Images of desperate civilians, burning buildings, and reports of atrocities dominated TV screens in the 1990s. Bosnia and the capital Sarajevo suffered the longest siege in modern history, lasting almost four years. Life was tough, but resilient Sarajevians pushed on as usual. Here’s their story.
Before we continue, let me explain what caused the Siege of Sarajevo. Yugoslavian president, Josip Broz Tito, united Bosniaks (Muslims), Croats (Catholics), and Serbs (Orthodox Christians). Tensions boiled over again after his death in 1980, leading to Slovenia and Croatia eventually declaring independence from Belgrade. Bosnia soon followed.
But, Bosnia was multicultural with Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats living within the country’s borders. Sarajevo was mixed. Bosnian Serbs wanted to stay with Belgrade while Croats wanted allegiance with Croatia.
Conflict was inevitable.
Bosnian Serbs formed an army supported by Serbia. They besieged Sarajevo on April 5, 1992. Bosnian Croats briefly put Mostar, Herzegovina’s centre, under siege too.
Fighting erupted around the country.
The Siege of Sarajevo lasted almost four years from April 1992 until liberation on February 29, 1996. A total of 13,952 people died, including 5,434 civilians.
Here’s a collection of first-hand accounts from Sarajevians, some quotations and other snippets, to paint a picture of what life was like in besieged Sarajevo.
“Tensions began to build after Bosnia declared independence. We knew something was going to happen,” explains one Sarajevian. “But we didn’t think it would be as bad or as long as it was.” Many others I spoke to agree.
In the early stages some fled, taking advantage of the limited flights and buses. Others stayed because they couldn’t afford to leave, didn’t want to go without elderly relatives, were optimistic for international help, or a combination of all three.
“After all, the world will help us.”
Peace talks held by the European Community failed. Barricades soon completely blocked all routes in and out of the city.
“And to make matters worse, the world imposed an embargo. We couldn’t get weapons to defend ourselves against an army backed by powerful Yugoslavia.”
More than 500,000 Sarajevians stayed. Most hid inside their homes. Snipers set up position in the hills, the same ones giving the capital a picturesque setting today. Gunshots echoed both day and night. Shells and mortars rained down.
Days turned into weeks and weeks into months. Supplies dwindled. Food, water, and fuel shortages became the norm.
“Blackouts and rationing became part of daily life.”
Those who lived in apartment blocks quickly moved to shelters or basements, often sharing living spaces with several other families. Life was tough.
“We couldn’t provide our children with nourishment,” reflects an elderly resident.
Another remembers: “We only survived the cold winters by burning books and furniture.” Average lows in winter almost always drop below freezing point.
Delila, our Airbnb host in Sarajevo, was lucky enough to escape to Sweden. She opined: “Everyone pretended life was normal under abnormal circumstances. Children went to school and adults went to work. Theatres set up plays and music bands had concerts. You had to live day by day. Everyone helped their neighbours. This attitude helped people survive or they would go crazy.”
Delila’s account showed human resilience when faced with dire situations. She went on to conclude: “People were more human under the inhuman circumstances of the Siege.”
Walking in the streets, people would dress as normal as they could. Young women donned their best and put on lipstick and eyeliner. If they didn’t, they would lose their identity and purpose, which means ‘the Serbs have won’.
Other survivors share similar accounts of camaraderie and bonding. Many turned to religion. “The only thing we could do was pray to Allah that our family and friends would survive.”
Food and water shortages became part of daily life. Supplies diminished. Many survived on the intermittent humanitarian aid, which included the infamous ICAR Beef and food from the black market smuggled in via the Sarajevo Tunnel.
“We lived mostly on rice, tinned meat or fish, cooking oil, and small packets of sugar. We ate boiled nettles and put dandelions in our salads for vegetables.”
Sometimes the bakeries were open. Most of the time they weren’t. People risked their lives to line up for hours in the bitter cold winter while exposing themselves to snipers and shells.
Markale Market, an open-air market where desperate locals tried to get food, became a place of two massacres. On February 5, 1994, a mortar landed killing 68 and wounding 144. A second came on August 28, 1995 that caused 43 people to lose their lives while injuring 75 more.
Toilets didn’t flush, causing a cholera scare in 1993. The only source of water was from outside fountains in the firing line of snipers who shot those waiting. Many died. The Sarajevo Brewery provided relief; it provided fresh water inside without exposure to snipers. The Brewery became a lifesaver.
Parents often sent their children to collect water. I found this to be shocking since many Sarajevians told me the snipers deliberately targeted the children. “They thought the children should be inside scared,” a tour guide bitterly reflects. “Not playing outside like normal kids. So they shot them to teach a lesson.” Estimates suggest 1,500 children died in the Siege of Sarajevo.
Another guide remembers her childhood in besieged Sarajevo saying: “Children were smaller, faster, and could hide more easily. It was safer for us to go out.” Parents didn’t want to send their kids. They didn’t have a choice.
Towards the end of 1995, Bosnian and Croat forces together began to drive the Serb army back. Water and food supplies slowly started to return. The Dayton Agreement in December 1995 signalled the end of the Bosnian War. The Bosnian government officially declared the end of the Siege on February 29, 1996. Shortly after, the capital’s demographics changed. Bosnian Serbs living in Sarajevo moved to Republika Srpska, contributing to the divided country today.
The future isn’t bright. Some are optimistic for a united country. Many others aren’t. Scars remain with bullet-riddled apartment blocks, high unemployment, and endemic tensions between ethnic groups and politicians. Delila’s thoughts matched the opinion of all Bosnian’s I spoke to regardless of ethnicity: “People need to vote for the right politician. The ones who have their best interests in mind. Not those focusing on ethnic tensions and using it for their personal gain.”