THE SIEGE OF SARAJEVO, OR 11'541 LIVES
AND 1'216 DAYS...
By Jim Marshall
The war that ravaged Sarajevo and claimed over 11,541 lives, including those of 643 children, began on the 5th of April 1992, following several weeks of barricading and the deployment of JNA (Yugoslavian National Army) artillery to strategic points in and around the city. On this date, two young women, Suada Dilberović and Olga Sučić, were shot dead by Bosnian Serb paramilitary snipers during a peace demonstration. The bridge on which they were killed, that was subsequently situated in no-man’s land during the siege, is now named in their honour. The siege of Sarajevo formally began on the 2nd of May 1992 with a complete military blockade of the city, and formally ended on the 29th of February 1996 following the reintegration of several previously Serb-occupied areas of the city.
The siege was characterised by a deliberate and systematic process of murder and brutality in which densely populated areas were routinely targeted by Serbian heavy artillery and sniper fire. A number of significant massacres punctuated the siege, beginning with an early attack on a bread queue in the city centre on the 27th of May 1992 (26 killed), through two attacks in the suburb of Dobrinja in the summer of 1993 - one on a football game (15 killed) and one on a water queue (13 killed) - to the city centre Markale market massacres of the 5th of February 1994 (67 killed) and the 28th of August 1995 (43 killed). However, the siege was principally punctuated by almost daily attacks that took the lives of thousands of Sarajevo’s citizens of all ages and of all ethnicities.
Extensive destruction of the city’s buildings and infrastructure were another key feature and indeed objective of the military siege of Sarajevo. This was typified by the deliberate targeting of non-military buildings. Those destroyed during the siege included the National Library, the Olympic Museum, the Olympic indoor arena ‘Zetra’, the Oslodođenje newspaper building, schools, public utilities, religious buildings, and even the city’s maternity hospital and main old people’s home.
Throughout the siege, Sarajevo’s citizens lived largely without water, gas and electricity, existed on pitiful quantities of food, had limited access to medicine, and were forced to endure a neutral international military presence (UNPROFOR) that consistently stood by and merely watched the premeditated slaughter of innocent civilians as a result of a cynical, politically expedient refusal to differentiate between principal aggressors and principal victims during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
For despite a U.N. presence in Sarajevo even prior to the outbreak of hostilities and a decision from the U.N. Security Council in the spring of 1993 to declare Sarajevo a “safe area”, UNPROFOR troops were themselves increasingly targeted and killed by the VRS (Bosnian Serb Army) as the siege dragged on. So unprepared and unwilling was UNPROFOR to properly defend the people of Sarajevo and so cognizant were the besieging VRS of this fact that even the Bosnian Deputy Prime Minister, Hakija Turajlić, was killed by a Bosnian Serb soldier near Sarajevo airport on the 8th of January 1993 while sitting in a U.N. armored vehicle.
Following the second Markale massacre on the 28th of August 1995, NATO intervened with an air campaign – Operation Deliberate Force – that seriously degraded the military capabilities of the VRS and effectively signalled the beginning of the end of the siege of the city. Western critics of military intervention and U.N. representatives had always argued that such an intervention would not break the military siege – in effect it did so even after just the first 72 hours of air strikes.
Perhaps the most decisive battle during the Sarajevo siege, in which only the courage and resourcefulness of the city’s defence forces prevented the VRS from driving such a wedge through the middle of Sarajevo that the city may have subsequently fallen, was centred around a bridge with a name that represented the very tolerance that the city’s besiegers betrayed and the city’s defenders valued: ‘Brotherhood and Unity’. For true citizens of Sarajevo of all ethnic backgrounds still celebrate their diversity, exercising an impressive, natural tendency towards tolerance.
The siege lasted 1,398 days and is the longest in modern human history. Sarajevo still bears significant physical scars from the siege: the walls of its buildings are visibly pockmarked and houses on its hillsides remain devastated. Sarajevo’s citizens still bear significant psychological scars, and continue to mourn the thousands lost to the siege, as everyone in the city knew a number of victims personally.
And yet where there was death there is now life, and where there was hopelessness there is now vibrancy and purpose, and where Sarajevo once was — it still remains.