THE NARRATIVE OF A CITY
Somewhere in the south of Europe, there is a city where the west finds the east. Home to many religions, nationalities, and ethnicities. This flat city embraced by mountains was considered as the stage of the beginning and the end of the past century. The same century that brought days of glory and peace, but also left the streets stained with blood…
I am introducing to you Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Herzegovina. A capital city where war is engraved on the facades but the sympathy of the locals hides the fresh scarfs. Back in 1992, Yugoslavia was falling apart and Bosnia was trying to follow the example of Slovenia, Croatia, and FYR Macedonia and becoming an independent state through a referendum. Many Serbians in Bosnia tried to sabotage the decision – without success – and Bosnian authorities decreed the independence on March 3rd. Right after that Serbian troops and the Yugoslav army settled in the Sarajevo’s hills and started the longest siege in modern history.
“WELCOME TO HELL!”
Tom Stoddart, Sarajevo
With heavy artillery and thousands of men controlling the area, for 4 years, Sarajevo was under attack. Every day hundreds of shells fell into the city, some of them, hitting public places and killing dozens. The 24 hours snipers were ready to shoot everyone in the streets – including children –turning the city into a huge open grave. Gas, electricity, and water were inexistent for months. Food – war rations for 30 years – were provided by the United Nations in limited quantities. Poorly armed, the Bosnian army tried to combat the Serbian superpower and, men and teenagers were called to help in the hills leaving families in despair. The magical host city of the Winter Olympic Games of 1984 turned into the Hell on Hearth. Do you think the locals raised their hands to the enemy?
WOMEN OF SARAJEVO
Tom Stoddart. Sniper Alley, Sarajevo.
She is Meliha Varesanovic. A Bosnian woman and an icon of war. She represents all the woman that in the most horrible period of their lives remained calm and kept a “normal” daily routine using it as a weapon against the enemy. Without basic conditions to survive or food to feed children, they learned how to cook pies without eggs or tasty meals with the UN rations. In other hands, these women kept the self-esteem and pride insisting in dressing elegantly even when their sons or husbands were fighting in the hills and situation was turning darker. Risking life, they were running in dangerous sniper streets in high hills in order to express “you will never defeat us” when the gun look was pointed on them. But if Meliha Varesanovic was a message for the attackers, their examples for the “saviors”…
…MISS (BESIEGED) SARAJEVO
Unknown author, 1993. Sarajevo.
It happened in a basement in the center of Sarajevo. Around 20 young ladies – some of them baring war scarfs – and a full audience to raise their voices against the war, with claps…
Back in 1993, Sarajevo was in the first months of fire and the world was not paying attention. A massacre happening in the streets and the international community and humanitarian organizations were not intervening. The pageant “Miss Sarajevo 1993” ended up with the victory of a 17 years old girl, Inela Nogic, and all the contestants holding a banner where it was written, “DON’T LET THEM KILL US”. More than an expression of resilience, this was a clear message for the out-siege community. A call for help. A show inside the “show” that the community outside was not tuning in.
Under the risk of attack, it was a moment to get people together… inside and outside, proving that normal life was happening in Sarajevo, the city with a strong and indestructible community.
WAR ZONE OR PLAYGROUND?
Unknown author, 1994. Sarajevo
During the days under siege, people of Sarajevo always tried to keep their regular lives and children were not an exception. With the schools as a target or already destroyed, classes didn’t stop. Teachers organized lessons in basements to keep children educated and learning… of course after the ringing, they had time to play and, with or without permission, unaware of the risk they invaded the streets to play… about heroes, probably. For many reporters in Sarajevo back in those days, children in the streets were a sign of hope and future. Such as the next example…
DIGGING THE HOPE
Ricardo Leitão, 2018. Tunnel of Hope, Sarajevo
The International Airport that was operating in Sarajevo before the war was the only place uncontrolled by enemy troops because of the local geography. Uncontrolled is not a synonym of safe. During the siege, hundreds of shells fell into that area and killed a lot of civilians. Many of them were helping to build a tunnel to connect Sarajevo with the UN safe land. An idea of a family that saved lives and helped thousands in the city. Working 24 hours per day in 8 hours shifts and receiving just cigarettes, military and volunteers came to raise a tunnel with hundreds of meters. With many entrances, this low and narrow corridor was the way to move weapons, medicines and injured people between sides of the siege. An open door to hope.
Unknown author. Sarajevo.
The story of Sarajevo is all about it… hope, resilience, and courage in wartime. A very important message for all the countries that are facing war and an example of how humanity can react, come together and change minds when fear, anger, and hatred are part of the daily life. I found Sarajevo as a modern city, recovering but never forgetting… the scarfs are present everywhere but Sarajevo is now a place where cultures and religions prove how simple is to live with differences between us. For sure, the most beautiful narrative I found.
The war happened all around the Balkans years after II World War. Maybe International Community works with short memory… Inside Bosnia, we can’t forget the Srebrenica Massacre, thousands of refugees, the victims of the genocidal rape and ethnic cleansing.
By Ricardo Leitão