In a divided country, Sarajevo commemorates 30 years of siege with eyes 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 the fire of Bosnian Serb forces and were watched by the whole world. Three decades later, images of the war victims in Ukraine recall this trauma, as the country continues to be ravaged by threats of secession.

Apr 6, 1992the day of the recognition of the independence of the Bosnia and Herzegovina by the European Community, thousands of citizens from across the country come together to Sarajevo and cry for peace. Croats, Serbs, Bosniaks gather in the street. But from the roof of the Holiday Inn hotel, Serbian nationalists opened fire on the crowd. The city rocks then in a chair that lasts 44 monthsuntil February 1996. Bosnian Serb forces bombard the capital from above, snipers fire on the besieged inhabitants and a full blockade is established.

Thirty years later, the images of this siege, which had upset the world, are etched in everyone’s memory. 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 Boutchathe local authorities have not failed to draw a parallel with the current conflict.

“What had not stopped in Bosnia in the 1990s is becoming even more visible across Europe and the world,” Sarajevo Mayor Benjamina Karic lamented on Tuesday at the ceremony hosted at the National Library, a symbol of the devastation perpetrated. during the siege, now rebuilt. “What we thought belonged to the history of human dishonor returns to the scene through brutality, destruction and fascist ideology, dressed in new clothes,” adds Benjamina Karic, who was one year old in April 1992.

Sarajevo's twin towers destroyed by bombing, June 6, 1992.
Sarajevo’s twin towers destroyed by bombing, June 6, 1992. Georges Gobet, AFP

“A fierce will to resist and survive”

During the Siege of Sarajevo, Bosnian Serb forces killed more than 11,500 people, including 1,600 children and adolescents, and injured more than 50,000. In front of Fabiani’s Henry Zipper, An Iris researcher and specialist in the Balkans, marked the said siege as “the hard awakening of a Europe frozen by the Iron Curtain and East-West opposition and the sudden return on European soil of a war of ‘unnamed brutality’.” ‘. . . For this former ambassador, this conflict marked the western countries in particular with “admiration for the very dignified and heroic behavior of the inhabitants of Sarajevo who at that time did not want to be reduced to the state of wild beasts”. The statues of the men and women who ran under bullets in “Sniper Alley” to get to work or of the artistic life that continued under the bombings remained so 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 of political science and member of the Balkan Observatory, since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Thirty years in a row, the current conflict has also exposed the “queues, the people hiding in the basement, the disbelief when it starts, and the fierce will to resist and survive.”

“A local conflict that quickly became international”

But for the historian Anne Madelain, researcher at Inalco’s Europe-Eurasia Research Center, we should not fall into the trap of comparison. “The siege of Sarajevo took place in the context of a country that fell apart with the dislocation of Yugoslavia. Ukraine has been independent for thirty years. It is not the same configuration,” notes this Balkan specialist. “We are also not in the same technological context. In 1992 we were before the internet age. Sarajevo was a cut-off city, with no mail or communication. The journalists who were there then were the only sources of ‘information’, the researcher says. .

However, the historian notes a possible comparison with present-day Ukraine, that of “a local conflict that quickly became international”. At the time, as early as July 1992, an airlift had been set up by the UN to deliver humanitarian aid. But for three and a half years, the international community seemed incapable of putting an end to violence, particularly against civilians. “The UN system was inappropriate, but it was decided in the context of the previous phases of the breakup of Yugoslavia. We were in the midst of a phase of change. The Americans also believed that it was a problem for Europeans and that NATO should not be involved because its doctrine was then solely the defense of the territory of its member countries.It was necessary to adapt this doctrine and create the Rapid Action Force (FAR) to support the Force of Protection of the United States and then Replace Nations (UNPROFOR)”, summarizes Henry Zipper de Fabiani.

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

In 1995, NATO, with UN support, carried out targeted attacks on the positions of the army of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia. They eventually lead to a ceasefire and the signing in December 1995 in Paris, Dayton Peace Accords† Since then, the country has been governed by two separate entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Serbian Republic of Bosnia (Republic of Srpska), without forgetting the Brcko district, in the north, with a special status. More than twenty-five years after the end of the war, tensions between the various communities are still high.

“A Risk of Separation”

In December 2021, the Bosnian Serb parliament thus laid the first foundations for what appears to be a process of secession from the country’s Serbian entity, carrying out the separatist leader’s threats Milorad Dodik, the Serb elected to the tripartite presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The parliamentarians gave a six-month deadline to organize the departure of the Serbs from three crucial institutions of this already ill-equipped central state: the army, justice and taxes.

“There should be a response from the institutions in June and we are in a relatively stalled situation with the risk of a secession backed by Russia, which is increasingly concerned with the geopolitics of the Balkans,” said historian Anne Madelain . “That’s the real danger. A situation where other international players intervene and sow the division.” The Bosnian Croat nationalists, led by Dragan Covic, are in turn defending an electoral reform that should strengthen the ethnic character of the vote. Negotiations on this reform ultimately failed on March 20, but Croatian and Serbian nationalists are now threatening to boycott the October 2 elections, which will renew the parliaments of all the country’s entities.

For Loïc Trégourès, the future is uncertain. “Nobody knows where this could lead” and the population “is afraid of the deterioration of the local political situation”, he analyzes. However, according to this Balkan specialist, we should not look back too much: “A war is never reproduced in the same way. If we anticipate that – something that will be similar to what we saw 30 years ago – we are wrong.”

Meanwhile, Sarajevo, who continues to lick his wounds, today thinks of the besieged Ukrainian cities. “From this city, symbol of resistance, we say that we must never lose hope and give up the struggle for a better future,” Mayor Benjamina Karic launched during the commemorations of the 30and anniversary of the start of the siege. “Abandoned by almost everyone, without weapons, without electricity, without water, without food, without gas, Sarajevo never surrendered,” she recalls.

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

Benzema in the front, Lukaku on the bench

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