Our power knows no limits, yet we cannot find food for a starving child, or a home for a refugee. Our knowledge is without measure and we build the weapons that will destroy us
John le Carré – Author
OUR COACH STOPPED IN A DUSTY LAY BY and we were told to get off. I was a little confused, ‘Is this the museum?’ I had expected something grand, and in some ways I was met with something grand; a tall house covered in bullet holes. We were rushed around the side of it otherwise I would have taken longer to inspect. We were each handed a ticket and came to an open area where we congregated around a map of Sarajevo during the war.
This was when we came to learn about the siege of Sarajevo, the longest Siege recorded in modern warfare, spanning four years from 1992 to 1995, and of an European Capital which had played host to the Olympics only 8 years previous.
Below is a photograph of the map (1) we stood in front of:
Map (2),also pictured is essentially the same map but turned on its head. I find it a little easier to follow so I will refer to both in this post.
When Serbian forces closed in on Sarajevo, using the mountains as their vantage point, they blocked the supply of any goods (food, water, medicines, weapons) into the City. They also closed off any escape routes out of Sarajevo, if you were going to die, you were going to die in Sarajevo.
THE AIRPORT marked on Map 1 , is the same area marked ‘UN Control’ on Map 2. This was the spot that the UN had managed to negotiate with the Serbs to keep under their control so that they could fly in food and aid when needed. The food however, did not arrive on a regular basis and the Bosnians, feeling deprived and desperate needed another route to transport goods in. The UN imposed embargo also meant that the Bosnians were not equipped with weapons and found defending their city and its inhabitants almost impossible, thus the tunnel served more than one purpose and was recognised as a lifeline for the City.
As fate would have it, the Bosnians in the Free Territory and the Bosnians trapped in Sarajevo had the same idea, despite not being able to communicate with one another. Bosnians on both sides of the airport started to dig their tunnel almost simultaneously, which eventually met somewhere in the middle, saving both sides labour and time. The distinctions between the two tunnels can be seen – the supports built with wood on one end and metal on the other.
The house where the Museum is now built stood in Free Bosnian Territory and served as the family home for the Kolar family, whose men had joined the military. The Bosnian woman remaining permitted and oversaw the digging.
The 800 metre tunnel took 3 months to complete, with digging taking place 24 hours a day, men working in 8 hour shifts. The tunnel was a little over a metre wide and about 1.5 metres in height. It was later fitted with cables and pipes.
When the tunnel became reduntant, the Kolar family preserved part of it and turned it into a Museum, allowing visitors to pass through a portion of it. Having travelled through it myself, I had to stoop down behind my group, walking in single file. I imagined the soldiers walking through it carrying their goods, sometimes while it flooded, negotiating their way through two way traffic in a cramped, dark and wet tunnel.
SNIPER ALLEY (depicted clearer on Map 2 than Map 1) was also pointed out to us, a route that we took on many occasions, without interference or risk of injury or death – entirely different to how it had been 20 years previous.
The buildings in either side of this road were generally high rise, giving the Serbs a vantage point from where they could shoot indiscriminately: men, women, children, soldiers and firefighters.
Resad, our guide told us that when people ran across the road, they would do so with the knowledge that the third in the group was the most likely to get killed. The first person to run would be watched by the snipers, who would get their aim ready by the time the second had crossed, but were prepared for the third, and this is when they would shoot, almost with 100% precision. The UN reported that most deaths were from a shot to the heart or head.
Nearly every person in the city was a moving target for the snipers who had a 2km range – ample for a City whose land had been dramatically reduced: people would literally be running for their lives.
The use of mortar bombs left its scars in the form of Sarajevo Roses: areas dotted around the city where the bombs had landed, distinguishable by the red resin they were later filled in with.
Over 11,000 people were killed in Sarajevo, not including the ones who eventually starved to death or died due to injuries or lack of medication. Of this sum, around one tenth were children.
