The Siege of Sarajevo is the longest siege in the history of modern warfare conducted by the Serb forces of self-proclaimed Republika Srpska and Yugoslav People’s Army (later transformed to the Army of Serbia and Montenegro), lasting from April 5, 1992 to February 29, 1996.
It was fought during the Bosnian War between poorly equipped defending forces of the Bosnian government, who had declared independence from Yugoslavia allied with Croatian army (although only a small part of Croatian Army was fighting in Bosnia, as the Croatian War of Independence was held in Croatia against Serbian forces), and the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and Bosnian Serb forces (Army of Republika Srpska - VRS) located in the hills around Sarajevo, who sought to destroy the newly-independent state of Bosnia and Herzegovina and create the Serbian state of Republika Srpska (RS).
It is estimated that in Sarajevo more than 12,000 people were killed and 50,000 were wounded during the siege, out of those, 85% were civilians. Because of killing and forced migration, by 1995 the population of the city decreased to 334,663 - 64% of the prewar population.
In January 2003, the ICTY Trial Chamber convicted the first commander of the Sarajevo-Romanija Corps, Stanislav Galić, of the shelling and sniper terror campaign against Sarajevo, including the First Markale massacre.
General Galić was sentenced to life imprisonment for the crimes against humanity during the siege. In 2007, a Serb general, Dragomir Milošević, who replaced Stanislav Galić on the commander position of the Sarajevo-Romanija Corps, was found guilty of the shelling and sniper terror campaign against Sarajevo and its citizens from August 1994 to late 1995 including the Second Markale massacre.
Milošević was sentenced to 33 years in prison. The Trial Chamber concluded that the Markale town market was hit on August 28, 1995 by a 120mm mortar shell fired from the Sarajevo-Romanija Corps positions.
START OF THE WAR
Just before the war Karadžić announced the genocide upon Muslims, saying:
“They have to know, man, around Sarajevo there are 20.000 armed Serbs. Sarajevo will be the scaffold where 300.000 Muslims will end up dead. I have to speak in the name of 300.000 to 400.000 armed Serbian forces. They do not understand that there would be blood all around, and Muslim people would disappear.”
So he spoke few days after a threatening speech in the parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina, after which the SDS delegates abandoned the parliamentary meeting and turned their parliament club into the Congress of Bosnian Serbs, and announced that all the Serbian territories will be part of the Great Serbia.
The first casualty of war is a point of contention between Serbs and Bosniaks. Serbs contend that the first casualty was Serb Nikola Gardović, a groom’s father killed at a Serb wedding procession on the first day of the referendum, March 1, 1992. Bosniaks contend that this was one of a number of politically oriented killings in the first quarter of that year.
In early March 1992, barricades and checkpoints were erected in Sarajevo. On April 5, the day of the declaration of independence, massive anti-war marches took place in the city, with the largest group of protesters moving towards the parliament building. At that point, Serb gunmen fired upon the crowd from the Serbian Democratic Party headquarters, killing two people.
These people, Suada Dilberović and Olga Sučić, are considered by Bosniaks to be the first casualties of the siege of Sarajevo.
Today, the Bridge (Suada and Olga) where they were killed is named in their honor. Armed conflict broke out after the European Community recognized Bosnia and Herzegovina as a sovereign state on April 6, 1992. The Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) attacked the Ministry of Training Academy in Vrace (commandering strategic positions in high above the city), the central tramway depot, and the Old Town district with mortar, artillery, and tank fire, and JNA units seized control of Sarajevo’s airport.
The JNA expanded its control of approaches to the city by establishing road blocks along key roads. By the end of April, the contour of Sarajevo’s siege was largely established. On April 22, a peace rally in front of the Assembly of the Republic was broken up by shots coming from the Holiday Inn.
