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Survivors of a nightmare with no reckoning
April 8, 2012 6:27 AM   Subscribe

11541 Red Chairs each representing a life lost during the siege of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1996 which started 20 years ago this weekend.
Bosnia's victims 20 years on: survivors of a nightmare with no reckoning, by Ed Vulliamy.
Emma Daly, then a journalist recalls “We were reporting, reporting, reporting. And it took so long for anyone to react,”.

Vulliamy has reported and written at length on this tragedy. Here is an article from 2008.
posted by adamvasco (26 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
That image of the river of red chairs is very powerful. It is strange how completely the war in Bosnia has been forgotten in such a short time (forgotten, that is, by the rest of the world--not by those who were involved). The coverage of the war in the American media was, on the whole, atrociously bad. As with Rwanda, there was a very deeply set narrative that this was all just incomprehensible ethnic hatreds where everyone was equally guilty on all sides and all we could do was stand at the sidelines and wring our hands. It didn't help that there was a persistent strain of nostalgia for Yugoslavia among many left wing journalists that made them want to make the Serbs into the 'good guys' fighting to keep the plucky little socialist state together. Their willingness to swallow Milosevic's propaganda was incredibly embarrassing and played a not inconsiderable role in slowing the US's response to the tragedy.
posted by yoink at 7:36 AM on April 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


"We were reporting, reporting, reporting. And it took so long for anyone to react..."

I recall this with such a remembered sense of frustration. At the time, it seemed like no one wanted to care much about what was happening in Bosnia; and, once people started paying attention, then there was this ubiquitous and intense attempt to argue for moral equivalency. Here in the US, this crossed partisan political boundaries &mdash — conservatives were inclined to sympathize with the Serbs because of an instinctive othering of Bosnians and liberals were inclined to minimize and equivocate out of an instinct toward foreign policy isolationism and a deep dislike of military intervention.

Sarajevo was just the most visible part of a larger ongoing tragedy and repeated atrocities. But the world mostly just stood by and watched — a posture most vividly exemplified by the UN force's inaction. It took everything that happened with Kosovo, so late in the whole situation, for anyone to take action and then everything I described above became even more the case — US conservatives were doubly opposed to military action because it was initiated by a Democratic President. US liberals continued to equivocate and dither and felt that Clinton's decision just demonstrated that he wasn't really liberal.

And yet history has shown just how poisonous and hateful was the Serbian regime, just how truly it was involved in war crimes. And even with this hindsight, this whole sorry recent episode in European history is something that it seems most everyone would like to pretend never happened.

On Preview: also what yoink said.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:44 AM on April 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


I work with a guy who was a journalist in Sarajevo --- and I don't mean someone who came to report on the war, I mean someone who called Sarajevo his home town. The things he's said and written about, from trying to keep out the marauders who were ransacking thier apartment building, to dodging snipers anytime and anywhere, to watching his workplace be bombed and burned out of existance while they were in the bomb shelter below..... amazing. I've asked him if he considers himself a Serb or Croat or Muslim or whathaveyou; he's says he's a Sarajevan, nothing more or less.

He's a lovely warm-hearted person, a caring father and pushover of a grandfather; you can look at his kids and never know his sons spent several of their teenage years heavily-armed so they could help protect the family --- proof of the resilence of the human spirit.
posted by easily confused at 7:58 AM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's difficult to even find a good book that describes the entire conflict. I've had to rely on Wikipedia.
posted by mecran01 at 8:01 AM on April 8, 2012


...conservatives were inclined to sympathize with the Serbs because of an instinctive othering of Bosnians and liberals were inclined to minimize and equivocate out of an instinct toward foreign policy isolationism and a deep dislike of military intervention.

The BIG fear was of sending troops to Russia's doorstep and inciting another WWI (opinion pieces at the time often cited the fact that The Great War had started on the same spot). The Russians were dealing with the dissolution of their empire and were using the Serbs as a proxy force, keeping the Yugoslavia together and maintaining influence over one of their last satellite states.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:38 AM on April 8, 2012


It's difficult to even find a good book that describes the entire conflict.

While Safe Area Goražde is a journalistic comic book, it seems to have a really good summing up, and the form didn't lessen any of the impact. I see similarities to Maus.
posted by yoHighness at 9:14 AM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


St. Louis (where I live) has one of the largest Bosnian diasporae. Whenever I hear someone badmouth the Bosnians (think of all the stereotypes hurled at Italians in the early 20th century, then add in being Muslim post 9/11), I tell them to 1) shut the fuck up; 2) Google Sarejevo.

