There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Sarajevo (2), The Siege 1992-95: Part 2 of The Balkans

The next time Sarajevo came to international notice was in 1984 when it hosted the Winter Olympics. The stadium where Torvill and Dean danced their Bolero is still there, but we did not visit it, we have seen ice rinks before and anyway my knowledge of and interest in ice-dancing are both vanishingly small.

On the second evening we had dinner at Kibe, a restaurant high on the head of the valley overlooking the city. Despite the setting and the obvious upmarket décor it was not particular expensive, even by local standards. Again we started with šljivovica with cheese, freshly baked bread and olive oil. Lamb's liver with onions and veal with mushrooms in a sour cream sauce were both excellent, as was the Mostar Blatina we drank with it, a little lighter than the Vranac but full of character. Bosnian restaurants offer the full range of what we usually think of as Turkish sweets – and they are as good as they are in Turkey. We just had enough room left to share a portion of Kadayif.

Lamb's liver, veal with mushrooms and a bottle of Mostar Blatina

In 1992, just over a year after Bosnia’s first multi-party elections, a referendum was held which led to the declaration of independence from Yugoslavia. In protest the Bosnian Serbs, who had largely boycotted the referendum, set about creating the Republika Srpska. They were initially aided by the rump of the Serb-dominated Yugoslavian National Army.

There were many Serb majority areas but creating a Bosnian Serb republic required the removal – or murder – of thousands of non-Serbian residents. The concept of ‘ethnic cleansing’ has existed since humans first formed themselves into tribes, but it was in Bosnia that the term was ‘popularised’. The main victims were undoubtedly the Bosniak Muslims and the main aggressors the Bosnian Serbs, but all three communities, Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks were, at different times, both the victims and the perpetrators of atrocities.

Being both the capital and on the edge of the proposed Republika Srpska, Sarajevo became a focal point of the struggle. Serbian artillery and snipers occupied the hills that dominate the city and Sarajevo was to endure the longest siege in modern history.

I admit to having little understanding of the military mind – my instincts tend to be pacifist – but it is usually possible to discern the internal logic of a military campaign. I am, though, at a loss to understand the military justification for the siege of Sarajevo. When Bosnia declared independence it had no army and the hastily assembled militia were seriously under-equipped; the Serbs could have taken the city whenever they wanted. The well tried medieval tactic of starving out the defenders was abandoned when the Serbs ceded control of the airport to the UN. A constant stream of relief flights ensured that whatever dangers and privations the citizens of Sarajevo had to face, they would not starve. Ratko Mladić, the Bosnian Serb commander now on trial in The Hague, was reported as saying: ‘Shoot at slow intervals until I order you to stop. Shell them until they can’t sleep; don’t stop until they are on the edge of madness.’ What a nice man.

Surrounded by enemy controlled hills the only way in or out of the city was across the airport. This route not only compromised UN neutrality but was also dangerous - the open ground being a shooting gallery for snipers.

Sarajevo under siege
For reasons known only to themselves the publishers of this map decided to put South at the top!

In January 1993 volunteers started digging a tunnel from the village of Butmir, under the airport and into the city. The 960m long ‘Tunnel of Hope’ was completed in 6 months and allowed armaments and humanitarian aid to be carried into the city. It has now been largely filled in, but the Butmir end has been turned into a museum and that was where we headed on Tuesday morning.

We had planned to take the tram to the end of the line and then a taxi to Butmir. Unsure where to buy tram tickets we asked at the hotel, which was how we discovered there were no trams, or more exactly, no trams running the full length of the line. Sarajevo’s venerable tram system was undergoing major refurbishment.

It was suggested we took a bus to the Dobrinja district and then seek further directions. In true Hotel Ada fashion the girl from reception walked down to the old town with us, showed us the (unmarked) bus stop, and when the bus arrived instructed the driver to tell us where to get off and then give us directions.

Dobrinja is a post-war (WW2 that is) suburb at the mouth of the valley, built at right angles to the rest of the city. The road heads south from the main drag hugging the mountains from where Serb snipers could shoot into Dobrinja at will. The Lonely Planet describes the suburb as ‘dreary’ with ‘dismal ranks of bullet-scarred apartment blocks’. Dobrinja has been largely patched up, but the place was built dismal and all the patching up in the world is not going to change that. Just before we reached the border of the Republika Srpska the bus turned right into the estate. We stopped on a wide, though largely deserted, road among the apartment blocks and the driver turned and gestured to us. As we got off he pointed down the road ahead and then indicated a vague right, as though he was showing us the emergency exits on a plane. It was not the most helpful of directions, but what more could we have expected?

We were close to where the eastern end of the tunnel had been. The museum and the surviving part at the western end were only a kilometre away, but were on the far side of the airport. The hills may no longer be alive with snipers, but wandering across an international airport was still not a realistic option.

Fortunately we had been dropped off right beside the Dobrinja taxi rank. We woke the driver in the first car, said ‘tunnel’ in fluent Bosnian and he drove us round the airport, past the tram terminus and into the countryside, dropping us off outside a very ordinary, if bullet scarred, house beside a narrow lane.

The rather ordinary, if bullet scarred, house  that stands over the entrance to the
'Tunnel of Hope', Butmir

There is not much of the tunnel left, but anybody who is anybody - Morgan Freeman, Michael Palin and Paddy Ashdown to name but three - has paid a visit, as their photograph collection shows.

A brief film tells the story of the tunnel. Over a million people passed through it bringing 20 million tonnes of food into the city; there is even film of a man leading a goat through the tunnel. Armaments were brought in as well and eventually rails were laid to allow the movement of heavier equipment. Telephone lines reconnected Sarajevo with the outside world and a power cable supplied electricity.

