CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRES OF HOPE, DEATH AND HASTY DREAMS.
Written by Jim Marshall
Photography by Juan Fabuel, Stefan Jermann and Jim Marshall
Besieged Sarajevo existed in this world but was not of this world. The Serb forces that besieged the city, said to number as many as 18,000 troops, controlled every aspect of the daily lives of Sarajevo’s citizens. Extreme food shortages, coupled with constant deprivation of water, electricity and gas, erased all resemblance to normal life. Every small and big decision made by every individual during every day of the 1,216 days of the absolute military siege of the city was never fully his or hers to make, with even continued existence being subject to the daily selection of targets by Serb gunners and snipers. Indeed there were no small decisions during the siege of the city, as such decisions involved deciding whether to run, stop, hide, stay inside, or go out and face more grave danger but at least feel alive.
Time was truly relative. It would stop and start, speed up and slow down, as fear and adrenalin played tricks on your mind. When you felt like screaming you would find yourself laughing. When you felt you were dreaming you would find yourself awake, talking to others or just to yourself. Any given day was punctuated by moments of horror, bliss, desperation, comfort, hopelessness and awe. The sound of the wailing of civil defence sirens was almost as terrifying as the sound of the shells they’d precede. The sound of sniping would constantly break the silence in the valley; sudden and terrifying single bursts of death being delivered.
Despite having already spent close to half a year in war-torn Mostar, I had no concept of what to expect when I first arrived in besieged Sarajevo, crossing Mount Igman at sunrise on a frozen winter morning as the snipers slept. I knew I had to rapidly work out where would be safe and not safe to go. I quickly learned that I needn’t have giving it much thought as nowhere in the city was truly safe to go. Some places were simply more deadly than others.
I knew when I arrived in Sarajevo that the area of Grbavica and much of the area around the Old Jewish Cemetery were under Serb control but I had no idea where they were. I had somehow got it into my head that Grbavica was a distant suburb, perhaps next to Mount Igman, and that the Old Jewish Cemetery was perhaps 14 or 17 or even 20 kilometers from the city center, somewhere up in the mountains, beside some beautiful forest with a crystal clear stream, the perfect setting for an old cemetery. It came as a terrible shock to learn that the Old Jewish Cemetery was right on the edge of Grbavica and that both were right on the edge of the city center. From the Marijin dvor area of the city center, you could virtually count the gravestones in the cemetery and see the colour of curtains in the Grabavica apartment blocks that towered over Sniper Alley. It was from the upper floors of these apartment blocks that snipers would fire down into the streets of Marijin dvor.
This then was my introduction to the UN Safe Area of Sarajevo, which remained under the “protection” of UN peacekeepers known as UNPROFOR (also commonly known as RUNPROFOR) whose spokesperson at the time bore the unfortunate name of Gary Coward.
After having spent just a few days in the city, I couldn’t imagine how anyone in Sarajevo had remained in any way sane during the siege up to that point, not only because of the horror but also the utter surrealism of it all. A large hand-painted movie ‘poster’ of Wyatt Earp with two pistols hung on the side of a building overlooking one of the city’s main junctions. People would run for their lives from sniper fire and pass underneath it, while right across the junction a man who would often wear nothing more than a towel bound around him like a diaper would cheer for them as they ran. He himself never ran, indeed it was rumored at the time that the snipers kept him alive for their own amusement and also in the hope that he’d infect everyone else with his insanity. One fog-bound morning, further along the main street from there, while I crouched in a doorway to shelter from shelling, I heard opera singing and suddenly a woman appeared in the mist in full costume. She stared into space as she sang, her voice echoing off the ornate but broken Austro-Hungarian buildings around us.
