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The Siege of Sarajevo

Updated on November 19, 2016
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I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

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Sarajevo Burns

Sarajevo government building burns after being shelled by Serbian tanks (1992)
Sarajevo government building burns after being shelled by Serbian tanks (1992) | Source

Longest Siege in Modern History

Starting in 1992, the city of Sarajevo, capital of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, came under siege and was subjected to daily shelling and sniper attacks from Serbian forces in and around the city. The siege lasted from April 6, 1992 to February 29, 1996, the longest siege in modern history-- a year longer even than the Siege of Leningrad during World War Two.

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Start of the Siege

When Yugoslavia's leader Marshal Tito died in 1980, the country's constituent ethnic and religious groups began vying for control. Some wanted independence; some wanted Yugoslavia to continue-- though under their control.

After the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (hereafter referred to as “Bosnia”) declared its independence on March 3, 1992, Serbia, along with Bosnian Serbs and, initially, Croatia, prepared for war and sporadic fighting broke out in parts of Bosnia. As tensions mounted, 40,000 Bosnians, Serbs and Croats from all over Bosnia demonstrated for peace in Sarajevo on April 6, 1992, the same day that members of the European Union recognized Bosnia as an independent state. This show of ethnic unity angered Serb nationalists who fired into the crowd. This was considered the start of the Siege of Sarajevo.

Surrounded Standoff

Serbs and Bosnian Serbs held positions inside the city, including the airport, as well as in the surrounding hills. By May 2, the entire city was surrounded. They cut off supplies, including food and medicine, as well as water, electricity and heating fuel. Though equipped with superior weaponry and fully supplied, the Serbs were outnumbered by the city's defenders who were armed with anti-tank weapons and were able to stop the attacking armored columns. Faced with this standoff, the Serbs decided to lay waste to the city with their artillery and terrorize the population with sniper attacks.

Just a Brick in the Wall

Sarajevo, winter of 1992-1993. Feature film director and screenwriter Mehmed Fehimovic passes a concrete sniper screen whose Pink Floyd graffito reminds him of their "All in all, you're just another brick in the wall."
Sarajevo, winter of 1992-1993. Feature film director and screenwriter Mehmed Fehimovic passes a concrete sniper screen whose Pink Floyd graffito reminds him of their "All in all, you're just another brick in the wall." | Source

Watch Out – Sniper!

From positions in the hills and in high-rises in the city itself, snipers shot anything that moved, whether they be men, women or children. All were deliberately targeted, as that is the nature of sniping. Some of the worst streets under constant sniper fire had signs posted reading “Pazi – Snajper!” (“Watch out – Sniper!”) and were referred to as “sniper alleys”. It became a daily routine to crouch and run across many streets. Later, when UN observers were allowed in, citizens would run beside UN armored vehicles to get across.

Martyrs' Memorial Cemetery

Martyrs' memorial cemetery in Sarajevo.
Martyrs' memorial cemetery in Sarajevo. | Source

An Average of More Than 300 Shells a Day

During the course of the siege, an average of more than 300 artillery and mortar shells a day landed in the non-Serbian areas of the city. On the worst days, the city was hit by 3,000 shells. No place was spared: schools, markets, hospitals, libraries, industrial sites, government buildings-- all were targeted. The worst loss of life occurred on February 5, 1994, when mortar attacks killed 68 and wounded 200 civilians at the Markale marketplace. Other attacks included a football game and people waiting in line at a water spigot.

Cello Player in the Ruins

Cello player Vedran Smailovic plays in the partially destroyed National Library.
Cello player Vedran Smailovic plays in the partially destroyed National Library. | Source

The Cellist of Sarajevo

Vedran Smailović, a cellist in the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra, played his cello regularly in ruined buildings around the city, despite the constant threat of shellfire. He also played at many funerals even though funerals were a favorite target of snipers. Composer David Wilde wrote a piece for solo cello called The Cellist of Sarajevo in his honor.

Overall view of Grbavica, a neighborhood in Sarajevo. These apartments and houses were once occupied by Bosnia Serbs.
Overall view of Grbavica, a neighborhood in Sarajevo. These apartments and houses were once occupied by Bosnia Serbs. | Source

The Tunnel

By 1993, a one kilometer-long tunnel was completed. This became Sarajevo's only link with the outside world. Supplies, weapons and ammunition could then be smuggled in on a larger scale. The UN arms embargo applied to both attackers and defenders, though the Serbs never seemed to have a shortage of munitions or weaponry. It is said that this tunnel, under the airport, which was also used to get people out, saved Sarajevo.

