to complain but they don’t really get upset about anything.  There are over 100 of these memorials in the city and every time you walk over one, you are supposed to think about what was lost on that spot and every time she does, she complains about life a little less.  Because it helps you remember that you survived.  That you were, by complete luck of the draw, allowed a future.  We began to see them everywhere after that.  And she’s right.  Everytime I remember walking over one, I stop complaining.  Because most of us, in Canada, have very little to complain about.

She then took us to the Green Market.  This is a significant part of the city.  From the beginning of the siege, this market was thought to be safe because it had never been targeted.  But on February 5th, 1994, a mortar shell landed here and killed 68 people and wounded 144.  This was an incredible shock to the entire city because they had started to feel that it was the one place in the city that they could somewhat relax and socialize.  But the people of the city and the vendors washed away the blood, tended to the wounded, carried away the bodies, and opened the market again the next day.  It stayed open the entire siege though there was nothing available to buy.  Because life goes on.  The second shelling of the market in July 1995 was what prompted NATO to step in and start airstrikes against the aggressors, which eventually led to the Dayton Peace Accords and the end of the siege.  I just need to make this clear:  It took four years for the world to step in and end the siege.  FOUR. YEARS.

The Green Market
This is the market where the greatest loss of life in a single event occurred in 1994. The red wall at the back of the market place is a memorial to those who lost their lives here that day.

One thing that was available to buy during the siege, were the UN food packets.  The UN would deliver dehydrated food packs to Sarajevans and at that time there would be a ceasefire.  Civilians would wait for the news that the UN had arrived and someone would call, “The Smurfs are here!” and people would run to try and get food packets.  Some families would get more than one and then they’d try to sell it.  Our guide was quite genuine when she quickly said, “Nobody judged anyone.  It was war and this was survival.”  As it was finally verified after the siege ended, the food packets were expired food from the Vietnam War.  The rice packets were infested with worms and it would take them hours and hours to cook it until it was edible.  They did not remove the worms because a) they were protein and b) if they had removed them, they would have taken out a third of their food.

Merima also described some of the other foods they were given and I had a hard time not gagging.  A Sarajevan artist made a sculpture of the gold can of her nightmares (which contained a jellied beef or something equally as revolting) as a passive-aggressive thank you to the donors of those expired food packs.  At the time of the siege, the people of Sarajevo were thankful for everything they received because they surely would have died without it.  But after it was all over, they wondered if perhaps the UN could have done a bit better than expired food packets from a war twenty years prior.

Merima also talked about the huge cans of vegetable oil they were given.  We all wondered what use oil would be when the only food Sarajevans had were the boil-in-the-bag food packets.  But Merima explained that the oil was the most useful thing they were given.  Remember, there was no electricity.  So the oil was used to make simple candles.  All you need is a bowl or glass of water, add some oil, which floats on top, put in a string or shoelace as the wick and light it.  Voila!  Light.

After learning all of this, I couldn’t help but wonder, “How did I not know about this when it was happening?” and “Why did the world stand by and let this happen?”  The Bosnian War and the Siege of Sarajevo was one of the first conflicts televised in real time.  But the world didn’t step in and help.  The UN did, but they earned their nickname the United Nothing because they couldn’t do anything.  Peacekeepers only had ten rounds on them and they couldn’t fire them without authorization.  So the snipers would still shoot people right in front of them.  And they couldn’t do anything about it.  The peacekeepers showed up in Srebrenica and confronted the murderers. But the aggressors denied it.  And there was nothing else to be done.  I don’t know the reasons for the world not stepping in.  I’m sure the politicians and chiefs of security around the world had their reasons not to and I’m sure there were sides that were fighting for intervention.  But it took a really long time and thousands of people died while the rest of the world sat and pondered.  When humans let other humans mercilessly, callously and diabolically kill other humans for any reason, we can’t just stand by and watch.

I’m writing about this for two reasons.  First of all, I want to remember everything I learned about it.  Sarajevo has many lessons to teach us as humans.  Lessons of resilience, humanity, humility and compassion.  And secondly, I hope others read and learn something new about how connected we are.  When we sees crises in our world today, how do we react?  How do our fears change our actions?  And does this change us as humans?  How can we move forward, always moving towards a better world and making sure these horrors don’t happen again?

BBC Photo of Red Chairs
11 541 red chairs line Marshal Tito Avenue on the 20th anniversary of the start of the Bosnian War. There is one chair for every victim in Sarajevo. (BBC photo)

If you’d like to learn more, here are some sites that I found useful:

NPR:  Two decades after siege, Sarajevo still a city divided

The Telegraph: Pictures of Sarajevo 15 Years Ago and Today

Siege of Sarajevo:  The Longest Siege in Modern History (video)

The Guardian:  Life and Death in Sarajevo

New York Times:  Sarajevo’s Enduring Optimism



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