Written From… Morgan Hill, California, USA
“Enes! Take off that red shirt!” screamed a mother at her little son, “or the snipers will shoot you!” Those were the days in Sarajevo when anyone, even a toddler, could be shot if spotted. Those were the days when Sarajevo was under siege by the Bosnian-Serb forces. Those were the days when the people of Sarajevo lived undercover because their city was on fire.
Have you thought – what is the state of the cluster of Eastern European countries that were once the great Yugoslavia? What happened to the famous Tito’s legacy? What really happened during those fateful days, months and years as families endured fire, bombings, shelling, looting, smuggling and more? What is life like today in these countries?
No? You are not alone. Not many think of these questions or even know to ask.
In the summer of 2017, we took a road trip through the Balkans and met wonderful people along the way. We spent days with people, young and old, who lived through the wars and the rebuilding of their countries. Their stories are fascinating and moving. They tell stories of fear and hope, of hate and love.
Sarajevo has many tumultuous stories, with a major war breaking out about every 50 years. More recently, Sarajevo was under Serbian siege for nearly 4 years, from April 5 1992 to February 29 1996 – 1,425 days to be precise. It was the longest continuous siege of a city in modern history. As the rest of the world watched, over 55% of the population left Sarajevo or perished. During the siege babies were born, kids grew up, people fled and life happened.
On our trip, we spent a day with 29-year-old Enes, a local guide, historian and ambassador for peace. He was a toddler when the siege started and has lived his entire life in Sarajevo, although he jokingly dreams of moving to his favorite country, New Zealand.
This is the story of Sarajevo under Siege as narrated by Enes, the young man that grew up in this city through times of war and peace.
Leading Up To Sarajevo’s Siege
After the Second World War, Josip Broz Tito united the six Balkan republics that formerly comprised the Kingdom of Yugoslavia into the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. He had a special charisma, a wartime legacy as the ‘liberator of Yugoslavia’ and a diverse background spanning multiple Balkan republics – to unite all the people. While many in the west thought of him as the archetypal communist dictator, the people of Yugoslavia loved him. As we heard from people in many of the Balkan countries, life in Yugoslavia at the time was the best they’d had before or thereafter.
9 years after Tito’s death, Serbian nationalist radicals brought Slobodan Milošević to power in Serbia on a wave of nationalist ideology akin to making ‘Serbia Great Again’ – where Belgrade would strengthen its influence, and centralize political and administrative control in Yugoslavia. Life would be worse for the rest of the Balkans. Fairly quickly, Slovenia, Croatia, and others left. Bosnia had a referendum in which 64% of the people (Catholics and Muslims) voted to leave Serbia. A more detailed account can be found on many sites like Wikipedia
Start of The Sarajevo Siege
Serbians and Bosnian-Serbs wanted to take control of the city, which meant that either the non-Serbs in Sarajevo would have to flee or risk death. Strategically, they first destroyed the electric power plants, water treatment and supply routes, communication, and hospitals. The goal was to quickly surround the city, breakdown life and declare Serbian authority. The siege made survival near impossible but some people prevailed through sheer perseverance.
Family Life During The Siege
During four years of shelling, half the population of Sarajevo left the city. The few like Enes and his family, decided to stay. They were forced to live underground in bunkers during shelling or for the fear of being killed at any moment. But without air circulation, the basement would stink.
Enes’ mom revolted and decided it was better to die while living in their home than to live in the basement. His father yielded and they moved back into the house, thus maintaining a little bit of decency in their lives. Miraculously, they survived, but some family members were not as lucky. Even today there are many apartment buildings with holes from gunshots and shelling.
During the Siege, apartments with families and kids were continually shelled and shot at. People were forced to live in squalid basements. Many such buildings remain abandoned in Sarajevo today – Photo by Story at Every Corner
Enes’ grandfather is still missing and they continue to search for his body. He was possibly killed in the massacre on July 13 1995, in Srebrenica. Those that survived didn’t do too well either. They can’t even bear the sound of fireworks as they recall chilling memories.
Food and Water during Sarajevo under Siege
Everything was rare and extremely expensive. There was little or no food to buy. One of the few things Enes’ mom cooked, under the circumstances, was a nettle pie – made from the leaves of stinging nettles.
One can survive without food for days! As Enes says, our bodies need very little food. But, without water, we can’t last more than 2 days. So people risked their lives to get water!
They had two major functional sources of water: the beer factory and the streams in the woods. The beer factory was more convenient, so lines formed outside in the open for people to get water. This meant that they became targets for snipers. Many men, women, and children were shot standing in line for a drink. Stream water was another source of survival, but mines were planted in the woods. Anyone desperate enough for water or shrubs would risk death.
Old water fountains still remain in Sarajevo, but one had to stand in line and risk life to get water during the Sarajevo siege – Photo by Story at Every Corner
Getting food was filled with risks too because people standing in line meant they risked becoming easy targets. Food in the form of aid was received from NATO and the US. But, to our horror, the food handed out was just about ancient and inedible. Enes got tuna cans from the Vietnam war!