NATO Steps In

After the mortar attack on the Markale marketplace in February, 1994, the UN formally requested that NATO immediately carry out air strikes against the attacking Serb positions. The day of February 12, 1994 marked the first casualty-free day in 22 months. NATO strikes continued off and on into the next year, but intensified in August of 1995 when the Serbs shelled the Markale marketplace a second time, resulting in 37 dead and 90 wounded. In September, 1995, the Serbs finally complied with the UN mandate and withdrew their artillery from the hills around Sarajevo. Slowly, the Bosnians went on the offensive, pushing the Serbs steadily back. A ceasefire was declared in October 1995 and, when the Serbians retreated from their positions in and around the city, the siege was officially declared over on February 29, 1996.

A Sarajevo Rose

A Sarajevo Rose (mortar shell marks filled with red resin) mark where fellow citizens had fallen. They are all over the city.
A Sarajevo Rose (mortar shell marks filled with red resin) mark where fellow citizens had fallen. They are all over the city. | Source

The Sarajevo Red Line

The population of Sarajevo prior to the siege is estimated at 435,000. In 2012, its population was estimated at 310,000.

Official figures list 11,541 people killed in Sarajevo during the siege, including 643 children. Around the city, visitors will come across what are called Sarajevo Roses. These were created by filling in mortar shell damage in the concrete with red resin, creating a pattern like a red flower. Each rose marks where citizens died when the shell exploded.

For the 20th anniversary of the start of the siege, a memorial event called the Sarajevo Red Line was held. On April 6, 2012, 11,541 empty red chairs were arranged as if waiting for an audience, stretching back almost half a mile along Maršal Tito Street. There were 643 small chairs, one for each child killed. Passers-by left teddy bears, tiny plastic cars and other toys and candy on the small chairs.

Shelled UNITIC World Trade Towers

Shelled by tanks, the UNITIC Twin Skyscrapers in Sarajevo were heavily damaged during the siege. Affectionately called "Momo and Uzeir" (two characters in a comedy show-- a Serb and a Bosnian), they remained standing, becoming symbols of resilience.
Shelled by tanks, the UNITIC Twin Skyscrapers in Sarajevo were heavily damaged during the siege. Affectionately called "Momo and Uzeir" (two characters in a comedy show-- a Serb and a Bosnian), they remained standing, becoming symbols of resilience. | Source

Renovated UNITIC World Trade Towers

UNITIC World Trade Towers renovated after the war. 2011.
UNITIC World Trade Towers renovated after the war. 2011. | Source

Sarajevo (Warning: Contains Very Disturbing Pictures)

© 2012 David Hunt

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    • Beth100 profile image

      Beth100 4 years ago from Canada

      I have had difficulties reading about history -- quite often it was complicated, confusing with dates and the point was always lost on me. You've written a splendid piece! You captivated my interest and at the end, I understand it completely.

      The Sarajevo Red Line is a beautiful tribute to those who died but it is with sadness that I read this, especially for the lives of the innocent children.

      Thank you for the history lesson.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Beth100, I consider it a high compliment indeed when someone who isn't into history as much as I am reads and enjoys one of my articles. Thank you very much for reading and commenting.

    • profile image

      jenubouka 4 years ago

      In 1997, I had a college friend from here; he was stricken with grief everyday to learn yet another friend had passed due this. What an incredible yet heart stricken article, but I think it is necessary for us to learn about other current "wars" to understand we all are under one "roof"

      Awesome as always!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank you for reading and commenting, jenubouka. I, too, think the awful things that humans do to each other must be shown in the hopes that future atrocities might be avoided or at least alleviated.

    • Gordan Zunar profile image

      Gordan Zunar 2 years ago from New York

      Another good and useful article.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks again, Zunar. Glad you enjoyed it. I learn a lot researching for articles. I find the Sarajevo Roses especially poignant.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Didn't mean to sound so aloof and call you by your last name, Gordon :)

    • Gordan Zunar profile image

      Gordan Zunar 2 years ago from New York

      Oh you didn't sound aloof at all. And I have to tell you, even though I come from the Balkans, I still don't know all the details of our recent history and your article actually brought to my attention some things that I didn't have knowledge of, or knew very little of it. So great job and thank you for writing about it :)

    • profile image

      Savannah Yerion 9 days ago

      Have you heard of the game This War of Mine? It was based off of this and is absolutely chilling. I love it so much.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 8 days ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Having never heard of "This War of Mine" I checked it out at Wikipedia and Steam. Apparently, you don't play a soldier, but a civilian instead and the goal of the game is to keep yourself and others alive. It is indeed based upon the Siege of Sarajevo as you said and has received overwhelmingly popular reviews. I will certainly be looking further into this game. Thank you so much for your comment, Savannah!

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