Sarajevo – a witness to war

SARAJEVO, JUNE 28th, 2013

There is only me. I am a lone witness for the world.
I stand silently at the spot where he stood and wait for the moment to arrive. I try to put my mind in his but it is utterly beyond me.
People pass by oblivious as the hands of time and history reach 11.15am.
From this precise spot, at this minute, on this exact day 99 years ago, Gavrilo Princip fired a shot that convulsed the world.
It was arguably the biggest individual act of consequence in the history of mankind. And it still goes echoing on.

Gavrilo Princip

Gavrilo Princip

Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria unleashed a cataclysmic chain of events. Within two months the fragile world had tipped into the abyss and ushered in the carnage of the First World War. There flowed a direct line of cause and effect to the Second World War.
Today in Sarajevo there is a stone inscription and a museum at the point from which the nineteen year old Serb nationalist fired his lethal shot. I ask passers-by if they are aware of the anniversary. For young and old, locals and tourists, there is collective amnesia.

Sarajevo captured the world’s attention at the start of the 20th century and again at its end when war came to the city in 1992. It was brutally besieged for almost four years, three times longer than the siege of Stalingrad.
Eleven thousand people lost their lives. At its lethal peak more than 3500 shells rained down on Sarajevo in a day. The international war crimes tribunal would later hear the city was reduced to a state of “medieval deprivation”. It was not alone. At least ninety thousand more people died in the rest of the country.
I spent a total of six months in Bosnia during the war working for BBC News. This was my first visit since hostilities ended.

The spot Princip shot from to change the world

The spot Princip shot from to change the world

Parts of the city were happily unrecognisable. Half a dozen shiny new shopping centres had been built. The Parliament building is a swish reflection of political power. There are new office blocks, mainly for banks, and Porsche has even opened up a showroom. Within each are people going about their normal daily routines. Twenty years ago such mundane normality would have been a dream.
In the old town life is back to normal. Weathered men sit and talk in coffee shops, young couples eat cevapi. The atmosphere on an easy summer morning is relaxed contentment.
There is a lot of change but the reminders of the past are plentiful. Many buildings remain pockmarked by bullets. A few stand abandoned, devastated by shelling.
Outside the city the picture is at best patchy. Towns like Vitez have enjoyed remarkable investment and growth. Others such as Mostar seem stuck in time. The town has an undercurrent of anxiety. A couple of people tell me the football matches are the worst. They say there is raw hatred when teams from the different ethnic groups play each other. It is a fearful time.
Over in Republica Serbska, the Bosnian Serb controlled part of Bosnia, the town of Pale feels sullen and rooted in an angry past.
The ethnic fissures are still there. Bosnia’s three main groups of Croats, Bosniaks (Muslims) and Serbs are a million miles away from a full and happily integrated co-existence.
The Dayton Peace Plan ended the war but it failed to build a viable state.
Instead, Bosnia is now a hapless victim of a hotchpotch of shared power and ethnic quotas. The grand plan to prevent domination by one group has created a complex system of over-government. It is an almighty mess.

Bosnia's parliament building

Bosnia’s parliament building

I meet Mirza and his family. He says the country’s politicians are full of self-interest, short on national interest. Ethnicity drives their thinking. Political corruption is also rife, he says. Mirza would leave if he could. His views are not uncommon.
He cites the ongoing debate over ID registration. Ethnic politicking has gridlocked the issue since February. It’s left 1500 new born babies unregistered. No ID means no medical card, no access to doctors and no passports. In mid June furious mothers besieged the parliament trapping hundreds of people inside for 14 hours.
Mirza tells me of schools with separate entrances for children from different ethnic groups. Once inside they follow different curricula. When these teenagers complete their schooling their prospects are bleak. More than 40% of the population are unemployed. The figure is a staggering 75% at youth level. It does not bode well for the country.

