Two Decades After Siege, Sarajevo Still A City Divided

Apr 5, 2012
Originally published on April 5, 2012 8:30 am

April 6 marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the Bosnian war and the siege of Sarajevo. It was the longest siege of a capital city in modern history, and produced the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II.

Over three-and-a-half years of war, 100,000 people were killed, and half of Bosnia's population of 4.4 million — made up of a plurality of Muslims — fled their homes.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli covered the war and reports that today, despite the intervention of the international community, ethnic division is deeply entrenched in what some analysts describe as a failed state.

Even Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, has its Occupy movement, consisting of dozens of tents outside the government building.

The protest is a rare example of ethnic unity — angry Muslim, Croat and Serb veterans demanding that the government respect its promise to pay them pensions.

Samir Causevic, a Muslim, vents his anger at the politicians.

"These are just liars sitting here. They want us to become thieves, to steal around to be able to get some food for our kids, just to feed them," Causevic says.

Darko Ninic is a Croat who fought to defend the city.

"The war was another time. We were all much younger and had to obey our leaders," Ninic says. "Now, we're all together in this struggle. We must not forget the war, but we have to move on."

Milovir Savic, a Serb who fired on the city from the surrounding hills, stands next to his former enemies.

"There's no winner in this war, and if the politicians continue like this, there's no future for us here," Savic says.

'First Reality Show In The Modern World'

Twenty years ago, Yugoslavia was falling apart. After war in Croatia, ethnic tensions exploded in Bosnia, another former province. Serbs — Bosnia's second-largest ethnic group — opposing independence opened fire on a peace demonstration in the capital, killing two women. That was the start of the war and of the siege of Sarajevo.

"We were the first reality show in the modern world," says theater director Haris Pasovic.

Like most Bosnians, the 50-year-old is still bitter that Western governments stood by for more than three years before intervening against Serbian forces.

"Viewers around the globe could watch live people in Sarajevo being murdered or starved, people killed on the street, people going for miles to collect some water," he says.

Sarajevo was inexplicable: a medieval-like siege in late 20th-century Europe, its citizens locked in as Serbs fired cannons at schools, libraries and hospitals, while snipers took aim at people gathering water or attending funerals.

Over 44 months, more than 11,000 people were killed and 50,000 wounded.

Today, Besieged By Politicians

For the survivors, the siege remains the defining moment of their lives. And for many who were children, it was not always a nightmare.

"A lot of people don't believe it, but we as kids had a lot of fun," says Yusuf Hadzic, a 28-year-old who works at a DVD store in Sarajevo's new shopping mall.

"I often played in the park with the dogs of the special units, then we stole the dog food [to eat]," he says.

"But it was tasty, really," he says, adding that they had no meat.

Today, paradoxically, Hadzic feels besieged in a different way — this time by politicians who use ethnic divisions to stay in power

"All of them push their religion like a shield but in the background fill up their pockets," he says. "That is the worst thing that could happen to this country."

International watchdogs say Bosnia today has one of the highest government corruption rates in Europe and its economy is in shambles. Unemployment is at more than 40 percent, and a major source of revenue is remittances from Bosnians abroad.

Hopes For Restoring Multi-Ethnic Tapestry?

But Bosnia's major problem, analysts say, is division along ethnic lines. Those divisions are endorsed by the country's constitution and enshrined in the 1995 Dayton peace accord.

Srecko Latal, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, says the country is divided into virtual mono-ethnic enclaves.

The Dayton accord split Bosnia into two semi-autonomous entities, a joint Muslim-Croat federation, and what is called the Serbian republic. Together, the two entities form Bosnia, which has a three-way rotating presidency — with one president for each ethnic group.

Affiliation to one of the three constituent groups — Muslim, Croat and Serb — is a requirement for election to the presidency and many other offices. This means that minorities — for example, Roma and Jews — are barred from running for the Bosnian presidency.

"Radical nationalist ethnic rhetoric has been a proven recipe for winning elections, and many politicians have been winning elections since the end of the war this way," Latal says.

Even education is strictly segregated. Children from different ethnic groups — often in the same building — follow totally separate curricula.

Ahmet Alibasic, a professor at the University of Sarajevo's Faculty of Islamic Studies, says the result is that today, most Muslim, Croat and Serb children are totally ignorant about each other.