Lynne inside the Tunnel of Hope
There was other footage from the siege; people hiding from sniper fire, a car driving down a road and being narrowly missed by a mortar shell. All this happened so recently and to people who look like us, dress like us, drive cars down streets like we do that it feels very immediate and deeply shocking. Perhaps we are more used to victims who look different to us because such events happen far away or long ago. Intellectually I know it makes no difference, human beings are human beings, but my response to the pictures came from somewhere which did not involve intellect.

After we had walked through the remains of the tunnel, the museum owner phoned us a taxi. The cab took us back round the airport and down the same main road as on our arrival. We stopped in Novo Sarajevo, the area east of the Austro-Hungarian town, to visit the Sarajevo war museum.

The War Museum

The museum is in a war damaged building deliberately left unrepaired. It tells the story of the siege in photographs and in the artefacts people cobbled together to make life possible. Six weeks earlier we had seen photographs of the worst that human beings can do to each other at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. The photographs of the siege involved different people with a different backdrop but the same horrors. 11 500 civilians – including 1500 children – died. Snipers and random shelling killed and maimed indiscriminately. Not a single building remained undamaged. Food was available, but fuel for cooking and heating during Sarajevo’s savage winters was hard to find. People smashed up their furniture, took off the doors of their rooms and went out into the city’s parks to chop down trees.

Makeshift wood burning stoves
Sarajevo War Museum

A photographer working for Colors magazine was shooting the wartime artefacts. I was pressed into service to hold the end of a makeshift shopping trolley. He said he would remove my hand from the photo later – so there goes my bid for fame.

I become the assistant to a real photographer
Sarajevo War Museum

The museum is opposite the Holiday Inn, which was the only functioning hotel in Sarajevo during the siege and the base for all the foreign correspondents. The road between the museum and the hotel, the main thoroughfare into the city, was the notorious 'Sniper’s Alley'; to cross it was to invite death. It has six lanes and a tramway in the middle, hardly anybody’s idea of an ‘alley’, but few journalists would let the truth spoil a memorable phrase.    

The Holiday Inn across 'Sniper's Alley'

We dropped into the Holiday Inn, partly out of curiosity, partly in search of an ATM. It was basic and battle scarred during the war but is now a luxury hotel again. It has, though, always been this gruesome colour midway between custard and hepatitis; apparently people had choices and someone chose this!

Behind the Holiday Inn are Sarajevo’s twin towers. Much smaller than New York’s, they were set ablaze by artillery fire. They were burnt out shells for many years after the war but have now been rebuilt exactly as they once were.

Sarajevo's twin towers

We walked in the drizzle from Novo Sarajevo past the Alipašina Mosque, built in 1561……

The Alipašina Mosque

….and into the Austro-Hungarian quarter.

The Markale is Sarajevo’s main food market. It is not one of the world’s great markets, but with strawberries at 3 Marks (£1.20) a kilo – and excellent strawberries they were too – a little dowdiness can be forgiven. On the 5th of February 1994 a mortar attack on the crowded market killed 68 and wounded 144. The siege had slipped from the front pages of the world’s newspapers but the massacre put it right back. International outrage was, however, not sufficient to stop it happening again. In August 1995 five more mortar shells hit the market killing 37 people.

The Markale

The second massacre brought an immediate military response from NATO. After Belgrade was bombed the Serbs forced their Bosnian cousins to the negotiating table and the resulting Dayton Accord, signed in December 1995, ended the Bosnian War.

The Markale

The Accord acknowledged the existence of two ‘entities’ within Bosnia-Herzegovina – the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska. With many of its former leaders on trial in The Hague, the Republika Srpska has followed a more moderate path. There are no longer check points between the two entities, they now have the same currency and a unified army. All of which makes Bosnia more normal and blurs the distinction the war was fought to create. So why was it fought in the first place?

On our last evening we walked up to the wall round the Vratnic Citadel. The two restored towers are  now a museum to the memory of Alia Izetbegović, independent Bosnia’s first president, war leader and afterwards Bosniak representative in the tripartite presidency.  He died of heart disease in 2003. Unlike some of the Serbian leaders, Izetbegović was not a war criminal but I find it hard to believe he was as saintly as the museum makes out. Few (if any) national leaders are without faults and attempts to present them as such make me uncomfortable.

Restored tower on the Vratnic Citadel

Alia Izetbegović is buried in the vast Muslim war cemetery below the citadel. After his death there were suggestions that the airport should be renamed in his honour. The Serbs objected and Paddy Ashdown, the international High Representative, decided the move would be divisive, so the airport remains plain Sarajevo International.

The grave of Alia Izetbegović
Kovači Martyr’s Cemetery, Sarajevo

On Wednesday morning we left Sarajevo for Mostar. The destination boards in the bus station - Banja Luka, Tuzla, Goražde, Srebrenica - were a roll call of 1990s headlines.

For most of its 550 years Sarajevo pottered along as the small, quiet capital of an obscure province of a distant empire. Twice, though, in the 20th century it became the focus of international attention, and the second time brought the city close to annihilation. It is now well into the process of recovery and there is no sign that any side wants to reopen the old wounds. It is a small, cosy city as capitals go, with a beautiful setting. The setting though is a curse as well as a blessing; it brought the Winter Olympics and it also brought the siege. What Sarajevo needs now is a prolonged period of peace and growing prosperity, and there are grounds to be optimistic that it is getting exactly that.

1 comment:

  1. I'm reading a play "The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" by a friend, Carla Seaquist based on her series of telephone conversations with Vlado Azinovic who kept an independent radio station going during the siege. It's been staged many times around the country, but now appears in her new book "Two Plays of Life and Death" (Amazon) Thanks for providing great context!