I ask a number of people if they believe Bosnia could ever lapse back into war. It’s a terrible question to ask, worse still to answer. But Mirza and many more say the awful possibility is a real one. There are others who disagree.
I talk with Anna, she is young and optimistic. She believes the fighting is over for good. She is desperate for Bosnia to join the EU and other international organisations to bind the country into stability.
Anna is a guide at Gallery 11/07/95. On a daily basis she talks visitors through the horrifying details of Srebrenica, the town where more than 8,000 people were systematically executed in the war. She, more than anybody, has to have hope that there is no going back to the insane evil of that time.
As I stand in Princip’s footsteps I can only hope that, in this new century, her youthful optimism triumphs over his idealistic nationalism.

Categories: Bosnia, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 15 Comments

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15 thoughts on “Sarajevo – a witness to war

  1. Semir

    Well done (…)ny šŸ™‚

    You don’t have to ‘paint it black’ that much. Most of us are happy in the situation in that we are right now.We don’t need no EU or anything like that, and I think that I speak for the majority of all of the Balkan countries.We just don’t fit in that shoe. šŸ™‚


    • Hi Semir
      Good to hear from you. Your (..) NY is very funny.I knew you’d think my assessment a little black.
      I disagree (no surprise) with your EU comments, especially when you said “I speak for the majority of all of the Balkan countries.”
      The reality is that the Balkans is almost entirely on board with the idea of EU membership.
      Two of the six ex-Yugoslav states are full members, three others have applied and are officially “candidates.”
      Of the other remaining Balkans countries, Greece, Bulgaria and Romania are full members. That only leaves Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo. Each has signed up to Stabilisation and Association programmes, a precursor to joining.
      Feel free to disagree. Cheers,Arthur

      • Semir

        Yes, those are the facts.
        But I’m not talking about that. Everyone i know from Croatia voted against the EU.
        They get their votes, one way or the other. My opinion is still the same; we do not need the Union. We are good on our own. You have expirienced the, I can say it, unique hospitality and the mentality of our people.The the neighberhood thing is also a thing that is still here and that you guys miss in your countries.
        Don’t change us…

  2. Kris Mole

    Great post, glad I stumbed upon this blog.
    Personally, I don’t think Bosnia and Herzegovina will explode into war again; I really feel that the country is moving forwards. And every time I go and spend time there, I see and feel this progress. But what you say about Mostar is sadly very true. But what can you do? Ah…. Good post. I said that already? I’ll stop.

    • Hi Kris
      Thanks very much for reading the blog and for the comments. Always interesting to hear from people who’ve been to Bosnia and your fairly optimistic take on its future.
      Personally I think it’s a very tough road ahead. Without major political reform, improvements to the economy and reintegration of the three main groups it’s going to be at best an uncertain future.
      Thanks again

  3. Sandra Kiely

    Arthur waffle on , I for one am enjoying your journey
    Love Sandy

  4. Brian Bishop

    You know all this info and history you are gathering will probably still not help you on Trivia Night! BTW – Good stories anyway Arfur, but you do waffle on…… and on……and on

    • Thanks Brian….. I think.
      Sorry for the waffle. Perhaps I should have just written that bad things keep happening in Sarajevo and its future is a little uncertain. That might have worked better for you but I think it lacks a little context.
      Feel free to use any newly gained knowledge for your quiz.
      PS: The next blog is a nice and light piece about golf.

  5. Satomi

    It is easy and even enjoyable to teach Australian children the importance of understanding cultural and ethnic diversity but the same lesson may not be enough to help the children in Bosnia. I hope one day those children, the future of the country, will be treated justly and given opportunities to learn in a safe and secure environment. xx

  6. Roger

    This was a journey that you had to make. I echo Suellen’s feelings. Currently visiting Dresden it is a reminder of what can be achieved when a people work together to rebuild a culture and a city. Continue to live the journey and remember to wear your glasses in supermarkets.

  7. Suellen

    Another very incitful and thought provoking read. We can but hope that Anna and others like her can bring some sense and stability but with the ethnic divide so entrenched it is hard to imagine.

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