Bosnia marks 20 years since outbreak of war


BOSNIA HAS marked 20 years since the start of a war that killed some 100,000 people, forced two million from their homes and opened chronic rifts between its Muslims, Serbs and Croats.

Streets in central Sarajevo were filled with 11,541 empty blood-red chairs yesterday, one for each victim of the 43-month Serb siege of the city.

Serb shelling and sniper fire tormented Sarajevo and its 400,000 mostly Muslim residents throughout the Bosnian war, Europe’s bloodiest since 1945 and the most deadly chapter in the disintegration of Yugoslavia into seven successor states.

“All those people, look at all the people killed. Look at this river of blood,” said economist Mebrura Libric, who cried at the sight of the sea of empty red chairs.

“I mostly recall the near-continuous shelling, the snipers, the dead,” said Fuad Novalija (64). “The shells fell when we least expected them. People were killed as they queued for water or bread.”

People placed white roses on some chairs, and toys and schoolbooks on others, in memory of the hundreds of children who were killed in the siege. “The amount of chairs really hit me, especially the little ones,” said Ana Macanovic, who placed white roses on seven chairs, one for each relative killed by mortar fire during the siege.

“It shows the horrors that we lived through,” said another local woman, Hazima Hadzovic.

“I lost so many friends I cannot even remember all of their names now,” she added, as thousands of people gathered for a memorial concert featuring music composed during the siege.

Bosnia slid into war after most of its people backed independence from Belgrade in a February 1992 referendum, a result that enraged Bosnian Serb politicians and nationalist Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

Bosnia’s parliament declared independence on April 5th, 1992, and European Community members and the US recognised its sovereignty over the next two days.

But Bosnia’s birth was marred by rancour and violence.

On April 5th, and with tension rising across the republic, a multi-ethnic crowd of 100,000 people rallied for peace in Sarajevo, until Serb snipers fired on the march and killed six people.

They are widely seen as the first victims of the war, although many Serbs claim that a member of their community killed a month earlier was actually the first casualty.

War came swiftly, as Bosnian Serb forces with superior firepower drove Muslims and Croats from large swathes of territory in a campaign that became known as “ethnic cleansing”. It culminated in the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995, when some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered by forces loyal to Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic.

Mladic and his former political boss, Radovan Karadzic, are on trial at the UN court at The Hague for their role in events at Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo.

But the 20th anniversary of the start of the war finds Bosnia still hobbled by the conflict.

The Dayton peace deal that silenced the guns in late 1995 split Bosnia into a Muslim-Croat Federation and a Serb-run Republika Srpska, which are supposed to co-operate at federal level.

Western-backed efforts to boost Bosnia’s federal powers and weaken the ethnic regions have largely failed, however, due mostly to Serb fears of being dominated by the larger Muslim population in a united Bosnia.

“I think the majority of the people of this country realises that all of us came out of this war as losers,” said Bosnian Serb Radoslav Zivkovic, “but I fear the majority has also failed to learn the lessons.”