"I must admit I am a bit worried, because many of the causes of the conflict are still there," Alibasic says. "Given the wrong combinations of conditions and circumstances, they might produce another conflict."

Hopes of restoring Bosnia's prewar multi-ethnic tapestry have proved elusive. Many Bosnians hope that commemorating the 20th anniversary of the start of the war will revive international attention and stimulate efforts to build a more inclusive society.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A bitter anniversary comes tomorrow. Twenty years ago, in 1992, a war began in Bosnia with the siege of Sarajevo. It became the longest siege of a capital city in modern history. During three and a half years of fighting, 100,000 people were killed and over two million Bosnians fled their homes. Only international intervention stopped the war.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli covered the war then, and has now returned to a city that remains deeply divided.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS)

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Even Sarajevo has its Occupy movement - dozens of tents outside the government building. This protest is a rare example of ethnic unity - angry Muslim, Croat and Serb veterans demanding the government respect its promise to pay them pensions. Darko Ninic is a Croat who fought to defend the city.

DARKO NINIC: (Through translator) The war was another time, we were all much younger, and had to obey our leaders. Now we're all together in this struggle. We must not forget the war but we have to move on.

POGGIOLI: Milovir Savic, a Serb who fired on the city from the surroundings hills, stands next to his former enemies.

MILOVIR SAVIC: (Through translator) There's no winner in this war, and if the politicians continue like this, there's no future for us here.

POGGIOLI: Twenty years ago, Yugoslavia was falling apart. After war in Croatia, ethnic tensions exploded in Bosnia. Serbs - opposing the country's independence - opened fire on a peace demonstration, killing two women. That was the start of the war and of the siege of Sarajevo.

HARIS PASOVIC: We were the first reality show in the modern world.

POGGIOLI: Like most Bosnians, theater director Haris Pasovic is still bitter that Western governments stood by for more than three years before intervening against Serbian forces.

PASOVIC: Viewers around the globe could watch live people in Sarajevo being murdered or starved, people being killed on the street, even people going for miles to collect some water.

POGGIOLI: Sarajevo was inexplicable - a medieval-like siege in late 20th century Europe, its citizens locked in as Serbs fired canons at schools, libraries and hospitals, while snipers took aim at people gathering water or attending funerals. Over 44 months, more than 11,000 people were killed and 50,000 wounded.

For the survivors, the siege remains the defining moment of their lives. And for many who were children, it was not always a nightmare.

YUSUF HADZIC: A lot of people don't believe it, but we as kids, we had a lot of fun.

POGGIOLI: Twenty-eight-year-old Yusuf Hadzic works at a DVD store in Sarajevo's new shopping mall.

HADZIC: I often played in the park with the dogs from the special units, then we stole the dog food and eat that. But it was tasty, really. We had no meat.

POGGIOLI: Today, paradoxically Yusuf feels besieged in a different way - this time by politicians who use ethnic divisions to stay in power.

HADZIC: All of them push their religion in front of them like a shield, but in the background fill up their pockets; that is the worst thing could happen to this country.

POGGIOLI: International watchdogs say Bosnia today has one of the highest government corruption rates in Europe, and its economy is in shambles. Unemployment is over 40 percent and a major source of revenue is remittances from Bosnians abroad. But Bosnia's major problem, analysts say, is division along ethnic lines.

Those divisions are endorsed by the country's constitution and enshrined in the 1995 Dayton peace accord. Srecko Latal, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, says it's politicians who promote mono-ethnic enclaves.

SRECKO LATAL: Radical nationalist ethnic rhetoric has been a proven recipe for winning elections, and many politicians have been winning elections ever since the end of the war in this way.

POGGIOLI: Even education is strictly segregated. Children from different ethnic groups - often in the same building - follow totally separate curricula. Ahmet Alibasic, a professor at Sarajevo's Faculty of Islamic Studies, says the result is that today most Muslim, Croat and Serb children are totally ignorant about each other.

AHMET ALIBASIC: I must admit I am a bit worried because many of the causes of conflict are still there. Given the wrong combinations of conditions and circumstances, they might, you know, produce another conflict.

POGGIOLI: Hopes of restoring Bosnia's pre-war multi-ethnic tapestry have proved elusive. Many Bosnians hope that commemorating the 20th anniversary of the start of the war will revive international attention and stimulate efforts to build a more inclusive society.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Sarajevo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.