Half-crazed dogs would howl all night and garbage would burn all day. Yet life would go on all around you: Young lovers would kiss, old people would chat in doorways, and coffee and pita would be consumed subject to availability. The electricity would come on after a day or two just as the water went off. The gas would come on after a week or two just before the electricity went off. The water would come on and you’d have to run around your apartment filling the bath and also plastic bottles and buckets because it could just as easily go off again any minute and not return again that day or the next day or the day after that. The toilets in café bars, where the cisterns would seldom have sufficient water to flush, had a specific stench so overpowering that, while using the toilet, you would try to hold your breath for 30 seconds, 40 seconds, 50 seconds, to avoid retching.
There were few cars and no filling stations so diesel was for sale on the street, usually next to markets. As it was scarce you would fill a reserve canister (a plastic bottle would suffice) and keep it in the back. Every vehicle you got into therefore smelled of diesel and would be driven insanely fast, except after dark when they would be driven insanely fast with the lights off. And cars would constantly break down due to their old irreplaceable parts. I remember having to push an old yellow VW Golf, stranded between the Holiday Inn and the Unis Towers on a bright sunny day, clearly exposed to the snipers. An armoured jeep filled with people wearing flak jackets and helmets passed by, making it completely obvious that I had chosen the wrong job.
If snipers were in a good mood they would shoot at whatever people were carrying (a bag or a canister) but they were seldom in a good mood so they would just send men, women and children to their graves. In the face of this barbarity, some citizens would sprint across exposed open ground to the safety of a wall or barricade and then reappear for a second raising a middle finger in the direction of the snipers.
A couple of months after I arrived, there was electricity one morning so I watched the Victory in Europe Celebrations on an old TV. Europe’s leaders hailed ‘fifty years of peace’. That same day a Serb shell killed 8 and wounded 40 others in the Butmir area of the city. Around this time I heard a woman screaming to death on Sniper Alley from the building in which I worked. Days later a white phosphorous shell landed right below the windows. I had no idea what white phosphorous was at the time. Why would I? Why would anyone? But an elderly lady from Sarajevo who worked with me clearly did know because she pushed a wet towel into my face and told me to breathe through it. Around that same time she made some pretty awful goulash one day, which I sat down to eat just as two bullets pierced through the plasterboard walls. I then told her I was too shocked to eat it. She then simply advised me to move to a slightly safer room and not come back until I had eaten it all. Refusal to eat what is put in front of you is never an option where Bosnians are concerned, not in any situation.
I was becoming gradually more fearful as weeks and months passed. I had a ‘bulletproof’ blanket that I believed would protect me from night shelling if I just made sure that it covered my feet. It was just a regular blanket. One night I took three times the recommended dose of strong sleeping tablets that a friend gave me on a night of heavy shelling and didn’t sleep a wink. Sometimes I would wake in the morning and be too terrified to leave my apartment. But suddenly, somehow, adrenalin would kick in, strangely from the feet and up through the legs, then into the rest of the body. I would then just grab my keys, lock the door, go out and start my own daily routine of running. You had to just live and to live you had to just run.
In the midst of the sadism and inhumanity of the siege of Sarajevo, there was a quite unbelievable and unbreakable sense of humanity. Young people would risk their lives to fetch water for the elderly; children would smile when you’d expect them to scream; people would share whatever they had with others who had nothing; and ordinary citizens would apologise at length for the state of their apartments (“sorry about the state of our couch”, “sorry about the state of our coffee cups”), as well as their English language skills, their ‘fucking politicians’, the state of their lives in general, and other things for which they should have been the last people in the world to apologise. “Sorry”, they would say to me, “that you never visited Sarajevo before the war when it was the most beautiful city in the world”. I was sorry about that too. I’m still sorry about that to this day.
There was an amazing liveliness to a city where death could await you just around the next corner. I would regularly visit Club Obala, and would almost always feel a little intimidated, as I would almost always be the only foreigner there. Yet it was an incredible place, wild and absolutely vital to the cultural scene during the siege. I would wonder at the appropriate names of bands popular in Sarajevo at the time: Massive Attack, Bad Religion, Rage Against the Machine. A friend told me in Obala one night that an old message from Ratko Mladic ordered the people of Sarajevo to surrender and Rage Against the Machine singing “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me!” seemed like the only appropriate response. I would constantly listen to Radio Zid. On a visit to the radio station during my first weeks in Sarajevo, I was shown film footage of the siege set to the music of Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’. I have never been so moved by anything on a screen before or since. I learned to play pool well and learned to speak Bosnian badly at FiS. Just as in Club Obala, people would party there like they never did before the siege or after. They would party like there was no tomorrow because perhaps for someone present there would be no tomorrow.
