Canada and the World

LIVES ON HOLD

The passage of time has not healed the wounds of war in Sarajevo

John Intini April 1 2002
Canada and the World

LIVES ON HOLD

The passage of time has not healed the wounds of war in Sarajevo

John Intini April 1 2002

LIVES ON HOLD

Canada and the World

The passage of time has not healed the wounds of war in Sarajevo

When the Yugoslav federation began to disintegrate in 1991, it set the stage for one of the most brutal conflicts of the late 20th century. The bloodshed was particularly horrific in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which voted for independence in March, 1992. But the nascent states Muslims faced a violent challenge, primarily from ethnic Serbs backed by Serbia, the most powerful of the six former Yugoslav republics. Bosnian Serb artillery batteries shelled Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, during a long and bloody siege; Muslims were starved in concentration camps; women and girls were raped repeatedly by their captors.

NATO intervention finally brought the fighting to an end in 1996, and NATO deployed 60,000 soldiers in Bosnia to enforce the peace. But with fractious ethnic groups still waiting to settle old scores, the troops could remain in Bosnia for years to come. Macleans Contributing Editor Sally Armstrong, who has reported from Sarajevo on several occasions, recently returned to the Bosnian capital. She found the population angry and demoralized'; the ethnic divisions, Armstrong says, seem to be almost impossible to heal. Her report:

Looks can be deceiving in Sarajevo. There are splashy automobile dealerships, sleek disco bars and, no matter the time of day, crowds of young people roam the streets. It appears to be a far cry from the city that Serbian forces laid siege to for 1,475 days during the Bosnian war, killing more than 12,000 people and injuring almost 56,000. The piles of lumber and wrecked cars that once sheltered pedestrians from bullets are gone. In fact, there’s now a traffic jam on the major thoroughfare once known as Sniper Alley—a deadly strip of pavement where hundreds of victims were gunned down by murderous sharpshooters.

But glance skyward in Sarajevo and the signs of peace and prosperity vanish. Many of the hundreds of buildings destroyed during the Serb blockade from April 6,1992, to Feb. 29,1996, have only been repaired at ground level or, at best, up to the third or fourth floor. (At the height of the fighting on July 22, 1993, foreign observers counted 3,777 shells slamming into the city.) Now, the upper storeys with their collapsed floors, missing walls and shattered windows are

ominous reminders of the siege—and the possibility that ethnic violence could break out again.

Although governed federally by a joint multi-ethnic and democratic administration, at the provincial level Bosnia remains divided along stark ethnic lines between Muslim-Croat areas and territory controlled by Serbs. Outbreaks of violence are common. Last May, celebrations marking the reconstruction of a mosque near the town of Mostar were stormed by Bosnian Serb protesters. A month later, Croat separatists rioted after a bank they were using to finance their operations was shut down by the UN. And on Feb. 9, in a letter to a Sarajevo newspaper, the clandestine Bosnian Serb terrorist organization, Gavrilo Princip, threatened to murder a number of people it accused of cooperating with the country’s new government. Jacques Klein, UN SecretaryGeneral Kofi Annan’s special representative to Sarajevo, told the Security Council on March 6 that he believes dangerous ethnic divisions will continue until Radovan Karadzic, who led the Bosnian Serbs during the war, is captured.

Karadzic, who was indicted on charges of genocide in 1995 by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, still enjoys wide support. Bosnian Serb television regularly refers to him as “our first president,” and a newly launched Web site promoting “the truth about Karadzic” proclaims his innocence. A song often heard on Bosnian Serb radio urges Karadzic to “come down from the mountain” and save his people. NATO troops searching for Karadzic recently raided Celebici, a village 70 km east of Sarajevo. But residents refused to help find him. “I love him, and I wouldn’t betray him,” said elementary teacher Rada Puhalac as she stood in a rundown schoolhouse.

Western governments had hoped a peaceful multicultural state would emerge from the debris of Sarajevo. Instead, crime, alcoholism and suicide are rampant in the once-proud city that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics and had been a cultural, religious and commercial centre for more than five centuries. Its population has fallen from almost 500,000 to little more than 300,000. And a good number of those remaining would leave if they could. “There are three kinds of people in Sarajevo today,” says Ismet Ceric, psychiatrist-

in-chief at the Clinical Centre of Sarajevo. “Bad, sad or mad.” The passage of time has failed to heal the wounds of war. “Everything is postponed in Sarajevo,” says Ceric. “We postpone having babies, we postpone education, we postpone marriages. We postpone having a life.”

Yugoslavia began to disintegrate after the 1980 death of Marshall Josip Broz Tito, the communist dictator who had ruled the country since 1945. By 1992, three of the six republics had voted to leave the federation. Ethnically homogeneous Slovenia escaped relatively lightly, but the question of ethnic minorities in Croatia and Bosnia set the stage for war. The bloodshed was horrific in Bosnia, where bitter divisions between the Muslims and, in particular, ethnic Serbians set the scene for an orgy of murder, rape and torture.