EARLY FIGHTING FOR THE CITY
In the months leading up to the war, the JNA forces in the region began to mobilize in the hills surrounding the city. Artillery and various other equipment that would prove key in the future besieging of the city was implemented at this time. In April 1992, the Bosnian government demanded that the government of Yugoslavia remove these forces.
Milošević, who headed the Serbian government, agreed to withdraw the individuals who originated from outside of Bosnia’s borders, an insignificant number. Those Bosnian Serb forces in the army were transferred to the VRS, which had declared independence from Bosnia a few days after Bosnia itself seceded from Yugoslavia. On May 2, 1992, a complete blockade of the city was officially established by the Bosnian Serb forces.
Major roads leading into the city were blocked, as were shipments of food and medicine. Utilities such as water, electricity, and heating were cut off. The number of Serbian forces around Sarajevo, although better armed, was inferior in number to the Bosnian defenders within the city. Hence, after the failure of initial attempts to take over the city by the attacks of JNA’s armored columns, the besieging forces continuously bombarded and weakened the city from the mountains, fortified into at least two hundred reinforced positions and bunkers.
THE SIEGE OF SARAJEVO
The second half of 1992 and first half of 1993 were the height of the siege of Sarajevo. Various atrocities were committed during heavy fighting. Serbian forces from outside the city continuously shelled the government defenders. Most of the major military positions and arms supplies within the city were in Serbian control. Snipers roamed the city all over as Pazite, Snajper! ("Beware, Sniper!") became a common sign.
Some streets were so dangerous to cross or use that they became known as "Sniper alleys". Some neighborhoods of the city were taken over by the Serbs, especially in Novo Sarajevo, as Serbian offensives into parts of the city were met with success.
To counterbalance the siege, the Sarajevo Airport was opened to United Nations (UN) airlifts in late June 1992; Sarajevo’s survival became strongly dependent on them. The Bosnian government forces had greatly inferior weaponry to the besiegers.
Some Bosnian black market criminals who had joined the army at the outset of the war illegally smuggled arms into the city through Serb lines, and the raids on Serb-held positions within the city helped the cause.
The Sarajevo Tunnel, completed in mid-1993, allowed supplies to come into the city, and people to get out. The tunnel was one of the major ways of bypassing the international arms embargo (which was applied to all parties to the Bosnian conflict, including the defenders of Sarajevo) and providing the city defenders with weaponry.
It was said that the tunnel saved Sarajevo. However, by April 1995 there were only 20 artillery pieces and five tanks left in defence of the city. The strength of the First Corps lay in its considerable supplies of rocket-propelled grenades, anti-aircraft missiles, and anti-tank missiles, but they could not really be used in the offensive actions needed to break out of Sarajevo. Reports indicate an average of approximately 329 shell impacts per day during the course of the siege, with a high of 3,777 shell impacts on July 22, 1993.
The shellfire caused extensive damage to the city’s structures, including civilian and cultural property. By September 1993, reports concluded that virtually all buildings in Sarajevo had suffered some degree of damage, and 35,000 were completely destroyed. Among these buildings targeted and destroyed were hospitals and medical complexes, media and communication centers, industrial targets, government buildings, and military and UN facilities.
Some of the more significant of these were the building of the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the National Library, which burned to the ground along with thousands of irreplaceable texts. The shelling of the city took a tremendous toll on lives. Mass killings due primarily to mortar shell impacts made headline newsin the West. On June 1, 1993, 15 people were killed and 80 injured during a football game.
On July 12 of the same year, 12 people were killed while in line for water. The biggest of these however was the first Markale marketplace massacre on February 5, 1994, in which 68 civilians were killed and 200 were wounded. In response to the Markale massacre, the UN issued an ultimatum to Serb forces to withdraw heavy weaponry beyond a certain point in a given amount of time or face air strikes. Near the end of the given time, Serb forces complied. City shelling drastically decreased at that point, which could perhaps be seen as the beginning of the end of the siege.