I miss Dee Xtrovert. She was a great addition to this site, and an amazing writer.
posted by notsnot at 9:15 AM on April 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


"The BIG fear was of sending troops to Russia's doorstep and inciting another WWI (opinion pieces at the time often cited the fact that The Great War had started on the same spot). The Russians were dealing with the dissolution of their empire and were using the Serbs as a proxy force, keeping the Yugoslavia together and maintaining influence over one of their last satellite states."

That's so far from my experience of the time that it reads to me like an alternative history. I don't recall anyone, ever, arguing that intervention in the Balkans would lead to a military confrontation with Russia. Russia was a) as relatively powerless and without the means to project force as they've been in eighty years; and, related, b) all about their own problems while also being drunk on democracy and not inclined, at that time, to be seen in opposition to the west. I think you're confusing Yeltsin's Russia with Putin's Russia. If anything, the Serbs were not a Russian "proxy force, keeping Yugoslavia together", but rather almost the opposite, reacting to events in the most provocative manner and which almost certainly caused great consternation in the Kremlin.

Not only that, but Yugoslavia was hardly a satellite state. It was among the most, if not the most, independent of the Iron Curtain states during the Soviet era.

The one thing that is definitely true is that there are longstanding ties between Russia and Serbia that don't just involve their both being slavic. And because of these ties, Russia was always (and remains) supportive of Serbia. But no one seriously believed that those ties would be strong enough for Russia to foolishly oppose any NATO intervention militarily. And, in fact, Russia didn't. Not only because they weren't capable, but also because this was purely a sentimental relationship, not something that involved Russian economic interests or, even, its regional influence. Russia had far more pressing concerns regarding economics and influence which were much, much closer to home. (Yugoslavia wasn't on "Russia's doorstep", as you wrote.)

Yes, people liked to talk about how WWI began in the Balkans and, yes, there was a palpable fear that history would repeat itself because, basically, WWI is not the only conflict with roots in the Balkans. Within Europe, this formed a big part of the fear of intervention and the consequent hand-wringing — it was a combination of a kind of disbelief that such ethnic conflict with associated atrocities could return to Europe within living memory of WWII, along with the fear that if there were any intervention, it could destabilize the entire region.

But within the US? These ideas don't have the same resonance — the only people who invoked them were those with a pre-existing agenda for accepting the status quo of an ongoing Balkan conflict.

So, no, what you describe wasn't a "BIG fear". It was something people mentioned, sometimes, and it was, at most, just one portion of what formed a larger mass of undifferentiated fear and anxiety in Western Europe regarding the conflict.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:50 AM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm curious - in one of those aerial images, the big tent at one end of the red line says "Sarajevo Red Line" on it. Is English the lingua franca around there? Or was that for the benefit of American news media?
posted by Salvor Hardin at 9:55 AM on April 8, 2012


It's difficult to even find a good book that describes the entire conflict. I've had to rely on Wikipedia.

I recall seeing French documentary called Bosna!, which was released in 1994 while the war was still raging. It took a defiantly pro-Sarajevo stand (ie: the city versus the thugs in the hills) and positioned itself as a wake-up call to the world. And it was very, very good.

But good luck finding much evidence of it online.
posted by philip-random at 10:00 AM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


While Safe Area Goražde is a journalistic comic book, it seems to have a really good summing up, and the form didn't lessen any of the impact. I see similarities to Maus.

Joe Sacco also did an interesting sequel, The Fixer, which is more specifically about the siege of Sarajevo, as described by an unusual character...
posted by ovvl at 10:19 AM on April 8, 2012


It's difficult to even find a good book that describes the entire conflict.
Googling around I found
The War in Bosnia-Herzegovina : Ethnic Conflict and International Intervention and
Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation
As background, this probably takes some beating
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia
posted by adamvasco at 10:22 AM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I've asked him if he considers himself a Serb or Croat or Muslim or whathaveyou; he's says he's a Sarajevan, nothing more or less."

and

"It took a defiantly pro-Sarajevo stand (ie: the city versus the thugs in the hills)..."

That's among the most poignant aspects of the whole conflict — while this was generally true (initially) throughout Yugoslavia, it was especially true that in Sarajevo the ethnic and religious divisions between the Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians barely existed. Sarajevo was truly cosmopolitan and the people there valiantly resisted the ethnic conflicts incited by the breakup and they felt besieged on all sides. Even so, this generally didn't last because of the tremendous pressures created by the siege and the atrocities elsewhere. The coworker easily confused describes is more the exception than the rule.