THE WAR ENDED ANY DEGREE OF NORMALITY as you would expect. But the Bosnians persevered, determined to carry on. Although schools themselves were not open, and teachers were not getting paid, educators would often go to apartments where all the children would congregate, preferring to risk their own lives over their students. University lecturers adopted an open door policy where you could attend and hand in assignments whenever possible rather than sticking to rigid deadlines.
STANDING BESIDE THE MAP,ONE PIECE OF INFORMATION LEFT ME HAUNTED. Resad told us that the Serbians living in their territory adopted a new form of tourism. Regular everyday civilians, would be escorted into the surrounding hills, pay a fee in exchange for a gun so that they too could shoot and kill their Bosnian enemies. I cannot and will not be able to understand how something like this can happen: how a loathsome idea like this can be materialised and prove successful, that some people would actually be willing to take it up like sport. That they would be comfortable giving money to take life. Normal people, people who could have joined the army if they wanted to, if they felt the need to genuinely protect their position and support their country but took a different route entirely.
After returning from Bosnia and reading into the history of the war, I found that Civilian involvement was more commonplace that I had first thought and that incidents have been recorded of civilians joining soldiers to beat; with spades, bats and fists Bosnians held in modern day concentration camps.
AFTER TALKING AT LENGTH about the war we were taken into a room which had a video playing, showing footage of the war: buildings burning, windows smashed, walls collapsed, bullet holes everywhere, tanks slowly roaming the streets and snipers shooting whoever came into their sight. It showed people taking cover behind cars and finding an opportune moments to run, zig-zagging through the street to avoid being hit, all kinds of people: men, women, old, young, fit and infirm.
We also saw Bosnian soldiers struggling their way through the tunnel, men looking exhausted but having no time to stop. I remember vividly; a young man, breathing hard, his breath visible in the cold and thinking that we expect so much from men, especially at times of war. We have a tendency to forgot that they too have limitations and yet we expect them to carry every burden without giving a second thought to their mental or physical capacity.
AFTER WATCHING THE VIDEO, we continued with our questions. Resad told us that the American drafted Dayton Accords which was entered to put an end to the war meant that 49% of Bosnia was part of the Republic of Serbia whereas 51% was part of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. As you would expect the Bosnians feel cheated by this. Oddly enough the Muslim majority area of Srebrenica where Bosnian men were massacred now falls within the Republic of Serbia; an insult and an injustice.
It is encouraged that Serbs and Bosnians live side by side so any person is allowed to now move back into their former home before the war started, making some people effectively homeless, although the acquisition of these homes is sometimes dubious in its nature too. Some homes were taken by force during the war, others were found empty, in either event these homes can be returned to their original owner. For some people the memory of their old homes and lives are too difficult to return back to.
TO ENSURE that the three groups are properly represented within Bosnia; Bosnian, Serb and Croatian ministers are in place for each role, rotating every few months in an attempt to keep everyone happy. The ministers apparently enjoy their positions of power but the country is overrun by them.
Tensions still run high between the groups and it seems as if there are sections of people trying their best to create and maintain divisions. When a flood hit a village within the Republic of Serbia, the other towns within the Republic were unable to send aid, so instead towns within the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina sent help. A Serb minister commented that the residents of the flood affected village would have died had it not been for the assistance offered by the Federation and was promptly removed from his post.
There have also been attempts made to delete or amend history. In the Republic of Serbia, including within Srebrenica, schools have excluded the genocide entirely from their syllabus. Children of Srebrenica will be aware that a cemetery exists as a memorial to all the dead but are taught that the deceased died in combat rather than being killed in cold blood. Whereas Bosnian children living in the same town will know from their own family history of murdered or injured fathers,uncles and grandfathers what really took place, yet will be faced with either complete ignorance or defiance from the Serbs. If two parties are expected to live side by side, without fully acknowledging the other then who knows if the war in Bosnia will be its last.