Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sarajevo Siege

After Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia, Bosnian Serbs declared the Republika Srpska and, along with the Serb-controlled Yugoslav People's Army, blockaded the city. From 5 April 1992, until 29 February 1996, Sarajevo underwent the longest siege in modern history.

Serb General Ratko Mladić had 18,000 troops stationed in the surrounding hills. He had the soldiers shell the civilian population and gave the order to "bomb them, and continue to bomb them until they are on the edge of madness". Bosnia's capital city was totally cut off and those inside were left without power, clean water or enough food. To dare going outside in search of food, water or firewood meant to risk getting shot by a Serb sniper.

In July 1992, the UN took control of the airport from the Serbs to airlift in food. However, the UN refused to get involved to halt the fighting. Without weapons the city could not defend itself from constant attack. I still don't get this one. The UN allowed food but no weapons. So it's OK to be killed as long as you don't die hungry?

On the other side if the airport were mountains in the Bosnian free territory. Around 800 Muslims, and Serbs who stayed to defend Sarajevo, were killed by snipers trying to cross the airport to the free territory. So in January 1993, Bosnian volunteers starting building a tunnel that run under the airport and linked up with the free area in Butmir.

The tunnel was 1.5 meters (~4.9 feet) high, about 1 meter (~3 feet) wide and 960 meters (~3,150 feet) long. The tunnel was dug in a wide L-shape to prevent the Serb shells from caving it in. Luckily, the Serbs never found the tunnel's entry and exit points.

At first everything had to be carried by hand or on one's back. Later on, rails were installed and carts were used to help move food, water, medicine, oil, weapons and the wounded. Bosnian president Alija Izetbegović even had to use the tunnel, in his wheel chair, in order to make it back and forth from the capital city. Quite often people had to make their way through knee-deep water. Twice the tunnel was completely flooded, once for 2 days and later for 5 days. Water pumps were later installed, as well as, an oil pipeline.

In the free territory, the entry point was a family's house. The Kolar family gave up their home to the Bosnian army for the good of the country. Since then, they have turned it in to a small museum that is a must-see. I even got to meet the grandmother, Šida, who at one point was the only woman left in the whole area.

During the siege, 10,000 people were killed including over 1,500 children. Another 56,000 people were wounded including 15,000 children. I can't imagine what it must have been like to live in constant fear of snipers from the surrounding hills. I don't see how Sarajevo could have held on without the tunnel. Here's part of an Al Jazeera report I found out on YouTube.

©Al Jazeera

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