“Sarajevo’s vision of itself as a place where Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs live together is alive, but barely. Despite its grave and beauty, and its ethnic ambition, Sarajevo is likely to be known in future as a city of death. It will be remembered as the place where Gavrilo Princip [Serb] triggered World War One by assassinating Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 and where, 80 years later, its people survived 1,000 days of siege.”
New Straits Times, p. Section F
28 December 1994.
SARAJEVO, Tues. — Bare foot in freezing mud and wearing only a nightdress, a young woman clambered down the steep bank and waded into Sarajevo’s Miljacka river, trying to drown herself.
The swift current tugged at her clothing and she lost her footing. Seconds later only her long hair could be seen trailing downstream.
Horrified bystanders, who leapt in and saved her, told reporters she had been driven mad by the siege of Sarajevo which on Dec. 31 will have lasted 1,000 days.
The ultimate fate of the woman, who tried to drown herself two winters ago, is unknown, but Sarajevo’s cemeteries are gorged with the bodies of more than 10,000 residents killed by Serb snipers and guns during the past 33 months.
Another 50,000 Sarajevans have been wounded since the desperate early days of the siege in April 1992, a time when local gangsters threw up makeshift barricades against Serb tanks and gun battles raged in the streets.
A thousand days later, Serbs hold the high ground around Sarajevo, but not the city itself. Its 380,000 residents have settled into a twilight existence suspended between war and peace.
Street fighting by irregulars has given way to static warfare as battle-hardened Bosnian army soldiers face Serb forces in trench lines ringing the city.
A Dec. 24 ceasefire, the latest of several score signed in Bosnia since the war began, has reduced the level of firing around the city to virtually nil, but few here expect the lull to last.
While Bosnia’s citizen soldiers have defended the city, the United Nations has kept it alive. UN peacekeepers re-opened the airport in June 1992 and began a humanitarian airlift that has seen more than 10,000 aid flights land here.
Cargo planes and lumbering land convoys have hauled millions of kilogrammes of food, medicines and clothing, as well as fuel and building materials needed for shelter, into the capital in the largest aid operation ever mounted.
General Sir Michael Rose, the current UN commander and the one who brought the greatest improvement to Sarajevo, will leave his post in January with scant credit from local citizens.
Television footage of a marketplace massacre last February in which 68 Sarajevans were killed by a mortar bomb so offended the international community that NATO threatened to bomb the Serbs if they did not pull their heavy weapons off the hills surrounding the city.
When the big guns fell silent, Rose seized the moment to partially restore basic amenities to Sarajevo. Trams began to run along “sniper alley” — it was given the name because of its exposure to marksmen who track civilians using it — for two months this summer and convoys of goods and civilian vehicles moved in and out of the city.
Cafes and night clubs reopened. Amidst the rubble, Sarajevo regained some of the gaiety it displayed as host of 1984′s Winter Olympic games.
Some said the siege was over, but soon enough Serbs closed the land routes again. The shooting and shelling was mostly over but Sarajevo’s suffering was not.
Relying on humanitarian aid, foreign remittances and their own courage and determination, residents are still coping with irregular supplies of water, electricity, and gas. Darkness and cold remain the constant companions of most Sarajevans as the Bosnian capital goes through its third winter of war.
Pensioners desperate for firewood emerge from their homes before dawn to scour snow-covered parks and streets for the branches of trees blown down overnight by the wind.
Sarajevo’s only land link with the outside world remains a cramped tunnel dug under the UN-controlled airport.
Barely large enough for a man to stand up in, the tunnel is used night and day as a conduit for arms and ammunition, and black market food and fuel that keep Bosnia’s capital alive. The bodies of Sarajevo soldiers killed in outlying areas are brought home through the tunnel at night in hellish torch-lit scenes.
Troops and ordinary citizens with the right papers leave the tunnel only to face a nightmare journey up a mountain road under Serb fire, their way littered with bullet-riddled cars, trucks and buses that came to grief trying to get in and out of the capital.
Minarets still jostle with Catholic and Orthodox church spires across the city skyline, but the city’s spirit has been damaged.
Sarajevo’s vision of itself as a place where Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs live together is alive, but barely. Despite its grave and beauty, and its ethnic ambition, Sarajevo is likely to be known in future as a city of death. It will be remembered as the place where Gavrilo Princip [Serb] triggered World War One by assassinating Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 and where, 80 years later, its people survived 1,000 days of siege. – Reuter