SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) – Sarajevo this week paid a muted tribute to the resilience of its citizens who survived the longest military siege in modern history and commemorated thousands of others who did not.
Many of the survivors said they found the 30th anniversary of the start of the siege of the Bosnian capital particularly hard because it came against the backdrop of what they described as similar suffering inflicted on civilians in Ukraine by the occupying Russian army .
During the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia, Bosnian Serb forces, armed and supported by neighboring Serbia, besieged Sarajevo on April 6, 1992. For the next 46 months, some 350,000 residents remained trapped in their multi-ethnic city, subjected to daily shelling and sniper attacks, and off regular access cut off from electricity, food, water, medicine and the outside world. They survived on limited humanitarian supplies provided by the United Nations, drinking from wells and foraging for food.
“The world used to watch us suffer, and now we (Ukrainians) just watch and there is nothing we can do to help them,” said Ariyana Djideliya, a 52-year-old elementary school teacher. “It’s a very strange and difficult feeling,” she added.
Djidelija was a newly hired young teacher when the Siege of Sarajevo began, and she immediately joined a local volunteer effort to teach tens of thousands of children who remained trapped in the city.
While Serbian gunners took up positions on the hills around Sarajevo and trained their weapons in schools, hospitals, markets and apartment buildings for almost four years, Djidelija and her colleagues taught in makeshift classrooms set up in basements and abandoned shops or apartments in the area became city and risk their lives for education.
In the winter of 1993, a grenade launcher hit one of the improvised classrooms of Djidelija’s school in the Sarajevo suburb of Dobrinja, killing her colleague Fatima Gunic and three children, all under the age of 10.
But the war schools, class friends, and teachers were the only “semblance of normal life” the Sarajevo children had at the time, Djidelija said, so “after we wept and honored our dead, we continued to teach, so was ours.” Will to protect the sanity of our youth to give them an education.”
Similar acts of defiance will be honored in numerous exhibitions, art installations, concerts and performances in Sarajevo this week. Earlier in the week, a large piece of white fabric by local artists was hung between the apartment buildings flanking one of the busiest street intersections in downtown Sarajevo. A similar cloth stood there and at other urban crossroads during the siege to hide frightened Sarajevans from Serbian snipers and gunners stationed near their city. This week the fabric is being used to project war photos of Sarajevo civilians running for cover from, or falling victim to, Serbian snipers.
More than 11,000 people, including over 1,000 children, were killed by snipers and mortars during the siege as they went about their daily lives in Sarajevo. Countless others were wounded.
When the war began, most men of military age in Sarajevo gave up their jobs to join a ragtag volunteer army controlled by the country’s multi-ethnic government that defended the city from a takeover by Bosnian Serb rebels. Others offered their special skills for the defense of their city.
“I could have left, but I have never regretted the decision to stay in Sarajevo and help him survive,” said Dr. Dragan Stevanovic, a recently retired internist who spent the war years treating hundreds of sick and injured civilians and soldiers at the city’s two main hospitals.
“We didn’t have electricity or most of the other things that a modern hospital and normal operating rooms need to function. There was no light, no heating, we couldn’t properly sterilize medical instruments, we didn’t have elevators, we didn’t have anything,” Stevanovic recalled, his voice trailing off.
“But we improvised, and we did it well,” he quickly added. Surgeons, he said, operated in the windowless basement of his hospital – one of Serbs’ favorite targets during the siege – sometimes by candlelight, doctors and nurses boiling surgical instruments and bedclothes in large vats of water to sterilize them.
Being a direct witness to the physical suffering of his city’s residents, Stevanovic said, is a painful but also a proud experience.
“It proved to me that what we were told in school is true, that anything man wants is possible, that medicine is much more than what you find in textbooks and medical codes of practice,” he added added.
Still, it makes the ongoing struggle of Ukrainian health workers to do their job under Russian bombardment “all too familiar and therefore very painful,” Stevanovic said.
Mirsad Palic, 58, made similar comments Monday night while waiting to be served a small plate of hot-water-cooked noodles without seasoning or sauce under a tent erected in central Sarajevo for a commemorative display of the city’s war kitchen was.
Palic recalled how his wife gave birth to their first child, a son, in May 1993 in a makeshift clinic in the basement of a local administration building in their Sarajevo neighborhood. “I panicked because I couldn’t believe my first child would be born in a dark basement on a wooden desk, but in 20 minutes it was all over and we were sent home with our baby.”
In 1995, during the final months of the war, which he spent as a soldier in the Bosnian army, witnessing many of his brothers-in-arms being killed or maimed in the city and on the front lines surrounding it, Palic’s wife gave birth to his second child – one Daughter.
“I fear that the war has not only affected those of us who remember it well, but that we also transmit our trauma to our children,” Palic said.
He added that these days he is doing his best to protect his now-grown children from the TV images of Ukrainian civilians being brutally killed in their cities by Russian soldiers, “to give them a happier, less frightening life than.” mine.”
“You don’t have to share my fear that this new, familiarly brutal war will spread across Europe, reach us and send us back to where we were three decades ago,” he added.