The siege of the city was best being described by the Bernard-Henri Lévy saying:
“You can’t imagine the only one spot in the city where you are able to avoid the cannon fire. In Sarajevo there are no “lines”, there is only a “ring”.It is not about modern battle, in fact, it is, even with the most developed weapons of the XX century, the medieval siege. Actually it is not siege, it is a trap, out of which, and you can feel it, nobody will go out alive. Sarajevo is a trap, for rats. Sarajevo is a ghetto. Murders are in shadows. Murders are faceless. Terror. Psychosis. One whole city is under the fire of tenths, maybe thousands of murders, who take 300 marks for every dead citizen of Sarajevo, shot dead as a paper target.”
Citizens of Sarajevo had a big hopes for the United Nations, its principles of human rights and freedom. So, the sudden visit of French president François Mitterrand, to Sarajevo on 28th June, 1992, was realized as savior one, for Bosnia and Herzegovina. After the visit, Mitterrand exposed his doctrine, above which the main problem of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, from the point of international factors, is humanitarian problem, and that the action of international factors must only be limited to that field.
That meant that international community should not direct its energy to stop the war (even under aggressive way, as it should be done), but its action was to be directed to maintain peace (which there was not), and humanitarian help to civilians, what was the way for people to die less hungry.
During the visit of the general secretary of the UN, Liga Sarajlija wrote in its letter:
“Today, the most hospitable, and at the moment most destroyed city of planet Earth, our Sarajevo, should host Boutros Boutros-Ghali, general secretary of UN. Along with the Sarajevo spirit, every nice guest would be welcoming, but not Mr. Ghali, knows as signatory of many ineffective resolutions of UN regarding Bosnia and Herzegovina and Sarajevo, because of which our Republic, already nine months is being destroyed since none of the letters from those resolutions is being respected.“ “Mr Ghali, when you have already decided to visit us, you should know that hundred’s of thousands grenades, hunger and cold are still killing children and citizens of Sarajevo, but they have not yet killed our dignity. Because of that, we do not need your visit. And one more thing, please do not defend us on your way – we get killed. God defend you in the new year of 1993, as you have defended us in 1992.”
According to the writer, Mirko Kovač, the key role in the militarization of Serbian national politics has had memorandum SANU. By developing war society, Serbian academicians and Serbian politicians, at first have abridged the society of every moral responsability, rejecting any autonomous existence of individuals, nations.
When one Academy of Science proclaims collective savageness, when it reject honor, humanity, support tyranny, then that Academy proclaims savageness. In the name of identity, Serbians have produced the feeling of being endangered, being in scare of existance, what ensured the „production“ murderers, who are able to commit the worst crimes, and who believe that they have the right for it, and that they deserve the Heaven and admiriation.
The Serb forces were reported to have carried out a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing in the parts of the city occupied by them during the siege. In The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia, Michael A. Sells claimed how "non-nationalist Serbs were also targets of violence".
Serbs who refused to participate in the persecution of Muslims were killed. In a Serb-army occupied area of Sarajevo, Serb militants killed a Serb officer who objected to atrocities against civilians; they left his body on the street for over a week as an object lesson. During one of the ’selections’ carried out by Serb militants in Sarajevo, an old Serb named Ljubo objected to being separated out from his Muslim friends and neighbors; they beat him to death on the spot.
After several years in the 1990s characterized by denial of the widely held view of the Serb responsibility for the Yugoslav wars, a trend has developed in the 2000s where Serbs, and a number of external publishers and commentators, drew Bosniak and Croat parallels to such infamous examples of atrocities as Srebrenica.
For instance, they commonly draw attention to ethnic cleansing of Serb civilians by Bosnian Muslim and Croatian forces during the Balkan conflict. It is alleged that between 1992 and 1995, 150,000 Serbs were ethnically cleansed from Sarajevo, with several thousand killed. The allegations were brought to the media forefront in early 2005 when the Prime Minister of Republika Srpska, Pero Bukejlović, argued that genocide was committed against Serbs during the siege of Sarajevo, that he claimed exceeded that of the Srebrenica massacre, denounced widely as an act of genocide against Bosnian Muslims.
