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Sarajevo's century, bracketed by wars and brief Olympic joy

Sarajevo's century, bracketed by wars and brief Olympic joy
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Special envoy Laurence Alexandrowicz reports: “Welcome to our special edition dedicated to the centenary of the First World War. We learned in our history books it was triggered by the assassination in Sarajevo, of an archduke. This is the very place, at the end of [a historic] bridge: 1914 to 2014, a look back at the years that marked the Bosnian capital.”

Six years before the assassination, Austria-Hungary had annexed Bosnia, at that time a Serbian province. Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were on a visit to inspect the occupying troops. On 28 June, a 19-year-old nationalist shot both, fatally. One month later, Austria declared war on Serbia and nation after nation, committed through alliances, was dragged into what the world would first know as the Great War.

Alexandrowicz recounts: “Sarajevo lay at the heart of international attention again 30 years ago, as host of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games. It was now part of a united Yugoslavia, living its hour of glory.”

Today, almost three quarters of what was built for sports lies in ruins. The city became a war zone again. These were the first winter games to be held in a communist state. Athletes came from 49 countries.

Said Fazlagic Secretary General Olympic Committee BIH remembers before it became a battleground: “People were happy, everything was open 24 hours a day. People felt proud to be part of the Olympic movement. It was huge for a socialist country. Still today I think we benefit from the 1984 Olympics, because so many tourists are coming here.”

Politics was set aside. Peaceful competition was celebrated. Sarajevo was thriving. This was where modern luge, skating, and skiing had been introduced, in the Austro-Hungarian old days.

Alexandrowicz explains: “Who could have predicted that eight years later Sarajevo would be the theatre of a murderous war? The Bosnian capital suffered the longest siege in modern history.”

The siege lasted from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996. It was three times longer than the Siege of Stalingrad in WWII.

General Jovan Divjak struggled to protect the city throughout the 1,425 days of terror: “We didn’t have heavy artillery. We didn’t have any outside help. We didn’t have ammunition. Our radio transmission was bad. We had logistical problems. We didn’t have the means to do more. The Serb Army fired on Sarajevo to keep us in fear.”

We visit the Markalé Marketplace in the historic heart. In February 1994, a bomb targeting civilians massacred 68 people and wounded more than double that. The following year it happened again. Their names are on the wall.

Esad Rozder reads his sister’s name every day he’s here: “All around me there were dead people. I was the only survivor. What saved me… I had bent down to pick up a cabbage. Then came the explosion. When I stood up, they were all on the floor.”

The second attack on Markalé added to the pressure for NATO air strikes against Bosnian Serb forces.

More than 11,000 of Sarajevo’s inhabitants were killed in the siege.

American intellectual Susan Sontag described Sarajevo as ‘the city that began the 20th century with one war and ended it with another’.