Occasionally, ‘narcotics’ ‘police’, who were really a form of press-gang and little more than thugs, would raid bars such as these. Not only held captive by the Bosnian Serb Army and their maniacal leaders in the nearby town of Pale, Sarajevo’s young were often reminded by a sinister minority amongst them, on the payroll of the ‘fucking politicians’, that they were not free to live, never mind not free to leave.
Leaving was always an option for me, not a simple procedure but still always an option. It separated me from my friends, who were unable to. For my friends and their families even the relative safety of Sarajevo’s small neighbouring towns – Tarčin, Pazarić, Kakanj, Visoko, Kiseljak - were as distant as the moon. I spent many months under siege but my friends and their families were besieged for years: unable to even dream of the outside world, unable sometimes to even leave their basements.
Several weeks after I did eventually leave I returned to Mount Igman to reenter the city as I had done many months before. My plan was to take a bus that would wind its way through the forests on muddy, improvised logging routes to the northeastern edge of the mountain and walk down with the other passengers, as was the custom during the siege. However, a little more than halfway through the journey, a British soldier boarded the bus at a checkpoint in the middle of nowhere and ordered the driver to return back down the mountain. I did however manage to negotiate getting off the bus and I was taken to a French base at the old Olympic ski-jumping venue. And there I slept in a tent for two nights, constantly asking my French hosts when the road would reopen down to the city only to be informed that it was closed for unspecified security reasons. But I dined on French military ration packs, which were known to be the best.
On the afternoon of the third day a French soldier asked if I would like to hike up to higher ground with him, so we set off just as evening was beginning to set in. We finally reached a far more elevated position as darkness fell. He produced a bottle of good Cognac from his rucksack and after a while we had a relaxing smoke as his radio crackled ever more frequently. I then heard a slow distant rumble and remember him saying, “And now it begins”. Just minutes later the sky over in the direction of the city was orange and there were massive booms in all directions. We were witnessing the beginning of the NATO air assault on Serb positions across the country and the end of their military stranglehold over Sarajevo.
I returned to a different Sarajevo two days later, winding down the mountain in an APC that constantly had to squeeze by massive pieces of heavy artillery. There were constant bombardments from these positions, as well as from the sky, with enormous plumes of smoke reaching skyward from Serb-occupied areas all around the city. People in Sarajevo were at first euphoric but then furious. Furious that NATO were able to break a three and half year siege in just a couple of days; furious that the international community could obviously have made this happen at any time over those three and a half years but chose not to; and furious that 11,541 lost their lives as the international community simply sat back and watched.
Over the next six months, until the siege was formally lifted after the reintegration of formerly Serb-held suburbs, a semblance of normal life returned slowly to Sarajevo’s streets. People were able to wander the city, taking their time, trying to adjust from the daily routine of bombardment and slaughter to an unpredictable peace. Perhaps more importantly people were eventually able to leave the city and tens of thousands made the three-hour journey to the Croatian coast in the summer of 1996 for the first time in many years. Thousands of people were reunited at Sarajevo airport; their reactions to seeing loved ones again were heartbreaking, joyous and a beautiful sight to behold.
Twenty years later, the siege remains horribly real in the memory and yet highly unreal. Some events you remember with great clarity while others escape you, even though you were there. Friendships forged during the siege are deeply fraternal, and are quite unlike ordinary friendships. The landmines that once surrounded the city are mostly all gone, while the war graves that fill the city’s cemeteries remain.
Sarajevo was besieged because it has always possessed special qualities that are antithetical to the fascist ideologies of those who besieged it. Sarajevo survived the siege precisely because of these special qualities.