Unless you want to read some cosmic meaning into this, it’s just by sheer bloody coincidence that both the starting and parting shots of the 20th century were fired in and on Sarajevo, respectively.
Not in a literal sense of course: the previous century was already 14 years old when a Serbian nationalist assassinated the Austro-Hungarian crown prince Franz Ferdinand in the Bosnian capital; and it still had 8 years to go while ethnic militias started to tear apart the newly-independent state of Bosnia-Herzegovina, beginning with its capital.
But one might say that both events at least symbolically bookend the previous century, Gavrilo Princip’s bullets in 1914 shattering the uneasy European turn-of-the-century peace that felt more like a truce, and the Bosnian-Serb siege of the city from 1992 to 1996 indicating that the fall of communism wasn’t the ‘end of history’ some people expected it to be.
For the rest of Europe, the siege of Sarajevo was a brutal reminder that decades of calm and (relative) prosperity won’t dull the murderous tribal instinct of the human animal. For Sarajevo itself, the encirclement by Bosnian-Serb forces meant large-scale deprivation, hunger and death, its citizens picked off one by one by snipers on the surrounding hills, or slaughtered wholesale by artillery shells aimed at the thronging, understocked markets of the city.
The encirclement of Sarajevo lasted from April 5, 1992 to February 29, 1996. It was the longest siege in modern history and one of the main theatres of the wider Bosnian War, which pitted Bosnian forces (mainly Muslim Bosniaks, but also Catholic Croats and some Orthodox Serbs) of the newly-independent former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina against ethnically Serb Bosnians who didn’t want to live in a state separate from their Serbian motherland, and as a result wanted to carve out their own Republika Srpska from Bosnian territory, to be aligned or even reunited with Serbia proper (a similar separatism was at work in Croat-dominated areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina).
Estimates say more than 12.000 Sarajevans were killed and 50.000 were wounded during the siege – almost all of them civilians. By 1995, Sarajevo’s population had dropped by a third from pre-war levels, by death and migration, to just over a third of a million.
Shooting in Sarajevo started on the same day Bosnia declared its independence, with Bosnian Serb forced encircling the city implementing a blockade from May 2, 1992 onwards. Roads, utilities and shipments of food and medicine were cut off. The besiegers were better armed than the besieged, but the city’s defenders were more numerous; this prevented the Serb forces from taking over Sarajevo, so instead they intended to pummel it into submission by constant bormbardments. On average, besieged Sarajevo was hit by 329 shell impacts per day – with a record of 3.777 on July 22, 1993. At the end of 1993, virtually all buildings in the city had been hit, and 35.000 were competely destroyed. The biggest single massacre took place in Markale market on February 4, 1994: 68 civilians were killed and 200 wounded by a mortar attack.
The destruction of Sarajevo was so deliberate, so destructive that a new word was coined to describe it: urbicide – a term that since then also has been applied to Gaza and New Orleans. One of the grisliest developments of the Sarajevo siege was Sniper Alley, a street so exposed to Serbian firing positions that to walk it meant certain death; running provided some chance of survival. In fact, there were several Sniper Alleys in Sarajevo.
During the siege, Serbs managed to get hold of several outlying districts of Sarajevo, for example the suburb of Novo Sarajevo. UN airlifts into Sarajevo Airport, regular from June 1992 onwards, became essential for the survival of the besieged city. More essential still was the Sarajevo Tunnel, dug under the airport, which connected the capital with government-held territory beyond the city. The tunnel, completed in mid-1993, allowed the movement of people and arms in and out of the city.
After a second massacre at Markale, the besiegers became targets themselves: NATO strikes destroyed Serbian ammo dumps, and a Croat-Bosnian offensive drove back Serbs all over Bosnia. A cease-fire was agreed in October 1995, but the Bosnian government didn’t declare the siege over until the end of February 1996, after the Dayton Agreement was formalised.
Sarajevo hasn’t been in the news that often since the end of the Bosnian war; apparently, the place is recovering quite well from the war, with construction booming and population up to almost pre-war levels (despite the fact that most Serbian Sarajevans left, many for the Serb-controlled section of the city, East Sarajevo).
This map gives a bird’s eye view of Sarajevo during the siege, almost in the style of a naïve children’s painting.
* A red line indicates the border between the government-held city and Serbian-held surrounding areas.
* The Serbian side of that line is stocked with the diverse instruments of raining death on the city below.
* Many of Sarajevo’s landmarks are shown (mosques, churches, a football stadium), but not named; maybe someone familiar with the city can provide some help.
* In the bottom left-hand corner, the UN-held airport is shown inside the Sarajevo line; in reality, Sarajevans could only access the outside world by going below the airport, via the tunnel that is shown just to the left of the cargo plane on the runway.