Veterans: The siege of Sarajevo

The city may now be at peace but reminders of its violent past are never far away.

During the brutal conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s, the Bosnian capital Sarajevo was besieged by Serb forces for nearly four years. As part of the Veterans series, Al Jazeera has visited Sarajevo and found that reminders of the country’s violent past are never far away.

Ismet Godinjak is a rare thing in Bosnia – an Olympic and European champion. His success is all the more impressive given that he and all of his teammates have lost limbs as a result of landmines planted during the bloodiest conflict in Europe since the Second World War.


by ”Emir

divide the society along ethnical lines. And I didn’t want to be a part of that game. But yes, unfortunately, to some extent they succeeded”]

Godinjak is captain of the Sarajevo-based Phantoms sitting volleyball team, named after the mysterious pain felt in an amputated limb. The team won the European Cup last year and several of its members were in the Bosnia team that won the gold medal at the Athens Paralympic games in 2004.

Godinjak says the Phantoms’ extraordinary team spirit comes from its players being veterans of one of the longest sieges in modern history and that experiences of war and disability have strengthened them. “Because we have tasted the bitter side of life and successfully overcome it we know that the situation can be can be worse and we can fight it and win over it, becoming stronger out of it,” he says.

But reminders of Bosnia’s brutal and divided recent past can be found even on a volleyball court.

“Three or four years ago we played against a couple of teams from Serbia in the Euro league,” Godinjak says. “Frankly speaking these are the people that we fought against … And they still were under influence of ideology, waving war symbols… years after the end of the war, still they had that mind set.

“We agreed that we would not let them provoke any negative reaction. We had a name and reputation at that time and didn’t want to spoil that. In the end that was one of our best games.”

Civilian targets

Like the Phantoms, Sarajevo is today a success story and a city on the up. However, reminders of its violent past can be found everywhere, such as the blotches of red paint – known as “red roses” – marking the spots where mortar victims met their death.

In the spring of 1992, Sarajevo’s citizens were forced to take up arms to defend themselves from attack by Serb forces whose violent actions against Bosnian Muslims across the country gave rise to the very term “ethnic cleansing”.

Civilians, including children, were targeted by Serbian forces
Civilians, including children, were targeted by Serbian forces

The resulting siege lasted 44 months.

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s decision in 1991 to break away from the Yugoslav Federation and become an independent nation enraged Serbian leaders in Belgrade. They persuaded their fellow ethnic Serbs within Bosnia – who made up around half of its population – to prevent the secession by any means necessary, even if that meant launching an all-out war and expelling their Muslim neighbours by force.

Despite superior military forces, led by Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, Serb forces were unable to capture Sarajevo outright and so encircled it, shelling and continuously weakening the exposed city from its surrounding mountains. Civilians were deliberately and systematically targeted and thousands of children were among an estimated 10,000 people killed in Sarajevo during the war.

“We had neighbours… and they had this wonderful kid,” Ognjen Dzidic recalls. “He was like five or six years old. He had, like, blond curly hair – an angel, a real angel. He was so funny, so full of life. One day they were crossing the bridge, he, his mother and his grandmother. And the mortar shell fell … He died, the grandmother died, and the mother was crippled for life.”

With Sarajevo surrounded on all sides, its citizens were forced to construct a tunnel to connect it with the UN controlled airport and the Bosnian controlled territory which lay beyond.

Ethnic divide

In August 1995, a Serb mortar attack killed 37 people and wounded 90 more in a popular market. Footage of the atrocity was broadcast worldwide causing widespread revulsion and outrage that the Serbs were continuing to deliberately slaughter civilians with impunity.

Having stood aside for so long Nato finally took action against the Serbs, launching a series of air raids in an attempt to force them to the negotiating table and bring a resolution to the conflict.

In October a ceasefire was agreed. And later in the year the Dayton Peace Accords were signed in Paris, dividing the country into two entities – a Bosnian/Croat Federation and a Serb Republic.

For centuries Bosnian Muslims, Serb and Croat Christians, Jews, Gypsies and others, had lived side-by-side in what was sometimes referred to as the “Jerusalem of Europe”. People from all those backgrounds put ethnicity aside to defend their city from attack and consequently many veterans feel betrayed by the division of the country along ethnic lines.

“I believe that is why some other people, Serbia, or Croatia – why they actually started the war in the first place,” Emir Pobric says. Emir was a student when the siege started in 1992 and joined the hastily assembled Bosnian army. He now works for Nato.

“This was the aim that they wanted to reach, that they [wanted to] divide the society along ethnical lines. And I didn’t want to be a part of that game. But yes, unfortunately, to some extent they succeeded.”

“I never felt like a Serb. I mean I was born and raised here as a citizen of Sarajevo and Bosnia,” says one Bosnian Serb who fought during the siege and asked to remain anonymous – an indication of the divisions still prevalent in Bosnian society. “So when the war started there wasn’t any dilemma, I was just here to fight for my city, and for my people – not thinking of Muslims and Serbs at all… But I know there is always a chance that old bloody passions get alive again, you know.”

Those old passions are still evident. Nedzad Seric, another Bosnian army veteran, says he cannot forgive his Serb neigbours. “How can you respect someone who throws a mortar grenade and kills 50 people? Is he brave? Is he doing something good? The war is finished. So what? Let’s kiss? I can’t,” he says.

“We can live by each other, but I don’t feel nothing towards them – at least nothing nice. They can continue with their own lives. God will punish them for what they did.”

Searching for justice

Nedzad has rebuilt his life since the war. Abu Hamza has tried to do the same but could soon be forced to leave Bosnia. He was awarded Bosnian citizenship along with other Arab veterans who fought in the war alongside Bosnia’s Muslims and saw the conflict as a matter of faith.

But despite marrying a Bosnian widow whose first husband was killed during the war and having three children, Abu Hamza now faces deportation after his citizenship was revoked – he claims, after pressure from the US.

“After September 11, everything changed completely. We became the ‘terrorists’,” he says.

But he remains proud of his role during the war. “Abu Hamza is a human being and Abu Hamza is a Muslim,” he says. “As a human being I am completely regretful, but as a fighter and a Muslim I consider my blessings to be from God and I don’t regret anything.”

Mirsad Tokaca has spent the years since the war attempting to document the exact number and identities of those who lost their lives and says this is the only way of re-establishing the multi-ethnic society that existed in Bosnia before the war.

“If we want to do this … we need full truth about the events – who, when and how he was killed,” he says. “There is no discrimination of victims. There is no peace without justice. We don’t believe in a peaceful future for Bosnia without justice for its victims.”

The lack of justice for those who fill the many graveyards in Sarajevo is why many of Bosnia’s veterans cannot forget the past. Mladic is still at large with many suspecting he is being protected by the authorities in Belgrade, while Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian president, died in prison in The Hague before a verdict on war crimes had been reached.

A new generation is growing up with no memory of the horrors that befell their elders but everyone in Sarajevo is aware that the peace that exists is deeply fragile. There are mounting fears after Kosovo declared independence, that the Serb Republic in Bosnia, officially known as the Republic of Srpska, will follow suit.

Nedzad has a young daughter who has known only peace. But the tragic history of this war-scarred and divided region gives him little cause for optimism.

“Somehow … this region is full of fools. And somehow we, we never learn,” he says. “It’s like a repetition. I will not use mathematics to tell how many years between the conflict, but for sure, some day we will have the conflict.”

Watch Part Two: