When you hear the words Bosnia and Herzegovina, what, if anything, comes to mind? Before learning more about this country in the Balkans, when I heard its name, I drew a blank. I knew a war and genocide had recently taken place there, but that was about it. Bosnia, like many places in the world, was a country overlooked by the education system I grew up in and a mysterious place forgotten about by the Western world.
As odd as it sounds, I've always found genocide interesting and have been drawn to regions recovering from conflict, so when I heard our group would be studying and visiting Bosnia I was excited. In preparation for our excursion, we read The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway and Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War by Peter Maass.
I thought I knew what to expect going into these books, but they blew me away in the worst possible way. The Cellist is a fictional story told from the perspectives of four characters living under the siege of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. It does a fantastic job of putting the reader in the shoes of someone daily living under war. It also wrestles with the issue of our humanity, how it can be lost during war and the journey of the characters as they reclaim it.
Love Thy Neighbor, written by an American journalist, gives an informative look into the history of the Bosnian war, the major players in the conflict, and the role (and failure) of the United Nations and Western countries to intervene. It also bears witness to the nausea-inducing torture and abuses suffered by victims. I've read several books that deal with similar issues, yet Maass’ account may be the most difficult I've ever encountered. To hear how humans so creatively and excruciatingly inflicted pain on other humans, and even took delight in it, was nothing short of unbelievable.
I was shocked at what happened in Bosnia, embarrassed at my country’s hypocrisy (saying “never again” about the Holocaust while simultaneously knowing what was taking place in the Balkans and refusing to take action) and lack of intervention, disappointed at how the UN handled the situation, and, overall, heartbroken. How could this happen so recently? How could no one care? What does this conflict say about our human nature, our governments, our “development”? When is military force necessary? How do we know when to intervene?
Obviously I only know a sliver of the story, but it was in the light of these questions and this new understanding of Bosnia that we set out to see the place where these things happened.
The Scars of Sarajevo
Early last Thursday morning we departed from Budapest and arrived in Sarajevo by evening. Surrounded by thick, green hills, Sarajevo is Bosnia’s largest city and the place that suffered the longest siege of a city in modern history, lasting 1,425 days from April of 1992 to February of 1996. The days in which, on the other side of the Atlantic, I was born and experiencing my first few years of life.
Although Sarajevo has seemed to move forward in several ways with inspiring courage and resolve, the wounds of the war are still apparent. My first sense of this was purely physical. Several buildings and houses in the city are crumbling and littered with gaping bullet holes, seemingly untouched since the end of the war. Other buildings have sporadic patches where these holes have been filled in but not yet painted over. These buildings that bear witness to the war stand in confronting contrast to the fresh, brightly painted new buildings that at times looked quite garish and out of place.
Another physical observation came while driving into the city and seeing the hills blanketed with hundreds of white graves, some of the graves of the 13,952 people that died during the siege. Upon our first glance at this sea of graves, Lauren, a student in our group, blurted out, “There’s too many!” And she’s right. There are too many.
The Tunnel of Hope and the Failure of the UN
The following day we took a tour of Sarajevo’s “Tunnel of Hope.” The tunnel was constructed by the Bosnian Army during the siege to connect the city (under Serb control) with Bosnian-controlled territory on the other side. The tunnel allowed people in Sarajevo to escape the city (well, if you had connections or could afford to buy a pass out) and allowed food, weapons, humanitarian aid, and other goods to get into Sarajevo.
The tunnel stretched beneath Sarajevo’s airport, which during the war was controlled by the United Nations. Because one side of the airport was Serb territory, and the other side Bosnian, many civilians who couldn't afford a pass for the tunnel risked their lives running across the airport tarmac. Around 800 of these civilians died while crossing, trying to escape the misery of Sarajevo or even simply to bring food to their families on the other side.