School When Sarajevo Was Under Siege
Moms wouldn’t let their kids wear red shirts when stepping outside for fear that they would be easy to spot by snipers. Schools were easy targets so kids like Enes and his friends didn’t go to school. The schools were shut down. But parents needed the kids to stay busy and learn for when the war passed. In an attempt to do so they created makeshift schools in basements and homes. The kids got an education, made friends and had fun in these makeshift schools. They also learned techniques to make it safely back and forth, without getting shot.
The Tunnel of Hope
Where there is evil, there is equal amounts of good. While the tunnel of hope may not have saved Sarajevo from the Siege, it certainly kept people alive until the war was put to an end.
The Tunnel of Hope that kept Sarajevo under Siege alive – Photo by Story at Every Corner
Knowing that the world could do nothing, the people, police and remaining military forces had to figure out a way to save the city by themselves. They certainly could not fight the opposing armed forces or find a path over ground beyond the controlled area. But there was the airport, which was under NATO control. They came to the conclusions that they could dig a tunnel under the airport area, without the Serbian forces right above them.
They dug the tunnel from both sides of the airport – inside Sarajevo and outside the controlled area. It took four months with hand shovels and buckets. With ingenious engineering, both ends met at the same point under the ground. A family that volunteered their home for the tunnel built a museum that tells its story.
This house, an entrance to Sarajevo’s Tunnel of Hope, is a must-see for anyone even slightly interested in human perseverance and ingenious against all odds – Photo by Story at Every Corner
Hobby Shooting During Sarajevo’s Siege
We hear about the kindness of some amazing people throughout our lives and in history. For me, the hardest thing to comprehend was how low some humans stooped during this war. It’s crazy how people can command others to shoot people. It’s traumatic to think people would plant bombs or shoot at other fellow living beings, just because they had an order to kill.
But it’s completely mind-boggling how this became a sport during Sarajevo’s Siege. It was shocking to hear that people actually paid the Serbian forces for the opportunity to become snipers and to shoot at people and children on the streets of Sarajevo. Sarajevo contained an infamous sniper alley, the perfect target venue to practice shooting skills. Today some buildings have been rebuilt with modern architecture and others are a sad reminder of the past when walking out in the open could be deadly.
Today some buildings have been rebuilt with modern architecture and others are a sad reminder of the past when walking out in the open could be deadly – Photo by Story at Every Corner
Muslim And Jewish Friendship In Sarajevo
While the world knows of the Muslim-Jewish conflicts in Israel and the Arab world, little is known of their comradeship in Bosnia. Back in the fifteenth century, Jews escaping Spanish terror made a home in the Ottoman-ruled Sarajevo. During World War II, when Bosnia was occupied by Croatia (a Nazi puppet state then), most Jews, Gypsies and minorities were marched to the concentration camps. But Muslims protected their Jewish neighbours by hiding them in their houses – giving them Muslim names and treating them like family. A Muslim librarian saved the all-important Sarajevo Haggadah when the Nazis came to destroy one of the most precious collections of Jewish books.
When Sarajevo was under siege in 1992, Jews helped thousands of Muslims escape. They even consented to the Jewish cemetery being bombed by Sarajevo because the Bosnian-Serbs forces were hiding and shooting from there.
The Jewish cemetery up in the hills of Sarajevo became a refuge for the snipers to shoot at Sarajevo’s people – Photo by Story at Every Corner
Before World War II, the Jewish population in Sarajevo was at 20%. Today the Jewish population has decreased to under 1,000.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Cease Fire And Politics Today
On July 11th, 1995 the unthinkable was done. The Bosnian Serbs killed 8,000 Muslim men in the Srebrenica massacre. NATO then attacked the Bosnian-Serb forces. On Nov 21st, a peace deal was brokered in Dayton, Ohio between Bosnian Muslim President Alija Izetbegovic, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.
Enes’s mother cried at the news that the war had ended because, with the Dayton Agreement, Bosnia and Herzegovina became an irreconcilably divided country. It is governed by a complex administration in which, three concurrent presidents take turns at holding power. No one cares for unity, peace or the well-being of the people.
As a result, Sarajevo has few extremely wealthy and mostly poor people. There is 40% unemployment and 70% of the youth have no jobs or hope. People, especially the highly educated population, continue to leave for other countries.
Life in Sarajevo Today
Sarajevo is very cosmopolitan, and culturally diverse. Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox and the minority Roma and Jewish populations live together and seem to yearn for peace. As Enes, our young guide says, religion is a private matter. What really matters is if one can care as a neighbour and be friends.
Feature image: olafpictures – Pixabay
Nirmal and Jyoti are a travel loving couple always ready to hit the road. They share stories of people and places with the hope to inspire the love for exploration. They are originally from India and grew up in many parts of India, Kenya, Thailand, and Canada. They now live in San Francisco Bay Area.