Barricades at Dawn: Watching the Siege of Sarajevo Begin

The Yugoslav government and the Bosnian Serbs led by Radovan Karadzic opposed the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina and wanted it to remain under Belgrade control. Sarajevo was first blockaded by the Yugoslav People’s Army, then besieged from April 5, 1992 to February 29, 1996 by the Bosnian Serb army, which targeted the city with a 44-month campaign of shelling and attacks by snipers. Marcus Tanner returned to a town where life had completely changed.

Two people called me before I realized I had to go back to Sarajevo. One of them was a kind of friend who called me – the landlines were still working – to tell me that she and her parents were getting seriously hungry. By then, in late spring 1992, since April, almost no UN aid had arrived in the Bosnian capital. Most were incredibly bland. My friend later told me that they got away with bread, jam and chicken noodles and her mother was starting to reject him. She also wouldn’t go to the basement during the bombings. “She prefers to stay in the bathroom to pray,” she said.

The other call was from a Bosnian journalist whom I had only met once but who had my number. His message was even more alarming. He told me he was lying on the floor of his apartment in the Sarajevo suburb of Dobrinja and staring out the window. He could see the Bosnian Serb soldiers entering one of the buildings in Dobrinja and dragging people out. I didn’t ask where he thought these people were going. I just asked which digital block the Serbs entered. “Dobrinja 1,” he says. “And you are there?” “Dobrinja IV,” he replied.

I couldn’t forget it and stay in Belgrade, where I had been based since 1988. I had to go back to Sarajevo. I had been there a lot for the referendum on independence in March and during the first half of April. But now the fighting was out of control and it wasn’t the end of June. The UN airlift to the city would not open until July 1992. At that point, it was still car or nothing. But I was told that now involved driving to the edge of the airport runway, which the Bosnian Serbs controlled, and then ramming into the arms, or bullets, of the Bosnian army at the other end. You just had to hope that neither side blew you up.

First stop, find a driver at the Belgrade International Press Center on Knez Mihailova, a notorious haunt not only of drunk journalists but also of all sorts of scoundrels, underworld types, money changers and double agents. A local fixer quickly introduced me to a “Belgrade housewife” who apparently wanted to go see if her husband in Sarajevo was still okay. She looked incredibly slim and fit and was not talkative. But she was willing to drive me to Sarajevo through Serb-held eastern Bosnia for a high but affordable price. We would leave the next day.

Next stop, shops. We were going to cross Bosnian Serb territory into Bosnian-controlled Sarajevo, which meant crossing a front line. The Bosnian Serbs didn’t want food or anything to get into the besieged city. Also, my friend and her sick mother were Muslim, secular, but still Muslim. Pork and bacon were out. I choose a large wheel of hard cheese, beef jerky, herbs, coffee, powdered milk, dried fruit, chocolate bars and other non-perishable items. How to prevent the Serbs from spotting what I brought? I decided to take a huge backpack and fill the top half with dirty T-shirts and socks and hope the guards don’t crawl all the way down.

We left the next morning for Sarajevo. My “housewife” driver went about a hundred miles an hour around the steepest corners of hilly eastern Bosnia. She seemed very familiar with the route. Even more curiously, she seemed to already know half of the people at the Bosnian Serb checkpoints. They nodded at him with smiles and winks and ignored me. I tried to start a conversation about her Bosnian husband stuck in Sarajevo, but she didn’t chat.

We arrived at the end of the runway at Sarajevo airport. My trick with the food was a success. Some Bosnian Serb women looked into my backpack, wrinkled their noses in disgust at the sight and smell, and left it at that. Now came a bigger test. We had to cross from the Bosnian Serb sector of the track to the Bosnian sector at the other end.

How was the Bosnian army supposed to know we were friends, if we were going straight for them at full throttle? No idea, but my driver looks unfazed, shifts into high gear and drives at breakneck speed to the other end. At one point, I hear the high-pitched whistle of bullets whizzing by somewhere. Coming from our rear, or from the front? I can not tell. But whoever was shooting clearly didn’t hit our car as we reached the other end, undamaged. We were in Sarajevo. My driver disappeared in an instant, no goodbye, no return offer. I never saw her again or heard of her, and I never got to the bottom of her true mission. I doubt it’s a lonely husband.

First stop, headquarters of the UN peacekeepers in Lukavica, to alert them to the fate of my journalist contact in Dobrinja. I am perplexed to see that the UN is camped side by side with the Bosnian Serb army. Can this be true? But I am taken to a room where I meet two officers, a Pole, a Frenchman. I explain what my contact saw in Dobrinje, Bosnian Serbs capturing blocks, one by one, and taking people away.

The French officer listens gravely and seems to understand. I stop for his answer, hoping he’ll promise to go check it out. “Do you know what it’s like to be a Christian in a Muslim country? he asks after a minute. “Hey? ” Confusion. What is he talking about ? “Can you imagine celebrating Easter, for example, in Saudi Arabia?” he keeps on. It continues in this vein.

I know, suddenly, that I’m not going anywhere. This French officer does not care what is happening in Dobrinja. He has no interest in Bosnia. It’s just another job, and it came armed with hardened prejudices about who Muslims are – everywhere. Obviously, his sympathies are with the Bosnian Serbs – “Christians”, like himself. I leave stunned, and appalled at the name of the journalist I thought I could help.

“Now the city was a different place”

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