Return to Sarajevo: 20 years later


Bosnians remember the 11,541 civilians killed in the 1992 massacre by assembling the same number of red chairs along Titova Street, Sarajevo's main thoroughfare in April 2012.


Gary Knight/VII

This month marked the 20th anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo which triggered the beginning of the war in Bosnia. Gary Knight, co-founder of the VII Photo Agency and a contributing editor and photographer to GP Special Reports, returned to Sarajevo and wrote this guest post for GlobalPost.

Several hundred foreign correspondents and photographers returned last week to Sarajevo to commemorate with local friends and colleagues the beginning of the siege. Many of us knew that the week would be very emotional, a bittersweet embrace with a city and cherished friends with whom we shared defining experiences during the utter despair of the siege. During the April 1992 siege, Serb fighters killed 11,541 civilians by firing mortar rounds and artillery shells into bread markets and funerals.

Some Serbs treated the killing as if it was a weekend trip during deer season, firing hunting rifles into the streets at civilians. Most of us expected to be moved by our memories, but I don’t think any of us were prepared for what we found, which was a pervasive despair that has set in since the peace agreement was signed at the end of 1995.

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In July 1995, Mevludin Oric was one of thousands of Bosniaks from the enclave of Srebrenica who were loaded onto buses by Dutch soldiers sent by the United Nations to protect them and then driven to their execution by Serbian soldiers and paramilitaries.

There were 7,800 people from Srebrenica who were killed by the Serbs. Some were evaporated by artillery fire as they tried to escape on mountain paths. Others were blindfolded and executed in cornfields, then bulldozed into the ground. It was the most ambitious slaughter of unarmed civilians in Europe since the Second World War. The USA and the European Union wouldn’t look the Bosnians in the eye, just as they didn’t the Tutsis in Rwanda a few months earlier and as they seem to be unable to meet the gaze of the Sunni rebels of Homs now.

Mevludin Oric was lined up to be shot with dozens of other men in a field that became a mass grave. When Serb soldiers pulled the trigger he collapsed and his cousin, Haris, landed on top of him. Oric somehow survived. When he crawled out from under the dead body of his cousin and scrambled through scores of decomposing corpses, he could be forgiven for thinking that surviving an execution would be the lowest point in his life.

Five months later, the Dayton Peace accord that followed should have restored the possibility of the simple life he once lived in a small village on a Bosnian hillside. But it did not.

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I first met Oric in February 1996, with then-Newsweek correspondent Rod Nordland. We worked for over a month reassembling the stories of his village, his incredible story of survival after being left for dead and the details of a typical Bosnian community wrecked by war.

On Sunday, I went back to find Oric. Along with my wife, Fiona Turner, who is making a film about Bosnia, we set out to track him down and reconnect for the first time 16 years.

We found him. And as we listened to him, we realized his story seemed to say everything about the pervasive despair that so many in Bosnia still feel two full decades after the start of the war, a despair that fails to elude even those like Oric who miraculously survived the killing that went on all around them.

Oric told us his story. He said he wants to return to his village, but he cannot. It’s not because of fear for his life, although that would be understandable since he is one of only three survivors of a mass execution and a key witness in the trial of Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadic at the Hague. The reason he can’t return, he explained, is because he has no proof he owns his house. His father was the last owner and all that has been found of him is a head with a bullet hole through the skull and a thighbone. There are no recorded deeds or title to the home in the smoldering aftermath of the fighting.

His eldest daughter could not go to school because she had no papers. So she is just now entering high school at the age of 20. Oric divorced his wife, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the traumatic aftermath of the war. He looks after his mother and four children on 99 Euros a month. He has no job and little possibility of one. He cannot afford electricity. There is no help from the government. And like many Bosniaks, he just seems resigned to his fate and unwilling to fight bureaucratic inertia.

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This is the new normal in Bosnia where most people experience the denial of basic services. The official unemployment rate is 45 percent (the real number is lower because many people work illegally to allow their employers to avoid 70 percent taxation). The judiciary and police are corrupt. The government and businesses cannot pay salaries. Waiters and staff at the Holiday Inn, Sarajevo’s legendary wartime hotel, haven’t received salaries for 3 months, much as they hadn’t during the war.

Sixteen years after the end of the war, many of the perpetrators of war crimes are at large, living under the protection of the police in the same town and villages as their victims. Only eight men have been convicted by the Court of Bosnia and Hercegovina on charges of rape when there are between 20,000 and 50,000 alleged victims, according to UN figures.

There has been no justice. And with the international judges leaving the local tribunal at the end of the year, the prospect of justice from a corrupt judiciary and police force composed of Bosnians, Serbs and Croats is unlikely.

Bosnia may be at peace but Bosnians were denied the peace they deserved or could have expected from the Dayton Peace Accord which appears to have benefitted only the brokers. Bosnia does not work. Dayton did nothing more than stop the guns and guarantee a dystopian future and generations of anger, division and despair in a country historically famous for its inclusiveness and tolerance.

I spoke to many Bosnian friends this week and their narratives are all similar. The film director, the World Bank executive, the driver and the laborer and the man who survived an execution who wants to grow tomatoes on the side of a hill all shared the same story. Their expectations that the worst of times would be over has been betrayed.

David Owen, the European Community’s Chief Negotiator came to Sarajevo in December 1992 and told the populace with unbearable frankness, “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t live under this dream that the West is going to come in and sort this problem out. Don’t dream dreams.”

And now twenty years later, the people to whom he spoke have been denied the dignity of any hope. And any dreams the Bosnians may still have are fast vanishing.