I've read accounts from that time and place that read pretty much exactly like accounts of Jews in Germany and Poland where people describe those with whom they had long been friends and neighbors suddenly no longer saw them as human. It's deeply disturbing how malleable human nature is in this regard, that it's almost like a switch can be flipped and someone that you saw yesterday as being like oneself and with whom one easily felt empathy becomes, today, someone that is utterly alien, an outsider, an other, an enemy with whom one cannot feel empathy and can hardly even recognize within them any humanity. This happens all the time, everywhere, to some degree.

Indeed, it occurs to me that something like this even happens within the context of romantic relationships, where connection and empathy can be suddenly and completely severed and, once that happens, words and acts that were previously beyond the pale or unthinkable become not only possible, but almost inevitable. This is something about others and myself that I both don't understand at all and which I find deeply frightening.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:26 AM on April 8, 2012 [10 favorites]


Since my reading of the events and my local popular opinion differs so much from Ivan's , I just have to point out that with the "fluidity" of the political scene at the time, few people felt that Russia was a stable democracy. (and still had all those nukes). Russia obstructed efforts to authorize adequate UN control of the area. With the Russians supporting one group, and NATO taking the other side, yes "the BIG fear" was that the conflict could escalate to another larger war in Europe.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:50 AM on April 8, 2012


Incidentally, it may signify nothing at all, but I think it's interesting that easily confused wrote...

"I've asked him if he considers himself a Serb or Croat or Muslim..."

...where he chose Muslim and not Bosnian, which would have been an ethnicity like Serb or Croat. He could have chosen, if religion were the focus, "Orthodox or Catholic or Muslim".

In my opinion, this is kind of a small demonstration of how deeply ingrained within Euro-American culture to "other" Islam — a tendency that played a big part in this conflict.

The conflict between the Croats and Serbs was less one of ethnicity, as they are both slavic, than it was slightly religious and mostly historical (partly related to the religious difference). Both Serbia and Croatia had been occupied by the Germans during WWII, but Croatia developed its own fascist regime which committed genocide against not only the usual victims, but also against the Serbs. Croatia openly said that they intended to kill one-third of Serbs, deport one-third, and convert the remaining third to Catholicism.

We don't really need to go into the history of the religious conflict between the Serbs and the Bosnians, except to point out that the Serbs saw themselves as the frontline of and fireblock against the Ottoman Muslim conquest of Christian Europe and this forms both a big part of their ethnic identity as well as being a wellspring of Islamaphobic memory and rhetoric.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:52 AM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Dee Extrovert posted many fantastic, moving, and educational comments here about growing up in Sarajevo. Here's one I have never forgotten. I wish she was still posting.
posted by jokeefe at 10:56 AM on April 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


"Since my reading of the events and my local popular opinion differs so much from Ivan's..."

My wife and in-laws at the time were Torontonians and I never heard anyone expressing that fear.

The idea of Russia at that time engaging in a military conflict in Europe was absurd. No one with any significant relevant knowledge at the time considered that a possibility. The USSR had in no small part failed because of the dismal result and hardship of their Afghanistan invasion. The population was extremely war-weary, the state was broke. Meanwhile, Russia was a lot more worried about events in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which actually were on Russia's doorstep. And then, to whatever degree to which they were interested and capable of fighting a war, they did it within their own borders, in Chechnya. They had no capacity for becoming involved in a war in the Balkans.

Yes, they were obstructionist in the UN and elsewhere when they were able and when it didn't hurt their own interests. As I said, they had a sort of sentimental obligation to support the Serbs, and they did so. Not very effectively, as history proves. If they had actually had the capacity and willingness that you claim, then the other powers would have recognized this and those Russian efforts to support the Serbs would actually have made some difference. But they didn't. Because they were, ultimately, tepid.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:10 AM on April 8, 2012


It's difficult to even find a good book that describes the entire conflict.

The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War.
posted by Rangeboy at 11:33 AM on April 8, 2012


.
posted by humanfont at 11:38 AM on April 8, 2012


I worked with Serbs last summer. It was really depressing hearing them talk about how the horrible Turks are taking over (I later learned it was code for Bosnian) or stuff like "The only thing I've got for Albanians is a bullet in the head".