Today, Sarajevo citizens of all nationalities generally take accusations of ethnic cleansing by the government forces in Sarajevo during the war as a highly offensive insult. In response to premier Bukejlović’s statement, many have demanded a public apology to all Sarajevo citizens. The president of the Serb Citizens Council, Dr. Mirko Pejanović (a wartime member of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Presidency, and the 2007–2011 Dean of the Faculty of Political Sciences at the University of Sarajevo), stated:
"Nobody, not even Bukejlović, can change or cover up the truth for the sake of current political needs. In Sarajevo, during the four year siege carried out by Karadžić’s military forces and the SDS, there were deaths of Sarayevians of all ethnicities. The people were both suffering and dying from hunger, cold, they were being killed by mortar shells... among the 12,000 killed Sarayevians recorded in the war, at least one fourth were members of the Serb nation or had Serb ethnic ancestry. Thus, we can not talk of an extermination or genocide of Serbs, but of a responsibility of the SDS and Karadžić’s military forces for the overall extermination of Sarajevo and Sarayevians, and within that of the Serb people."
During the war, Serb forces systematically raped and sexually abused Muslim Bosnian women in rape camps after being separated from men. There are claims the rapes occurred with the knowledge and approval of Serbian officials. In 2001, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) officially indicted Dragoljub Kunarac, Radomir Kovač, and Zoran Vuković for the crimes of rape.
In 1995, after the second Markale massacre, in which 37 people were killed and 90 were wounded, the international forces firmly turned against the besiegers. When the Serb forces raided UN-monitored weapons collection site, NATO jets attacked Bosnian Serb ammunition depots and other strategic military targets.
On the ground fighting escalated, this time with the joint Bosnian and Croatian forces on the offensive, and the Serbs slowly lost more and more ground both in Sarajevo area and elsewhere. Heating, electricity, and water would eventually come back to the city as well.
A cease fire was reached in October 1995, and the Dayton Agreement was reached later that year bringing peace to the country. A period of stabilization and return to normalcy followed, with the Bosnian government not officially declaring the siege of Sarajevo over until February 29, 1996, when Serbian forces left positions in and around Sarajevo.
Sarajevo was heavily damaged during those four years. The manuscript collection of the Oriental Institute in Sarajevo, one of the richest collections of Oriental manuscripts in the world, was deliberately destroyed by Serb nationalist forces. The siege of Sarajevo was undoubtedly the worst and most catastrophic period in the city’s history since World War I.
After the glory of the 1984 Winter Olympics, the city had been experiencing tremendous growth and development, which was entirely reversed by the siege. The city had been a model for inter-ethnic relations, but the siege of Sarajevo inspired dramatic population shifts.
Aside from the thousands of refugees who left the city, an immense number of Sarajevo Serbs left for the Republika Srpska as well. The percentage of Serbs in Sarajevo decreased from more than 30% in 1991 to slightly over 10% in 2002. Regions of Novo Sarajevo that are now part of the Republika Srpska have formed East Sarajevo (Istocno Sarajevo), where much of the pre-war Serbian population lives today.
Since the gloomy and desolate years of the early 1990s, Sarajevo has made a substantial recovery. By 2004, most of the damage done to buildings during the siege had been fixed. New construction projects have made Sarajevo perhaps the fastest growing city in the former Yugoslavia. Sarajevo’s metro-area population in 2002 was around 401,000, which was 20,000 less than the population of the city itself in 1991. The siege of Sarajevo lasted for 1.335 days, and was the longest in the new history. About 12.000 civilians, out of which 1.800 children were killed, about 58.000 wounded.
Around 150.000 of Sarajevo people have left the city, and around 100.000 of refugees had come in attempt to find the salvation. It is estimated that the total material damage is about 10 billion of dollars.