Serbian-populated areas of the country fought to join neighbouring Serbia, which supported their efforts militarily. (A similar situation existed with ethnic Serbs in Croatia—while in Bosnia, ethnic Croats and Muslims also fought each other.) When numerous international appeals failed to stop the fighting, the West was finally forced to take decisive action. In 1994, NATO began to intervene, and with jets pounding Serb positions, the aggressors finally came to the bargaining table.

Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia signed a peace agreement in Paris on Dec. 14, 1995, and a month later the siege of Sarajevo was over. But not before 12,000 people had been killed in the city, including 1,600 children—some of them by Serb snipers as they played in the sunshine. In all, more than 200,000 people died in fighting across the three countries, while nearly two million were left homeless.

To enforce the peace, a NATO-led army of 60,000 troops was sent to Bosnia. Today, 17,000, including 1,600 Canadian

Canada and the World

soldiers, remain. Retired Canadian Maj.Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, who headed the UN’s first peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, thinks violence will continue to flare. “Peace in Bosnia is an absence of killing,” he says. “But the thought that the factions will live happily ever after—I’m sorry, that will not be the case.”

Certainly there is litde stability in the country. Bosnia’s borders are porous, and the capital has become a haven for smugglers trafficking in drugs and illegal immigrants. Criminal gangs in Istanbul and Kosovo are behind most of the smuggling and charge almost $15,000 to ferry migrants from troubled countries like Iraq and Afghanistan into Europe. “I pick up. I drive. I finish,” said one cabby as he waited outside the Sarajevo airport to bring illegal migrants into the city. “They come here and tomorrow they are not in Bosnia. They disappear.”

In an attempt to regain the spirit of solidarity the city showed during the siege, the government has kept some of the symbols of the war alive. On the broad avenues in the downtown core, it filled in the deep potholes left by artillery shells with red cement and called them the roses of Sarajevo. Trees were left to grow out of the shelled remains of the Oslobodjenje daily newspaper office; its staff had defied the daily bombardment and printed the paper every single day, eventually publishing from the basement after the building was destroyed one floor at a time.

Despite such efforts, Suada Kapic, who chronicled the destruction of Sarajevo in a 1,313-page book, The Siege of Sarajevo: 1992-1996, says there’s a pall of despair hanging over the city. It has, she says, become an alien place, populated by broken people. It’s a far cry, she says, from the incredible courage residents showed during the siege. Now, citizens appear to have lost interest in the cultural treasures that once celebrated the city’s ethnic diversity. Among them is the Sarajevo Haggadah, a 14th-century ritual text, one of the rarest Jewish books in the world. The thin, white leather pages, decorated with gold and copper paint, are so exquisitely small they fit into the palm of a hand. The book is worth almost $ 10 million and was successfully hidden from the Nazis during the Second World War and from the Serbs during the siege. Today, it sits deteriorating in a metal box in a bank safe.

The aftermath of war has strained relations within the Muslim population. During the war, hundreds of Arab militants, many of them veterans of the 19791989 war between the mujahedeen and Soviet forces in Afghanistan, arrived to fight the Serbs. Many of these Muslims stayed and are now offering a fundamentalist alternative to the moderate style of Islam practiced widely in the country. “The faces of women are covered and boys and girls can’t go to the same school,” says Senka Kurtovic, editor-in-chief of Oslobodjenje. “They are trying to change Bosnian Muslims to their way of Islam.”

All this has left people like Ismet Ceric fearing for a younger generation growing up in an environment poisoned by crime and ethnic hatred. He talks about groups of young people, eating ice cream, walking the streets. “It looks normal, but it isn’t,” Ceric notes. “They aren’t in school. They aren’t working. They have no hope for their future.”

Many people believe the situation would improve if the economy turned around. The unemployment rate, however, remains stuck at 40 per cent—with no upturn in sight. In an attempt to boost the economy, Sarajevo has made an official bid to host the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. The city has little chance of winning, but it is a proposal that both Serbians and Muslims can endorse. “I’m delighted by the idea,” says Maria Racanovic, a 21-year-old Serb medical student. “It would be good for our country and our economy.” AddsTarik Hasibovic, 22, a Muslim bartender at the city’s Dublin Cafe: “This is our chance to bring Sarajevo back to life.”

But much needs to be done, says Klein, before Muslims and Serbs can ever agree on more contentious issues. “We need to democratize. We need an independent judiciary and a transparent media,” he says. ‘Ail that on top of 50 years of communism and a terrible civil war.” A failure to unite the country, he says, would be a disaster. “If a multi-ethnic concept fails here, the rest of the Balkans are doomed,” Klein declares. “We can’t afford a rump state which would implode and turn into everything negative you can imagine.” But with ethnic hatred barely contained across the shattered country, Klein’s nightmare could become all too real.

John Intini

With John Intini in Toronto