In a country divided, Sarajevo celebrates 30 years of siege with its eyes on Ukraine

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 population of 360,000 has been trapped under the fire of Bosnian Serb forces and watched by the entire world. Three decades later, images of war victims in Ukraine have rekindled that trauma while the country continues to grapple with threats of secession.

On 6 April 1992, the day the European Community recognized the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina, thousands of citizens from all over the country gathered in Sarajevo and called for peace. Croats, Serbs and Bosnians gather in the streets. But from the rooftop of the Holiday Inn Serb nationalists opened fire on the crowd. After that, the city fell into a siege that lasted for 44 months, until February 1996. From the heights, Bosnian Serb forces bombarded the capital, snipers fired on the besieged residents, and imposed a complete siege.

Thirty years later, the images of this siege that disturbed the world are engraved in everyone’s minds. On the occasion of the commemoration and a few days after the discovery, after the withdrawal of Russian troops, many corpses in the Ukrainian town of Bucha, the local authorities did not fail to compare with the current conflict.

“What was not stopped in the 1990s in Bosnia became more and more evident throughout Europe and the world,” lamented on Tuesday, as reported by AFP, Sarajevo Mayor Binyamina Karic, during the ceremony organized in the National Library, a symbol of the devastation that occurred during Siege, now rebuilt. “What we thought belonged in the history of human shame returns to the scene through brutality, destruction and fascist ideology in new clothes,” adds Benjamin Karic, who was one year old in April 1992.

The Sarajevo Twin Towers were destroyed by the bombing on June 6, 1992. Georges Jobet, Agence France-Presse

A fierce will to resist and survive.

During the siege of Sarajevo, more than 11,500 people were killed, including 1,600 children and adolescents, and more than 50,000 people were wounded at the hands of Bosnian Serb forces. For Henri Zipper de Fabiani, a research associate at Iris and a specialist on the Balkans, the blockade was a “cruel awakening of Europe frozen by the Iron Curtain, opposition to East and West and the sudden resurgence on the ground of unspeakably savage war.” For this former ambassador, this conflict marked the Western countries in particular with “admiration for the extremely respectable and heroic behavior of the inhabitants of Sarajevo who, at that time, did not want to be relegated to the rank of wild beasts.” The images of men and women running under the bullets in the Sniper Alley to go to work or the artistic life that went on under the bombing are vivid in our minds.

Sarajevo residents running to escape sniper fire, June 20, 1992.
Sarajevo residents running to escape sniper fire, June 20, 1992. Christophe Simon, AFP

This behavior is one of the similarities observed before Loic TregorisPhD in Political Science and member of the Balkan Observatory, since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Thirty years later, the current conflict has also highlighted “the queues, the people hiding in the basement, the disbelief when it begins, and the fierce will to resist and survive.”

‘A local conflict that quickly became international’

But for historian Anne Madeleine, a researcher at Enalco’s Europe and Eurasia Research Center, we must not fall into the trap of comparison. “The siege of Sarajevo took place within the framework of a country that collapsed with the breakup of Yugoslavia. Ukraine has been independent for thirty years. It is not the same composition”, 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 an isolated city, without mail or communications. The journalists who were there at that time were the only sources of ‘information’, the researcher defines.

However, the historian notes the possibility of comparison with today’s Ukraine, that is, “a local conflict that quickly became international.” At that time, as early as July 1992, an air bridge was established by the United Nations to provide humanitarian assistance. But for three and a half years, the international community seemed unable to put an end to the violence perpetrated in particular against civilians. “The UN system was not appropriate, but it was set in the context of the previous stages of the breakup of Yugoslavia. We were in the midst of a phase of change. The Americans also considered it a problem for the Europeans and that NATO should not be involved because its doctrine then was to exclusively defend the territories of its member states. It was necessary to adapt this principle and create the Rapid Action Force (FAR) to support and then replace the United States Protection Force of Nations (UNPROFOR),” summarizes Henry Zipper de Fabiani.

An elderly woman waits in a car with gunshot wounds before leaving Sarajevo, November 10, 1992.
An elderly woman waits in a car with gunshot wounds before leaving Sarajevo, November 10, 1992. Patrick Baz, AFP

In 1995, with the support of the United Nations, NATO launched targeted strikes on the positions of the Army of the Bosnian Serb Republic. It finally led 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 Bosnian Serb Republic (Republika Srpska), not forgetting the Brčko District, in the north, which has a special status. More than twenty-five years after the end of the war, tensions remain high between the various communities.

‘risk of separation’

In December 2021, the Bosnian Serb parliament laid the first foundation for what looks like a process of secession from the Serb entity of the country, thus implementing the threats of separatist leader Milorad Dodik, the Serbs elected to the tripartite presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Parliamentarians gave six months to organize the departure of Serbs from three crucial institutions of this already poorly supplied central state: the army, justice, and taxation.

“There must be a response from the institutions in June, and we are in a relatively stalemate with the threat of secession backed by Russia, which is increasingly involved in the geopolitics of the Balkans,” states historian Anne Madeleine. “This is really the danger. A situation where other international players are stepping in and playing the divisive card.” For their part, Bosnian Croat nationalists led by Dragan Covic advocated 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 that will renew the parliaments of all entities in the country.

For Loïc Trégourès, the future is uncertain. “No one knows what this could lead to,” he analyzes, and within the population, “the fear exists regarding the deterioration of the local political situation.” According to this Balkans specialist, we shouldn’t look back too much: “War never happens again in the same way. If we expect it—something it will look like we saw thirty years ago—we’re wrong.”

Meanwhile, Sarajevo, still licking its wounds, today thinks of the besieged Ukrainian cities. “From this city, a symbol of resistance, we say that we must never lose hope and give up the fight for a better future,” Mayor Benjamin Karic said during the commemoration of the 30thAnd the Anniversary of the start of the siege. “Sarajevo, which almost everyone abandoned, without weapons, without electricity, without food, without gas, never gave up,” she recalls.

A woman prays at the grave of a relative in a cemetery in Sarajevo during the siege of the city, October 19, 1992.
A woman prays at the grave of a relative in a cemetery in Sarajevo during the siege of the city, October 19, 1992. Gerard Voight, Agence France-Presse

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