In a divided country, Sarajevo commemorates 30 years of siege with an eye on Ukraine

Thirty years ago, on April 6, 1992, the siege of Sarajevo began, the longest in modern history. For more than three and a half years, the 360,000 inhabitants were trapped under fire by Bosnian Serb forces and watched around the world. Three decades later, images of the victims of the war in Ukraine rekindle this trauma as the country continues to be plagued by threats of secession.

April 6, 1992the day of recognition of the independence of the Bosnia and Herzegovina by the European Community, thousands of citizens from all over the country gather at sarajevo and calls for peace. Croats, Serbs, Bosnians meet in the streets. But from the roof of the Holiday Inn hotel, Serb nationalists opened fire on the crowd. The city then rocks in a seat that will last 44 monthsuntil February 1996. From the heights, Bosnian Serb forces bombard the capital, snipers fire on the besieged inhabitants and a total blockade is established.

Thirty years later, the images of this siege that turned the world upside down are etched in everyone’s mind. On the occasion of the commemorations and a few days after the discovery, after the withdrawal of the Russian troops, many corpses in the Ukrainian city of Boutchalocal authorities did not fail to draw a parallel with the current conflict.

“What had not stopped in the 1990s in Bosnia is becoming even more visible throughout Europe and the world,” the mayor of Sarajevo, Benjamina Karic, lamented on Tuesday, according to AFP, during the ceremony organized in the National Library, a symbol of the damage caused during the siege, now rebuilt. “What we thought belonged in the history of human dishonor returns to the scene through brutality, destruction and fascist ideology dressed in new clothes,” adds Benjamina Karic, who turned one in April 1992.

Sarajevo Twin Towers destroyed by bombing, June 6, 1992. Georges Gobet, AFP

“A fierce will to resist and survive”

During the siege of Sarajevo, more than 11,500 people, including 1,600 children and adolescents, were killed and more than 50,000 wounded by Bosnian Serb forces. For Henry Fabiani Zipper, A researcher associated with Iris and a specialist in the Balkans, said siege had then marked “the harsh awakening of a Europe frozen by the iron curtain and the East-West opposition and the sudden resurgence on European soil of a war of ‘unnamed savagery’. For this former ambassador, this conflict marked Western countries in particular because of “the admiration for the very dignified and heroic behavior of the inhabitants of Sarajevo who, at the time, had not wanted to be lowered to the status of beasts.” men and women who ran under the bullets in “Sniper Alley” to go to work or of the artistic life that continued under the bombings remained vivid in our minds.

Sarajevo residents run to escape sniper fire, June 20, 1992.
Sarajevo residents run to escape sniper fire, June 20, 1992. Christophe Simon, AFP

This behavior is one of the similarities observed by Loic Tregoures, doctor in political science and member of the Balkan Observatory, since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Thirty years apart, the current conflict has also brought to light “the queues, the people hiding in the basements, the disbelief when it starts and the fierce desire to resist and survive.”

“A local conflict that very quickly became international”

But for the historian Anne Madelain, a researcher at Inalco’s Europe-Eurasia Research Center, we must not fall into the trap of comparison. “The siege of Sarajevo had occurred within the framework of a country that fell apart with the dislocation of Yugoslavia. Ukraine has been independent for thirty years. It is not the same configuration”, points out this Balkan specialist. “We are not in the same technological context either. In 1992, we were before the Internet age. Sarajevo was an isolated city, without mail or communications. The journalists who were there at the time were the only sources of ‘information’, the investigator specifies.

The historian, however, points to a possible comparison with today’s Ukraine, that of “a local conflict that quickly became international.” At that time, already in July 1992, the UN had established an airlift to provide humanitarian aid. But for three and a half years, the international community seemed unable to put an end to the violence committed, particularly against civilians. “The UN system was not adequate, but it had been decided in the context of the previous stages of the disintegration of Yugoslavia. We were in the midst of a phase of change. The Americans also considered that it was a problem for the Europeans and that NATO should not get involved because its doctrine was then exclusively the defense of the territory of its member states, it was necessary to adapt this doctrine and create the Rapid Action Forces (FAR) to support and then replace the United States Protection Force (UNPROFOR),” sums up Fabiani’s Henry Zipper.

An elderly woman waits in a car hit by gunfire before leaving Sarajevo, November 10, 1992.
An elderly woman waits in a car hit by gunfire before leaving Sarajevo, November 10, 1992. Patricio Baz, AFP

In 1995, with the backing of the UN, NATO launched targeted attacks against army positions in the Bosnian Serb Republic. They finally lead to a ceasefire and the signing in December 1995, in Paris, Dayton Peace Accords. Since then, the country has been administered by two separate entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Bosnian Serb Republic (Republic of Serbia), not forgetting the district of Brcko, in the north, with a special status. More than twenty-five years after the end of the war, tensions between the different communities remain high.

“A risk of secession”

In December 2021, the Bosnian Serb Parliament thus laid the first foundations for what would be a process of separation of the Serb entity from the country, thus materializing the threats of the separatist leader. Milorad Dodik, the Serb elected to the tripartite presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Parliamentarians gave six months to organize a Serb exit from three crucial institutions of this already poorly-provided central state: the army, the judiciary and taxation.

“There should be a response from the institutions in June and we are in a relatively blocked situation with the risk of a secession supported by Russia, which is increasingly involved in the geopolitics of the Balkans”, specifies the historian Anne Madelain. “That’s really the danger. A situation where other international players step in and play the divisive card.” For their part, the Bosnian Croat nationalists led by Dragan Covic defend an electoral reform aimed at reinforcing the ethnic character of the vote. Negotiations on this reform finally failed on March 20, but Croatian and Serb nationalists are now threatening to boycott the October 2 elections that will renew the parliaments of all entities in the country.

For Loïc Trégourès, the future is uncertain. “No one knows what this can lead to” and, within the population, “there is fear of the deterioration of the local political situation,” he analyzes. According to this Balkan specialist, however, we should not look too far back: “A war never happens in the same way again. If we anticipate that – something that will resemble what we saw thirty years ago – we are wrong.”

Meanwhile, Sarajevo, still licking its wounds, thinks today of the besieged Ukrainian cities. “From this city, a symbol of resistance, we say that we must never lose hope and give up the fight for a better future,” Mayor Benjamín Karic launched during the 30th anniversary anniversary of the beginning of the siege. “Abandoned by almost everyone, no weapons, no electricity, no water, no food, no gas, Sarajevo never gave up,” he recalled.

A woman prays at the grave of one of her relatives in a Sarajevo cemetery while the city is under siege, on October 19, 1992.
A woman prays at the grave of one of her relatives in a Sarajevo cemetery while the city is under siege, on October 19, 1992. Gerard Fouet, AFP

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