The 1992-1995 war in Sarajevo is a not-so-distant past. It took over 11,000 lives including countless childhoods, and still very much affects day-to-day life.
We had two tour guides with very different attitudes to postwar Bosnia. One is getting his masters in International Studies and writing his thesis about how Bosnia’s three ethnic groups have been even further segregated after the war by the Treaty of Dayton, but is more positive that in the future they’ll be able to live together peacefully again. The other was more negative, with less hope for the future prospect of a Bosnia with three happily mixed ethnic groups now that the Bosnian Serbs in the Serbian Federation have been so physically as well as politically separated from the rest of the population living in the BiH Federation, and says it is even closer to being Serbian than ever before.
While the future is complicated and uncertain, the past clearly exists in the everyday. For four years, shells dropped on the city at an average of once every minute. Eighty-five percent of casualties were civilians. And since the country was so newly formed and there wasn’t an official army, the army that made up the remaining 15% of casualties was almost entirely civilian volunteers. Bosnian Serbs targeted maternity wards and funerals. This was not your average war. This was a war on life.
The people of Sarajevo kept mentally fit with events to “pretend they had a life” as one guide put it. The film festival started during the war, running movies with generators because of spotty/nonexistent electricity. A “Miss Beseiged Sarajevo” pageant was held in 1992, partially as a plea for international attention.
The newspaper operated the whole time, printing in basements. During times when Sarajevans had electricity, they studied the news on TV, looking for bodies of loved ones in the wreckage behind the reporters. Since shutting down all communication was the Bosnian Serbs’ first move in bombing the post office, there was little other way to learn whether loved ones were still alive.
As in any war, food became an issue. Eventually a 1.6m high tunnel was built to allow food and other necessities to be transported in and out of the city, but that wasn’t until war had been underway for over a year. Humanitarian aid came from the Vietnam War and WWII—manufactured decades prior. Packages of biscuits were stamped with “Made in 1961”. After the war, a monument was erected to send a sarcastic thank you to the world for its help. One of the most common features of humanitarian aid during wartime was a yellow can of Icar ground beef that locals say “not even dogs would consume.” The inscription on the large metal monument reads “To the international community, the grateful citizens of Sarajevo.”
The war did not just tear apart the city of Sarajevo or the country of Bosnia, but it also effectively separated Bosnias from the rest of the world. Many argue that, where a democratically elected government was the sole cause for the 1992-1995 war, Sarajevans today still place too much blame on the international community for their suffering during the war and after. The international community provided aid, but Sarajevans say it was so low quality that the sheer act of providing it was disrespectful. The international community finally stepped in to help find a solution, but when one had been found, Sarajevans argue it is such a complicated government structure that no vital decision has ever or will ever be made. Who can win this argument? There is no question Bosnians were in dire need of more/better international help than they received, but are they taking enough national responsibility?
I took a highly recommended half-day tour of the tunnel with Insider Tours. After the UN took over the Sarajevo airport, it did not allow any member of either warring side to cross that land, including Sarajevan refugees. Sarajevans spent half a year digging a tunnel under the airport to the suburban neighborhood on the other side, where vegetables were grown in small gardens and bread baked in each home. Many who lived in this neighborhood were virtuous, and provided what they could at the lowest possible cost. But many grew very rich selling these commodities at sky-high prices in Sarajevo markets during the war.
The tunnel was 1’40 m wide to 1’60 m high, meaning a person must hunch over with their backs at a 45 degree angle to be able to traverse the 800 m length of the tunnel. In addition, the average person carried 50 kg on their backs, and had to wade through deep puddles caused by ground water.
Most wars are recorded in history books and recounted by grandparents. The stories of this war are told by 25-year-old tour guides who, just two decades ago, escaped through the very tunnel they’re guiding you through today. Sarajevo’s unemployment rate is currently at 40% (some Sarajevans claim it’s closer to 50%)—work is hard to find, but tourism is a growing industry in the city. Your 26-year-old tour guide may not have much of a choice but to revisit that pain multiple times a week, so don’t be surprised if they aren’t thrilled to be telling their personal stories another time. I can’t imagine.
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