What Caused the Siege of Sarajevo and Why Did It Last so Long?

Eleftheria Christou

4 mins

04 Jul 2019

Since 1945 Yugoslavia had been an idyllic but fragile union of six socialist republics, including Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia.

However by the 1990’s growing tensions between the different republics saw a nationalist revival in the region.

In the years that followed competing nationalist forces would rip through the country, tearing apart the very fabric of Yugoslav society, in a bloody war that would see some of the worst atrocities in Europe since the Second World War.

A government building burns after being hit by tank fire in Sarajevo, 1992. Image credit Evstafiev / Commons.

The Siege

Whilst much of the country became the scene of brutal fighting and ethnic cleansing, a different, but no less horrific situation was unfolding in Sarajevo, Bosnia’s cosmopolitan capital. On 5 April 1992 Bosnian Serb Nationalists placed Sarajevo under siege.

In stark contrast to the the complex nature of the conflict, the situation in Sarajevo was devastatingly simple. As wartime journalist Barbara Demick put it:

Civilians were trapped inside the city; people with guns were shooting at them.

13,000 Bosnian Serb troops encircled the city, their snipers taking position in the surrounding hill and mountains. The very same mountains that had once provided residents with so much beauty and joy as a popular excursion site, now stood as a symbol of death. From here, residents were relentlessly and indiscriminately bombarded by mortar shells and suffered under constant fire from snipers.

Life in Sarajevo became a twisted game of Russian roulette.

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Surviving

As time went by supplies dwindled. There was no food, no electricity, no heat and no water. The black market flourished; residents burnt furniture to keep warm and foraged for wild plants and dandelion roots to stave off hunger.

People risked their lives queuing for hours to collect water from fountains that were in full view of the snipers who preyed on desperation.

On 5 February 1994 68 people were killed whilst waiting in line for bread at the Merkale Market.  Once the heart and soul of the city, the market place became the scene of the single biggest loss of life during the siege.

Residents collecting firewood in the winter of 1992/1993. Image credit Christian Maréchal / Commons.

In the face of unimaginable hardship, the people of Sarajevo remained resilient, developing ingenious ways to survive in spite of the devastating conditions they were forced to endure; from improvised water waste systems to getting creative with UN rations.

Most importantly though, the people of Sarajevo continued to live. This was to be their most effective weapon against the relentless attempts to break them, and perhaps their biggest revenge.

Cafes continued to open and friends continued to gather there. Women still styled their hair and painted their faces. In the streets children played among the rubble and bombed out cars, their voices mixing with the sound of gunfire.

Before the war, Bosnia had been the most diverse of all republics, a mini Yugoslavia, where friendships and romantic relationships were formed irrespective of religious or ethnic divisions.

Perhaps most astounding was that, in a war marred by ethnic cleansing, the people of Sarajevo continued to practice tolerance. Bosnian Muslims continued to live a shared life with the Croats and Serbs who remained.

Residents stand in line to collect water, 1992. Image credit Mikhail Evstafiev / Commons.

Sarajevo endured the suffocation of siege for for three and a half years, punctuated by daily shelling and fatalities.

The signing of the Dayton Agreement ended the war in December 1995 and on 29 February 1996 the Bosnian government officially declared the siege over. By the end of the siege 13,352 people had died, including 5,434 civilians.

Lasting effects

Walk around Sarajevo’s cobbled streets today and you are likely to see the scars of the siege. Bullet holes remain scattered across battered buildings and over 200 ‘Sarajevo roses’- concrete mortar marks which were filled with red resin as a memorial to those who died there – can be found across the city.

Sarajevo Rose marking the first Markale Massacre. Image credit Superikonoskop / Commons.

However, the damage is more than skin deep.

Nearly 60% of Sarajevo’s population suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and many more suffer from stress related illnesses. This is reflective of Bosnia as a whole, where the wounds of war are yet to heal and the use of anti-depressants has seen a sharp rise.

The uncertain post-war period has also done little to quell the anxieties of a traumatised population. Despite a small reduction, unemployment remains high and the economy has struggled under the burden of rebuilding a war torn country.

In Sarajevo, Byzantine domes, cathedral spires and minarets stubbornly stand as lasting reminders of the capital’s multicultural past, yet today Bosnia remains divided.

In 1991 a census of Sarajevo’s central five municipalities revealed its population to be 50.4% Bosniak (Muslim),  25.5% Serbian and 6% Croat.

By 2003 Sarajevo’s demographics had drastically changed. Bosniaks now made up 80.7% of the population whilst only 3.7% of Serbs remained. Croats now accounted for 4.9% of the population.

Mezarje Stadion Cemetery, Patriotske lige, Sarajevo. Image credit BiHVolim/ Commons.

This demographic upheaval was replicated throughout the country.

Most Bosnian-Serbs now live in the Republika Srpska, a Serb-controlled entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Many of the Muslims who once resided there fled to areas held by Bosnian Government forces during the war. Most have not returned.  Those who do are often met with hostility and sometimes even violence.

Nationalist rhetoric continues to be preached by politicians, who secured major success in recent elections, and religious iconography is still hijacked for intimidation. Outside of Sarajevo, schools, clubs, and even hospitals, are separated along religious lines.

The snipers may be long gone and the barricades taken down, but it is clear that divisions continue to remain in the minds of many residents today.

However Bosnia’s continued ability to withstand the tragedies of its past and the hate that was to engulf it, is a testament to the the resilience of its people, raising hope for the future.

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