I wish people could just fucking get along.
posted by dunkadunc at 11:53 AM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was in Sarajevo last October. I arrived late at night, so I really saw the city for the first time the next morning, as I walked downtown from my hostel. The thing that really stuck with me was walking past the cemetery; hundreds upon hundreds of headstones; all gleaming white, all bearing the same date of death; 1995.

I'm curious - in one of those aerial images, the big tent at one end of the red line says "Sarajevo Red Line" on it. Is English the lingua franca around there? Or was that for the benefit of American news media?

The language is Bosnian, which is essentially the same language as Serbian or Croatian (the Serbs use the Cyrillic alphabet). English is widely spoken, but the statement is for the benefit of the outside world. During the height of the siege, they organized several arts and culture festivals, and frequently used English in the advertising, because half of the point was to draw attention from the outside world.

The people who lived through the siege don't need to be reminded of it. And the people who committed the siege know what they did, whether it weighs on their consciences as heavily as it should. It's us in the rest of the world, who didn't do anything at the time and have since forgotten, who need to be reminded.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 12:12 PM on April 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


That stream of chairs is powerful as hell. Thank you for posting this, adamvasco.
posted by doctornemo at 7:09 PM on April 8, 2012


CBC's As it Happens aired their series this week also -- Carol Off presents Sarajevo Remembered - she had been there 20 years ago. (Warning: some of the stories are quite graphic. I had difficulty listening to the interviews of the women who raised their children conceived in brutal rapes.)
posted by Surfurrus at 12:08 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I miss DeExtrovert too! Hope she doing ok.
I have lived in Bosnia and speak the language.
I distinctly remember the Russians being among the excuses to do nothing.
Some conservatives actually were against Milošević's bunch.
Dome liberals did not want to admit there was ethnic cleansing.
I refused to attend the small demonstrations locally against American intervention and indeed lobbied FOR intervention.
I did so before knowing that my family is part Bosnian way back.
I reacted viscerally to the Bisnian war. I suspect many did.
BTW Bosnian Muslims are not especially of Turkish descent. The Muslim Bosnians are about as Slavic as any other ethnicity.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 12:09 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


"BTW Bosnian Muslims are not especially of Turkish descent. The Muslim Bosnians are about as Slavic as any other ethnicity."

Ethnicity is not that much about actual genetic relatedness, although it is very much about the idea of relatedness, if you follow. But, generally, objectively, it's more a gestalt of a basket of cultural attributes.

The Serbian othering of Bosnians, including not seeing them as truly slavic and their associating Bosnians with the Ottomans, is about perception and not historical fact. Which is very often the case with ethnicity. The perceptions of the Greeks and Macedonians of each other is one example of this that comes to mind.

"I distinctly remember the Russians being among the excuses to do nothing."

Yeah, I know that it was offered as an excuse by those who already knew that they'd prefer nothing be done. But it wasn't a convincing excuse and it wasn't offered honestly by anyone who actually had much knowledge of the relevant issues.

"Some conservatives actually were against Milošević's bunch."

In both Europe and the US, there really weren't that many conservative public figures who were willing to be seen as being enthusiastic about Milošević, if they were. And I don't think that many were, anyway. After all, Milošević was nominally a socialist.

But, for cultural and political conservatives, they understood it the lesser of two evils. Conservatives instinctively found the Bosnians alien in their religion; the Serbs and Croats more acceptable.

"Some liberals did not want to admit there was ethnic cleansing."

I'd say many liberals did not want to admit there was ethnic cleansing. Well, many liberals and conservatives didn't want to admit this. But you'd think, as I did as a twentysomething fervent progressive, that liberals would be especially sensitive to ethnic cleansing. Yet, they really weren't; and like everyone else chose to mostly ignore it. It was very upsetting to me at the time. But part of the reason for this is that liberals are instinctively opposed to any military action and the degree to which there were atrocities being committed was the degree to which there was a rationale for using force against it. And liberals were very resistant to following that line of thought.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:52 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd say many liberals did not want to admit there was ethnic cleansing

I'll never forget Alexander Cockburn in the LA Times gravely retailing Karadzic's bare faced lie that the dead bodies in the marketplace massacre had "ice in their ears" (i.e., that they had been scavenged up as props from the local morgue). A claim on roughly the same ethical level as the worst fantasies of Holocaust deniers. A bizarre thing to see from a nominally "leftist" writer.
posted by yoink at 9:35 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


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