Returning From Sarajevo, Impressions From the City
The following blog is a re-post from one of my other sites. After some thought, I decided it was appropriate to re-post it here. The focus of the post is something that we all should think about carefully- civil war, genocide, and murder. If we think that it can’t happen again, we are wrong- it has and it continues to happen. And if we think such things could never happen here, we should be very careful about that thought. Part of being prepared is being informed. Knowledge of history, ancient and modern, can help us better process the overwhelming amount of information coming to us from all around the world today. Knowledge of history can help us prepare in case the same events begin to happen closer to home.
My family and I have just returned from another trip to the Balkan countries of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The highlight of the trip was my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and especially in the capital of Sarajevo, my first visit there. Truthfully, using the term “highlight” is problematic at least, considering the focus of my visit. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Sarajevo I visited the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide, I rode the tram back and forth down sniper alley, and walked the entire way as well, I visited cemeteries, and towns where the mass killings took place, stood on the hills above Sarajevo where the shells were lobbed on the city, and visited Gallerija 11/07/95, dedicated to those murdered in Srebrenica on that day.
With that said, Sarajevo is one of the most interesting places I have been in my life, and most of my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina was spent there. A week seemed so very inadequate for developing an understanding of the country now and in the past, the people and cultures, its multiple overlapping and parallel histories, and most important of all, the recent events that are so prominent, were prominently ignored, and are prominently forgotten by most of the world today. It was enough time to be introduced, and to create along list for my next visit.
I have been following events in the Balkans since the late 1980’s, have read extensively about the history of the region, have visited the region before and have family from there. Still, no amount of knowledge can adequately explain the terror that swept the Balkans and the suffering of the people there in the 1990’s, nor answer the questions of why it happened, and most important, why it was allowed to happen. My visit to Sarajevo turned out to be largely about trying to understand just that. I am not sure that I understand it even now. Of course, from a historical perspective, or a psychological perspective, or as a social scientist one can break it down any number of ways, to simple cause and effect, and technically understand what happened. But from a Human perspective, it just doesn’t make sense.
If the history of the country and region escapes you, here is a summary of just some of those recent events:
- 04 May 1980- Josip Tito, ruler of the Federation of Yugoslavia dies leaving a power vacuum
- 1998-1991- collapse and dissolution of Soviet Union, with independence for all former states, (more of less) further adding to unrest in the region
- 1991- breakup of the Federation of Yugoslavia- on 25 June, 1991 Slovenia and Croatia are first to declare independence from the Federation of Yugoslavia, a move immediately countered by the Serbian controlled Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) beginning the violence that will devastate the region for the next ten years
- September 1991- United Nations notes that atrocities are being committed
- 01 March 1992- Bosnia-Hercegovina holds a referendum on independence; fighting begins there within weeks
- April 1992- war overtakes Bosnia-Hercegovina, lasting until November, 1995
- late 1992- UN establishes commission to examine situation
- 25 May, 1993- UN establishes International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY)
- 11 July 1995- Srebrenica massacre- the UN declared “safe zone” is abandoned by the UN soldiers protecting it, leaving many of the 20,000 residents at the mercy of the Serbian army. Some residents are evacuated with the UN, others escape on foot to Bosnian-controlled areas, but some 8,000 are captured and murdered by Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic and his troops. This is the biggest, but one of many such incidents of inaction- of abandonment and murder repeated around the country and region during the 1990’s.
- 28 August, 1995- the second Markale Market massacre, in which 37 people are killed and 90 wounded, becomes the final straw in the siege of Sarajevo. UN General Sir Rupert Smith- who essentially could no longer tolerate standing by and watching the killing- initiated airstrikes on Bosnian Serb artillery positions around Sarajevo on that very day. This action effectively ended the siege of Sarajevo, which lasted for over 1400 days, and signaled a change in the way the UN, NATO, and the world at large addressed the Homeland War, as it is known in the Balkans.
The city of Sarajevo is beautiful, full of life, vibrant, engaging, and inviting in so many ways. It is considered to be literally where east meets west- with the Ottoman empire to the east, and Rome and Austria to the west. The mix of cultures and history, the food, coffee, sweets, the churches, mosques, minarets, the art and architecture, and of course the people make Sarajevo a city like no other. Seeing it today, walking the streets, visiting its monuments, sitting at its cafes drinking coffee, one might never guess what it looked like 20 years ago after being under siege for over 1400 days. Seeing images of the city then, and standing in those very places now- something I made it a point to do- was absolutely mind boggling. Revisiting the city through wartime images made the past even more poignant. But still, it was almost unbelievable considering the city as it is today.
There are countless resources for learning more about the Balkans, the former Yugoslavia, the Homeland War, and the region today. I cannot say enough about the importance of understanding what happened there- learning about it might just prompt us to pay closer attention the next time that murderous political regimes are preparing their campaigns of genocide and torture.
Clearly the UN faltered in their mission in the former Yugoslavia. Whether or not that would have been different in today’s world, with social media, instant communication, and- I hope- a growing awareness to the world around us, is pure speculation. But from where I sit there are plenty of other possibilities for this to happen again. And to be more to the point, that same has happened again, and is currently happening- just open the newspaper and you will find the same stories of chaos and murder, the same images of destroyed cities and fleeing refugees reported as a normal, daily event. The question is whether we continue to let it happen, and most importantly, what do we do to stop it. In today’s complex world, with all of our knowledge and power, decisions to act are no less difficult to make than they were in the 1990’s. And with global repercussions to those decisions looming around every corner, taking action to liberate the oppressed puts us everyone more at risk every day, making those decision even more difficult.
Finally, here are a few links to specific pages on the ICTY website that explain the tribunal, those who were on trial, and to Wikipedia on the fall of the Soviet Union. The final trial, that of Ratko Mladic, was recently completed. The verdict will be released soon at which time the ICTY will be disbanded.
UPDATE- 22 November, 2017-
Former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic has been sentenced to life in prison. Reports state that he was “fighting” till the end, being disruptive, and flew into a tirade before the verdict was read. He was convicted on 10 of the 11 counts against him, more than 20 years after the fact. In an interview on the BBC a survivor of Srebrenica pointed out that it would have been more fitting, more prudent, and certainly more meaningful had the verdict been handed down 10 or 20 years ago. Either way, justice has finally been served.
Read more about the verdict at the Radio Free Europe website. For full information on the trial, see the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia website. If you are unfamiliar with the Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Balkans, the former Yugoslavia and the war they endured there after the fall of the Soviet Union, see my recent post for some background.