Bosnia: emerging from the crossfire

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Sarajevo’s Latin Bridge, the site of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination by Gavrilo Princip.

It’s a beautiful sunny autumn day. I am sitting in the sunshine at a small cafe on a hill overlooking Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Down below the red-roofed houses jumble together from the riverside old town and out over the hills, and minarets and church spires beckon the faithful to prayer. The river winds through the city, the trees along its bank are shades of yellow and brown. On a small slope below me, as on other slopes higher up, is a graveyard, the uniform white headstones all bearing the years 1992, 1995.

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Twenty years is not a very long time. Walking through the streets I am struck by the knowledge that everyone bar small children has lived through the war; they have lost their childhoods to the necessity of survival in a besieged city, they have seen their friends and families murdered in the streets by snipers, they know the differences between rifle fire, hand grenades and motar explosions, they know fear, hunger, hopelessness, abandonment, loss, and for thousands, they know no peace, no resolution as they continue to hunt for the bodies of their disappeared loved ones.

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Stari Most or Old Bridge in Mostar.

In Mostar, famous for its arched bridge over the river Neretva (rebuilt and reopened in 2004 after it was destroyed by Croat forces in 1993), I listened to Miran’s stories of running in fear from soldiers as they rolled through the city, burning houses and shooting those who did not identify with the greater Serb nation. He and his family sought refuge together in his aunt’s house, and for three years he slept on the floor, sharing one small apartment with 30 other people. There was only one loaf of bread to share each day, no electricity, no gas, people used water from the river, fashioning trolleys to carry it back to their homes. Smokers resorted to drying the leaves of any plant and rolling them in toilet paper, just for the comfort of smoking.

Miran was 16 when he was recruited into the army like many other teenage boys. He spent months carrying supplies to soldiers in the trenches, vulnerable to enemy fire from the bunkers a few hundred metres away. He worked in the military hospital, preparing dressings for wounded soldiers, many of them fighting in civilian clothing. He tells how the medicine and food in humanitarian aid parcels was often decades past its sell by date – the tins of bully beef were leftovers from American supplies during the Vietnam War.

He speaks with passion as he shows us the Bosnian bunkers and trenches on the front line. Serb, Croat and Bosnian soldiers fought each other on the mountains above Mostar and the area is still littered with shrapnel and land mines – he warns us not to stray off the path; after Afghanistan, Bosnia is the most mined country.

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Trenches and bunkers on the front line above Mostar.

That he speaks about how it was to live and fight during the war is notable; not many people do. An exhibition in Sarajevo offers a haunting glimpse into the war. Grainy black and white photographs show bombed and burnt out houses, they catch moments of humour and appeal amid the chaos – children playing in The Miljacka River during a lull in fighting; contestants of the Miss Sarajevo beauty pageant holding a banner that reads: “Don’t let them kill us.”

The photographs depict the ongoing struggle for resolution as mass graves are uncovered, the bodies exhumed, bones matched together and identified through DNA processes. A set of images showing floor to ceiling shelves packed with plastic bags holding the mortal remains of thousands of people killed during the ethnic cleansing give a sense of the overwhelming task. Like the rows and rows of headstones in graveyards throughout Bosnia, they represent the genocide.

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Srebrenica in east Bosnia was the site of the largest mass murder since World War Two. Thousands of Muslim citizens fled the city to escape Serb forces intent on achieving their strategy of ethnic cleansing. They crowded into the compound occupied by Dutch UN peacekeeping forces, as well as nearby fields and factories. They hoped they would be safe. In July 1995 Serb soldiers under the command of General Ratko Mladić took control of the city and rounded up the citizens, separating men and boys from the women. A last touch or whisper that it would be alright, the sight of tears rolling down a small son’s frightened face are the memories that haunt many women who never saw their husbands, sons, brothers again.

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The names of thousands of Bosnian Muslims killed during the Srebrenica genocide whose bodies have been identified – many thousands more remain missing.

Another part of the exhibition is the story of the siege of Sarajevo. First person interviews bring the story home: a young girl and her friends play in a broken car, they ask the filmmaker what he wants to listen to on the radio and they sing it. They are smiling while describing how they collect water from the river under sniper fire. Two years later, in 1995, this same girl is older. This time she is alone and she does not smile. “Sorry,” she says, “I have nothing good to say. It is a very bad situation.” She has lost friends and family members, and she is keenly aware that this is a war against Bosnian citizens, one waged while the world looks on silently.

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Sarajevo Roses are reminders of fallen comrades.

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Bullet holes riddle many walls in towns and cities across the country.

Yet, all the people I have met here are friendly and open, generous and kind. They smile and say hello, they ask me if I like Bosnia. How could I not when the mountains roll in on themselves, falling into clear blue rivers and opening out into fertile valleys and charming countryside towns, when the people show such quiet strength.

Sarajevo. It is a romantic place; perhaps because of its past it glows brighter now that people are free. Take a seat at an outdoor cafe. Order a coffee and light up a cigarette; you’ll feel right at home.

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