In Love Thy Neighbor we learned how UN soldiers had orders to capture civilians trying to cross the airport and send them back. The UN would often shine a spotlight on the escapees, and then the Serbs, who also kept watch, would shoot them. On one hand, if the Serbs hadn’t let the UN control the airport, very little aid would likely have reached Sarajevo. It appears that the UN, trying to do the best they could, had to choose to between pulling out of Bosnia or staying and operating on the Serb’s terms. Yet to hear how the UN essentially partnered with the Serbs to kill civilians at the Sarajevo airport is infuriating.
This is just one narrative of the UN’s failure in Bosnia. Arguably the largest and most grotesque story of their failure lies with the Srebrenica massacre. The UN designated Srebrenica a “safe area” under their protection. However they didn't stand in the way when Srebrenica was overtaken in July of 1995 by Serb forces or intervene when they proceeded to slaughter over 8,000 civilians, deported 20,000 more, and raped and terrorized along the way (1). Srebrenica has been recognized as “the greatest atrocity on European soil since the Second World War” (1).
Before we left the tunnel museum, I got talking with Belma, a historian who works at the exhibit. When I asked about her feelings towards the UN, she seemed a bit hardened and reserved. Very graciously, she mentioned that it would be wrong to be ungrateful because the UN did deliver food, medicine, and many necessities it was impossible to find in Sarajevo during the siege. However it seemed very important that she mentioned how the UN catered to the Serbs, were complicit in killing civilians trying to cross the airport tarmac, and essentially allowed the genocide of Srebrenica. With a bit of a grieved resignation in her voice, Belma concluded “they provided aid, but not security.”
Growing Up Under Siege
Belma also shared with me a bit of her personal life growing up in Sarajevo during the siege. She was seven when the war broke out and mentioned that most of her childhood memories are spent indoors, often hiding in the basement or under the kitchen table. She had one year of “real” school before the siege began. After that, she did what most schoolchildren did: gathered in the safest house in the neighborhood and were taught by whoever was a teacher in that neighborhood. She remembers how damaged the city’s buildings were; no glass went unbroken, no building went untouched, facades were ridden with bullet holes and shrapnel.
Belma’s father was in the Bosnian Army and once, when he used the tunnel, he brought her back a deodorant stick – a luxury impossible to find in Sarajevo. She told me how she never even used it, she would just smell it from time to time. She kept it for ten years.
Deodorant. How silly this might seem to us, but such a testament to how war changes everything. Nothing goes untouched or forgotten about by this evil force that destroys everything in its path. The everyday things we take for granted, the things we count as necessities: toilet paper, lotion, laundry detergent, electricity, running water, education, mobility… they’re suddenly ripped out from under us.
Sarajevo at Sunset
One night in Sarajevo we climbed one of the city’s many hills to watch the sunset and hear the evening call to prayer. While walking we passed another graveyard, like the ones I previously mentioned; a field of white gravestones, all with dates of death in the early '90s. It was sobering to be confronted, again, with the reality of the war, set against the backdrop of an absolutely stunning city and sunset. It almost feels wrong how beautiful Sarajevo is, nestled in a valley with mountains rising up on all sides (the same mountains used in the '84 Olympics). The skyline dotted with minarets, the Miljacka River winding through the center. It is one of the most beautiful cities I've ever been to.
Yet one can’t fully appreciate Sarajevo’s hills and mountains, at least not if you know their stories. These beautiful hills are the same ones that gave Serb forces and snipers the best vantage point for attacking the city, killing civilians as they dared to cross a street or ventured out to find water. To see these hills, to walk these streets, to sleep in this town… it constantly begged the question, twenty years ago at this moment, what was happening? What did things look like? What shells would be exploding, what snipers would be firing? It was sobering to so peacefully and freely walk around Sarajevo knowing what has so recently taken place here.
Even more sobering is to see and meet locals, knowing what they lived through, and potentially participated in, such horror. Bosnia isn't a fictional story. These are real people and this city is their home, the home where such unimaginable things took place. The people and home the rest of the world ignored during Bosnia's darkest hour.
BiH Part 2, sharing about our visit to Mostar and the need for economic development in Bosnia, is coming soon!