In a divided country, Sarajevo commemorates 30 years of its siege with its eyes turned towards Ukraine

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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 watched by the whole world. Three decades later, the images of the victims of the war in Ukraine rekindle this trauma while the country is still plagued by threats of secession.

On 6 April 1992, the day on which the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina was recognized by the European Community, thousands of citizens from all over the country gathered in Sarajevo and called for peace. Croats, Serbs, Bosnians are gathered together in the streets. But from the roof of the Holiday Inn hotel, Serbian nationalists opened fire on the crowd. The city then falls into a siege that will last 44 months, until February 1996. From the heights, Bosnian Serb forces bombard the capital, snipers fire on the besieged inhabitants and a complete blockade is established.

Thirty years later, the images of this siege which had upset the world are etched in everyone’s mind. On the occasion of the commemorations and a few days after the discovery, following the withdrawal of Russian troops, of many corpses in the Ukrainian town of Boutcha, the local authorities did not fail to draw a parallel with the current conflict.

“What had not been stopped in the 1990s in Bosnia is becoming even more visible across Europe and the world”, lamented on Tuesday, as AFP reports, the mayor of Sarajevo, Benjamina Karic, during of the ceremony organized at the National Library, a symbol of the destruction committed 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. Georges Gobet, AFP

“A fierce will to resist and survive”

During the siege of Sarajevo, more than 11,500 people, including 1,600 children and adolescents, were killed and more than 50,000 people injured by Bosnian Serb forces. For Henry Zipper de Fabiani, associate researcher at Iris and specialist in the Balkans, the siege had then marked “the hard awakening of a Europe frozen by the iron curtain and the East-West opposition and the sudden reappearance on the ground of a war of unspeakable savagery”. For this former ambassador, this conflict marked Western countries in particular by “admiration for the very dignified and heroic behavior of the inhabitants of Sarajevo who, at the time, had not wanted to be lowered to the state of wild beasts “. The images of the men and women running under the bullets in “Sniper Alley” to go to work or of the artistic life which continued under the bombardments thus remained vivid in our minds.

Residents of Sarajevo run to escape sniper fire, June 20, 1992.
Residents of Sarajevo 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 start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Thirty years apart, the current conflict has also brought to light 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 very quickly became international”

But for historian Anne Madelain, researcher at Inalco’s Europe-Eurasia Research Center, we must not fall into the trap of comparison. “The siege of Sarajevo had taken place within the framework of a country which broke up 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 age of the Internet. Sarajevo was a cut off city, without mail or communications. The journalists who were there then were the only sources of ‘information’, specifies the researcher.

The historian, however, notes a possible comparison with today’s 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 provide humanitarian aid. But for three and a half years, the international community seemed quite incapable of putting an end to the violence committed in particular against civilians. “The UN system was unsuitable, but it had been decided in the context of the previous stages of the break-up of Yugoslavia. We were in the midst of a phase of change. The Americans also considered that it was a problem for Europeans and that NATO should not be involved because its doctrine was then exclusively the defense of the territory of its Member States. It was necessary to adapt this doctrine and create the Rapid Action Force (FAR) to support and then replace the Force of protection of the United Nations (UNPROFOR)”, summarizes Henry Zipper de Fabiani.

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

In 1995, with the backing of the UN, NATO launched targeted strikes on the positions of the army of the Serb Republic of Bosnia. They finally lead to a ceasefire and the signing in December 1995, in Paris, of the Dayton Peace Accords. Since then, the country has been administered by two distinct entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Serbian Republic of Bosnia (Republika Srpska), without forgetting the district of Brcko, in the north, with a special status. More than twenty-five years after the end of the war, tensions are still high between the different communities.

“A risk of secession”

In December 2021, the Bosnian Serb Parliament thus laid the first groundwork for what is akin to a process of separation from the Serbian entity of the country, thus carrying out the threats of the separatist leader Milorad Dodik, the elected Serb 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 poorly provided central state: the army, justice and taxes.

“There should be a response from the institutions in June and we are in a relatively blocked situation with the risk of a secession supported by Russia, which is increasingly involved in the geopolitics of the Balkans”, specifies the historian Anne Madelain. “That’s really the danger. A situation where other international players are stepping in and playing the divisive card.” For their part, the Bosnian Croat nationalists led by Dragan Covic defend an electoral reform aimed at strengthening the ethnic character of the vote. Negotiations on this reform finally failed on March 20, but Croatian and Serb nationalists are now threatening to boycott the October 2 elections which are to renew the parliaments of all the country’s entities.

For Loïc Trégourès, the future is uncertain. “Nobody knows what this can lead to” and, within the population, “fear exists with regard to the deterioration of the local political situation”, he analyzes. According to this Balkan specialist, however, we should not look back too much: “A war never happens again in the same way. If we anticipate that – something that will look like what we saw thirty years ago – we are wrong.”

In the meantime, Sarajevo, which continues to lick its wounds, thinks today of the besieged Ukrainian cities. “From this city, symbol of resistance, we say that we must never lose hope and give up the fight for a better future”, launched the mayor Benjamina Karic during the commemorations of the 30and anniversary of the beginning of the siege. “Abandoned by almost everyone, without weapons, without electricity, without water, without food, without gas, Sarajevo never surrendered,” she recalled.

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

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