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Sarajevo - a city under siege from its past?


Sarajevo - a city under siege from its past?

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Sarajevo is a city which over the centuries has been called the Jerusalem of Europe – a symbol of multi-cultural and ethnic unity where those of Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox and Jewish faith lived together.

But in April 1992, it became another symbol: one of the tragic wars that erupted when Yugoslavia broke apart and nationalism and ethnic hatred pointed its guns to this city.

For more than three and a half years, Sarajevo was under siege. The Bosnia Serb army, with its Yugoslav heavy artillery, surrounded the Bosnian capital. Civilians became open targets for the snipers.

When the siege ended in February 1996, more than 11,000 Sarajevans had been killed. Thousands more had been wounded and displaced. Sarajevo, like Bosnia and Herzegovina, became more divided along ethnic lines.

These photographs of Sarajevo during the siege are part of a permanent exhibition at the city’s history museum.

It shows how Sarajevans lived during the war. Because they were surrounded and because of the UN arms embargo, not only was defending the city difficult but also getting food, water and electricity were all part of a daily struggle.

But for many Sarajevans the feeling of isolation was worse. Of an international community, especially the west, which reacted too slowly and too late to stop the siege.

Elma Hasimbegovic of the History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina explains, “That was a major issue or major accusation that the people of Sarajevo were left by the world, let down, left to survive on their own, fight on their own. And I think as an example, I could point out the monument here in front of the museum. It shows the food can which was donated during the siege, ICAR can, the beef can done by a Bosnia artist who expresses I think in the best way this feeling of loneliness we had. We were given food, we were given humanitarian aid to have food to survive, but left to be killed.

But the west did eventually react with NATO bombings that led to the 1995 Dayton peace accords which ended the war.

Yet, during the war, help did come in the form of thousands of foreign soldiers from the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Most of them left after 1996, but funding from Muslim countries poured in to help rebuild a shattered city and country.

Today some of that aid has come under increased scrutiny. Especially from countries like Saudi Arabia said to finance only mosques and islamic organisations and schools whose aim is to spread a stricter or more fundamentalist version of Islam.

Mustafa Ceric has been the grand mufti of Bosnia since 1993. For him, this scrutiny is unfair.

“What is wrong with influence? We are influenced here by everybody. So you should tell me which of the influences are good for bosnia and which influences are not good for Bosnia. But I have one experience of course and one truth that people have a hard time to accept. If it had not been for the muslim help for us in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I would not be speaking to you. And I don’t accept and I dont allow anyone to put us into this moral suicide to blame those who helped us and now to run after those who did not help us when it was necessary,” he said.

Today it’s estimated that 80 per cent of Sarajevans are of Muslim faith – a third more than before the war.

Esad Hecimovic wrote a book about the mujahadeen who came to Bosnia during the war. He says most of them left and they are not a threat to Bosnia’s more moderate version of Islam.

He claims if anything, it was the collapse of Yugoslavia and its communist system that opened Bosniaks to meeting Muslims with a very different interpretation of Islam.

“Some of them asked for purification of Islam in Bosnia because our understanding of Islam was too close to Christian people. It was also against some beliefs of Islamic missionaries and fighters who came to Bosnia during the war. But it was just a marginal development. The primary reason for our conlict in Bosnia was ethnic: ethnic conflict and inability of political leaders to make constitution to share power between different ethnic groups,” he said.

Jovan Divjak was a general in the Yugoslav army when the war erupted. Here he shows us where Bosnian Serbs and the Bosnian army fought for control of the city.

For Divjak, an ethnic Serb, there was never a question of leaving Sarajevo, its people and the multi-cultural spirit which he wrote about in his book “Sarajevo mon amour”. His bravery earned him trust and mistrust from both sides.

“At the beginning of the war, the Serbs, the Yugoslav army, would have been very happy to arrest me since I had left that army. For the Serbs, I betrayed them but for the Bosnian nationalists, they never believed me. Even today sometimes I hear them say, why did he stay? Why didn’t he leave? But I’ve lived in Sarajevo for 46 years. It’s my city. I feel like a citizen of Sarajevo, of Bosnia and of Europe. European. A real one,” he stressed.

Svetozar Pudic, an ethnic Serb, also stayed in Sarajevo during the siege. He was wounded by a sniper during the siege.

Pudic is behind a project to build a monument honouring Sarajevo’s Serbian civilians who were killed during the war.

He says while the spirit of Sarajevo is not broken, it is wounded and reconciliation can only come when victims of all sides are remembered. For him, its the politicians who need to change.

“Everything was used to fulfil political goals. So the cultural differences, the religious differences were aimed to divided the society.
But it was just excuses, it was just small talk, it was just lies. The greed was the driving force,” he said.

Twenty years after Sarajevo’s siege began, these politics based on ethnic division are still a bitter pill to swallow for many of the city’s population of some 400,000.

Elma Dizdar was a university student during the siege. Today she is a professor. For her, the worst part of the siege was the children who were killed.

And today, for her, the worst part is that schools here don’t teach about Bosnia’s recent past.

“Well, actually they’re not taught about this part of their history, this particular part of their history, everything that is related to the latest war, to the latest conflict because it was impossible to reach a consensus about how to teach this to children. Even though I think that some facts that exist should be taught. There are facts that children have the right to know.”

But how to teach a young generation about a war that killed more than 100,000 people.? A war driven by ethnic nationalism that has left this country of 4 million people still far from reconciliation.

“The division between west and east Germany lasted 40 years. Maybe in 20 years, there will be a generation here who will no longer think about the war, one which wants to live in Europe and can erase the lines that exist today between the two entities,” hopes Jovan Divjak.

This is one of Sarajevo’s most powerful memorials: it pays tribute to the 1,500 children who were killed during the siege.

Like the city they lived in, they represented different ethnic and religious backgrounds.

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