Sarajevo’s main street was empty of traffic on 6th April, save for 11,541 stationary red chairs. Row after row of chairs lined the street – each one commemorating a man, woman or child killed in the longest siege of modern history.
The day marked the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of the Bosnian war. During that war the city was besieged for an astonishing 46 months. Almost four hundred thousand people were left without electricity, water, heating and often food for almost four years.
Twenty years on and the citizens of this city commemorate their dead in a simple yet remarkable way. The color of the chairs is reminiscent of the blood which ran in to Sarajevo’s gutters in the 1990s. Yet the thousands of lives lost to shells and sniper fire will never be forgotten by the city’s people.
On April 6th 1992, the West recognised Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) as being independent and Serbian gunmen fired on demonstrators in Sarajevo. This was the beginning of the 43-month siege that resulted in the deaths of more than 11,000 people in the city and caused countless others to flee.
April 1992 still lives on for many citizens. They knew nothing about war at the time — the horrors were first felt by those in Southeast Bosnia, from the cities on the Drina, bordering Serbia.
”The siege brought enormous suffering and misery to some 400,000 inhabitants of the Bosnian capital at the time. Constantly shelled and sniped, people were cut off from food, medicine, water and electricity,”said Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for UNHCR, the UN agency to assist refugees. ”Thousands of civilians were killed and wounded. During the war, people in Bosnia and Herzegovina witnessed every conceivable human rights violation or abuse – ranging from ethnic cleansing and rape to mass executions and starvation.”
The winds of war spread fast from the north. In a matter of days, thousands of people were killed, mostly men, while the elderly, women with children looked for a way to places where war horrors were less pervasive.
With children in their arms and bags of clothes, they were placed in schools and sports and cultural venues, which became places of collective accommodation for the refugees.
”We didn’t have much food, but we shared with people who had nothing. Naively, we thought that the war wouldn’t last long and that soon all would be over. None of us could have imagined the hunger that followed,” Munira Kurbasic, a housewife from Vitez, told SETimes.
”When the leader of the state news said ‘Good evening, this is war!’ I still didn’t get the true meaning of the words. Unfortunately, I quickly got it. The basement became our home, hunger something with which you would wake up and go to sleep, bombs and snipers a daily thing, and death, closer than ever,” Branko Katana from Sarajevo said.
The siege of Sarajevo lasted 1,425 days — the longest of a capital in the modern history. More than 11,540 people died, hundreds of them children.